1953 Chrysler D'Elegance Show Car

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Period Photo of Chrysler D'Elegance

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The Chrysler D'Elegance was the second (the first being the Chrysler K-310 of the Dream Cars Virgil Exner was responcible for at the Chrysler Corporation. The D'Elegance picked up where the K-310 had left off, sharing a similar front end design. It featured a lot of items that would later appear on production cars. A dash mounted shifter would later appear on the 55s. Power Steering and Power Brakes on the 56s. Gunsight Tail lights would appear on later Imperials, and the Toilet Seat/Bird Bath trunk embossing on all of the late 50s and early 60s Chrysler Corporation Makes.

The Metallic Red sports car is said (by Exner's son to name one) to be Exner's favorite car. It is one of the fortunate ones not to have met its fate in a crusher or on a sunken ship. It was driven over 100,000 Miles by the owner who had it the longest, and the car has had at least five different engine/transmission combos.

There is often confusion on if this car was a 1952 or 1953, or if there were even two different cars. It was considered a 1953 when it debut at the Paris Car show in October 1952. The best explanation is that the chassis was a 1952 Chrysler, while the body was considered a 1953. As such, the car has been referred to as both a 1952 and 1953. However there is only one Chrysler D'Elegance. Later there would be a 1958 Imperial D'Elegance show car.

Chrysler D'Elegance at 2011 Auction
Chrysler D'Elegance at 2011 Auction
Chrysler D'Elegance at 2011 Auction
Chrysler D'Elegance Current 354 Hemmi
Chrysler D'Elegance Dash
Chrysler D'Elegance at 2011 Auction
Chrysler D'Elegance Interior
Chrysler D'Elegance Interior

Background of The Exner Era Dream Cars

Quick History of Exner

In 1932, A 23-year-old Virgil Exner was hired by GM's Art and Color Studio. Boss, Harley Earl immediately recognized Exner's design talent. Two years later Enxer was put in charge of the entire Pontiac Studio, a job he kept until 1939 when Raymond Lowry hired him to work on his studio's design contract with Studebaker. Exner worked with Lowry and Studebaker all through WWII, and when the highly advanced 47 Studebaker's were shown to the public in 1946, they were touted as "The First By Far With A Post War Car. It would be the 1949 Model year when the "Big Three" would catch up.

A dispute between Lowry and Exner over credit for the design of the 52 Studebaker caused Exner's firing. Studebaker wasnt impressed with the Lowry proposal for the 52s, and Exner showed them a design he'd been working on at home on his own time. Studebaker liked it and Lowry wanted credit for his employee's work. He was fired when he refused, but Studebaker picked Exner up for their in-house design team. There was little love between Lowry and Exner for the rest of each of their lives.

In 1949, Chrysler President K. T. Keller hired Exner away from Studebaker for the purpose of designing cars that would improve Chrysler's stodgy image. The Chrysler Corporation was well known for its engineering firsts, but not its styling. The Chrysler Corporation's "Small on the Outside - Big on the Inside" designs looked ancient when compared to the 49 Ford and GM offerings. Keller wanted the cars designed to where a man could drive with his hat on. This made the cars appear too tall.

At first Exner worked secretly on Advance Designs, but was soon promoted to head the studio. The model year designs were already locked in through 1954, so Exner began work on the 1955 model, the first year of the "Forward Look" designs.

Keller and Exner agreed that they should step up Chrysler's showing of Dream Cars to compete with Harley Earl's million dollar dream cars displayed in the Motorama shows. They felt this would create excitement with the public on updated designs that would hit the showrooms in the future. However, they would have to do it on a budget no where near the size GM had given Earl.

Exner and Ghia

While working on his first of the Chrysler Dream Cars, the K-310, Exner and his design team were at an impasse. On a previous trip to Italy, K. T Keller commissioned both Pininfarina and Ghia to each build a car of his loose design specs, but allowed them design creativity. The purpose was not to test their design skills, but to test them for quality, fit and finish.

Knowing that the Exner team was having trouble with K-310, Keller invited the team to view the cars that had just arrived from Italy. Pininfarina had closely followed the specs, while Ghia took great liberties with their allowed creativity. Ghia's car was very impressive. The Ghia submission was also far better in quality, fit an finish than the submission from Pininfarina. It was to became the Plymouth XX-500 show car. In addition to Ghia's craftsmanship, their design abilities were a pleasant surprise.

This began the long relationship between Chrysler and Ghia, and more importantly - collaboration between their designers.


Virgil Exner of Chrysler's Advanced Designs Studio and Luigi Segre of Ghia


  • 1952 Chrysler New Yorker chassis number 321953 was used. It was shortened 10 inches to 115"
  • The original 17" tires on Wire Wheels were later replaced with 15" tires because of unavailability of 17" tires
  • The car was fitted with Power Steering, which some who have driven say it gives too little road feel
  • Rear brakes were 12" drum
  • Front brakes were Ausco Lambert 12" Disc
  • Brake system Vacuum Assisted Power Brakes


The body was the second built for Chrysler (the first being the Chrysler K-310) by Ghia in Turin, Italy. It was painted a bright Metallic Red, and featured the following:

  • It was a long hood, short nose fastback with a surprisingly long rear overhang
  • The spare tire embossment on the rear deck contained a spare mounted on a telescoping hydraulic assembly under it
  • Gunsight style tail lights
  • Front end looked similar, but refined, to the Chrysler K-310 previously build by Ghia


The black and cream leather interior had a more "all Business" airplane cockpit look than many of the other Exner Dream cars of the time. It was not near as sophisticated as the exterior. Offset in front of the driver was six large gauges -- with a large speedometer on the left, a large clock on the right and fuel, amp, oil and temperature gauges in the center. The dash-mounted gearshift was to the left of the steering column, and a Chrysler push-button radio was to the right. The black and cream colored leather seat was advertised for three (but it was in all reality a 2-seater) with a hidden pull-down armrest. Black leather trimmed the dash. The Interior included a full set of matching luggage, which was stowed behind the seat, as the car lacked a trunk.


Original Drivetrain

  • Engine 331ci Chrysler Hemi 2bbl with 180 Horsepower and 312 Foot-Pounds Torque
  • Transmission Chrysler's 4-Speed Semi-Automatic Fluid Torque

Later Updated

The second registered owner, after Chrysler disposed of the car in Italy to avoid tariffs was a man by the name of James Colee. He owned the car from 1955 until 1989 - driving it over 100,000 miles. During that time he installed many engine/transmission combos. They include:

  • Olds OHV V8 with Turbo HydraMatic transmission
  • Highly Modified Pontiac 389
  • Mopar 440 Magnum with Torqueflite transmission

The current drivetrain is a Chrysler 354 Hemi and Powerflite transmission

Who Copied Who?

Karmann Ghia Stole D'Elegance's Design?

Chrysler D'Eegance vs. Karmann Ghia

In 1955, Karmann in Germany hooked up with Ghia to produce the Karmann Ghia on a rear engine Volkswagen chassis. The Karmann Ghia was in production, virtually unchanged, into the 70s. Most books on the topic credit the Chrysler D'Elegance as inspiration. There was a lot of screaming about it at the time, but Exner didn't appear to care. By 1955 he was into cars with big fins and he felt the styling to be dated. Additionally, the D'Elegance was in private hands, and Chrysler had long ago stopped showing it.

D'Elegance stole Pininfarina's Cisitalia Design?

Chrysler D'Eegance vs. Pininfarina's Cistalia

What goes around, comes around. Pininfarina’s 1946 Cisitalia was a beautiful and popular car when first built and shown. Many considered it the single most important car design in the post-war era. The D’Elegance appears similar, albeit more elongated,

Car Shows

The car was unveiled as a 1953 at the Paris Motor Show in October 1952. It was received by the public with great success.

Just the Facts Ma'am

At the 1952 Paris car show, it was rumored that a limited run of 25 cars for Europe. While there, Exner himself, assured everyone that the D'Elegance would remain a one-off.

The rumors that 25 more being built continue to this day. This may have to do with a similar looking Chrysler Dream Car called the 1952 Chrysler Special, later referred to as the Thomas Special. Chrysler's Head of Export Sales was C. T. Thomas. He, independent of Exner, contracted with Ghia to have a pair of "Chrysler Specials" to also be shown at the same Paris Auto Show as the D'Elegance. It was promised that 25 would be made for Export Only Sales. While that didn't come to happen, approximately six were reported to later be built for wealthy Europeans. They're referred to as "Thomas Specials".


  • Chrysler Advanced Design Studio
  • Shipped back to Italy in 1955, to avoid a high US tariff placed on imported cars at the time
  • Quickly sold to an American by the name of Patushian, who was a Machinist in Inglewood, CA
  • Quickly sold to James Colee, who owned from 1955-1999
  • Sold to Don Williams of the Blackhawk Collection in 1989, who had it restored to current condition
  • Currently owned anonymously (bought at auction in 2011 for $946,000) and displayed at Behring Auto Museum

Magazine Articles

  • Special Interest Autos July/August 1993


  • Special Interest Auto
  • Hemmings

Internet Links

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