One-of-One Exner Original Now Available
The RM Sotheby’s “Icons” auction scheduled for December 6 in New York is aptly named, not only for the caliber of automobiles offered, but in some cases for the designers behind those machines. The 1952 Chrysler d’Elegance combines the provenance of two masters of design, Virgil Exner, and Italy’s Carrozzeria Ghia, with the Chrysler’s innovative engineering.
The one-off d’Elegance could be a showpiece or could sit in a museum. Yet, it is fully drivable and was used that way for many years, gathering more than 100,000 miles. The pre-sale estimate for this restored Exner/Ghia original is $900k-$1.1m.
In 1949, Chrysler made a bold move in hiring Virgil Exner for its Advanced Styling Group. Exner had been head of Pontiac styling in the 1930s, then worked for and was later fired from Raymond Loewy’s design firm and went to work directly for Studebaker. The groundbreaking 1947 Studebaker Starlight coupe was mostly Exner’s work.
Exner was tasked with developing “idea cars” to chart a new course for Chrysler design, away from the company’s famously well engineered by dowdy looking cars. Exner worked with Luigi Segre of Ghia in Italy to bring his visions to life. Perhaps most famously, the collaboration produced the Firearrow series of concept cars, the fourth model becoming the limited-production Dual-Ghia.
Before the Firearrows, Ghia built the Exner-designed Chrysler K-310 for 1951 and then the C200 and d’Elegance in 1952. The d’Elegance was notable for inspiring the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia that debuted for 1955. Exner, however, was said to be pleased by the plagiarism.
The d’Elegance was built on a Chrysler New Yorker with its wheelbase shortened from 125-in. to 115-in. The renowned 331 cubic-inch Chrysler FirePower Hemi-head V8, teamed to a PowerFlite automatic transmission, carried over from the New Yorker. The d’Elegance was equipped with the Ausco-Lambert self-energizing disc brakes used on Chrysler’s Imperial limousine in the early 1950s, along with power steering.
The d’Elegance body design mixed sleek European themes of the day with Exner’s penchant for neo-classic cues, such as the tall grille, free-standing headlights, “gunsight” taillights and spare tire cover on the trunk lid. The latter feature was functional: raising the lid activated a hydraulic lift that lowered the spare wheel to the ground. The interior design, too, blended European-influenced design with American-style comfort, including power windows.
Although Chrysler did not produce anything like the d’Elegance, several design features turned up on production models, notably the large eggcrate grille and those curious taillights, the latter becoming a signature feature of Chrysler’s Imperial for many years. In 2011, Virgil Exner Jr. said the d’Elegance was one of his father’s favorite cars.
The 100,000-Mile Concept Car
After debuting at the Paris Auto Salon in October 1952, the d’Elegance went on the auto show circuit in the U.S. Afterward, Chrysler shipped it back to Ghia, which sold it to a relative of a Chrysler executive, who imported the car back to the U.S. Collector James Colee bought the car 1955 and owned it until 1989. Colee drove the d’Elegance throughout his ownership, accumulating more than 100,000 miles. He replaced the original Chrysler engine with Oldsmobile and then Pontiac V8s, and then finally a high-performance Dodge Magnum 440 V8.
The next owner was noted collector Don Williams, who had the d’Elegance restored with a 1956-vintage Chrysler 354 Hemi and PowerFlite transmission that it has today. The d’Elegance passed through other collections and was sold at RM’s 2011 Monterey auction for $860,000 ($964k with premium).
The current owner had the restoration freshened to a concours standard, and the d’Elegance won a special class for Chrysler concepts at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. The owner also drove the one-off Chrysler/Ghia showpiece, taking it through the Alps from Monaco to Venice as part of the Louis Vuitton Classic Serenissima Run.
One might hope that the next owner of the d’Elegance will use the car in a similar fashion. Exner would certainly approve.
The RM Sotheby’s Icons auction is December 6 at Sotheby’s 10th Floor Galleries in New York City.
Written by Jim Koscs, Audamotive Communications
For Premier Financial Services