The name Ghia evokes images of high '50s fenders on big gleaming Chryslers, or low rounded noses on Volkswagen's famous collaboration with the Italians. Mile-long Imperials, De Soto Adventurers, rare Dual Ghias, and even rarer European charmers like Ferrari's 1950 166 Inter and Fiat's 8V "Otto-Vu" all gave the small Turin-based company international name recognition that lingers long past that automobile-crazy decade.
As one of the original Dream Car factories, Ghia goes back much further than the '50s. Established in 1918, Carrozzeria Ghia (at the time Ghia & Gariglio) was one of Italy's first. After the First World War, Giacinto Ghia made his reputation designing and building lightweight aluminum bodies for private, well-heeled patrons. The combination of lusso and gran sport was a given in those days when, in Italy at least, only aristocrats could afford to drive at all. After a Ghia-bodied Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 won a class victory at the 1929 Mille Miglia, the Italian magazine Motor Italia devoted a spread to Ghia in 1930. Orders sailed in for more Alfas, Italas, the big Lancia Augustas and the small Fiat Balillas. Mussolini, with Hitler's help of course, put a quick end to this success, and the Allies administered what should've been the final blow with a direct hit (after seven previous partial hits) in 1943.
Giacinto Ghia never really recovered--he died in 1944 at age 56. But remarkably, the company rose from the ashes. Ghia's widow offered the firm to two of Ghia's friends and colleagues, Mario Felice Boano and Giorgio Alberti, only asking that her husband's memory be honored with continued use of his name. With Boano begins a list of famous designers who came and went from Ghia through the "Italian Design" era of the Fifties and Sixties.
Though Mario Felice Boano is not a household name in the States, he became well known in Europe as the author of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint and the Lancia Aurelia B20. Unfortunately, due to Ghia's small production capacity, the contracts for both masterpieces were awarded to competing Turin-based coachworks: the Aurelia went to Pinin Farina, and the Giulietta to Bertone. Boano left to start his own design firm in 1953, and then later became director of Fiat's first in-house styling center, which he and his son directed for many years.
At Ghia, though, it was thanks to Boano and his partner Luigi Segre, that contact was made with Chrysler's Virgil Exner. The two firms' collaboration lasted well into the Sixties, and American-powered Ghias became popular at Salons and on the roads.
Segre, after Boano's departure, established a reputation as a fiery but effective manager, and it was under his tutelage that the Osnabruck coachbuilder Karmann joined Ghia for worldwide success with the little Volkswagen-powered coupe. Segre worked with Giovanni Savonuzzi (of Cisitalia and later Fiat) and called in freelancers like Giovanni Michelotti and Pietro Frua, who bodied the Volvo P1800 that gained fame as the wheels of TV's "Saint." Ghia's Fiat and Renault Jollies--wicker-seated, fringe-topped beach buggies--were popular in coastal areas, and even became taxis in resorts like Catalina, Calif.
Segre tired of freelancers, though, after he and Frua ended up in a nasty court battle. He looked for and found fresh talent in a young American named Tom Tjaarda. In Tjaarda's early years at Ghia, he created two futuristic dream cars, Selene I and the IXG Dragster, both show stoppers but both so impractical no attempt at production was ever made. Tjaarda only lasted a few years that first stay--by 1963, when Segre died unexpectedly during a routine medical operation, Tjaarda had moved on to Pininfarina. Ownership changed hands again, this time with the son of a deposed dictator (Trujillo of the Domincan Republic) taking control. Leonidas Trujillo played the role of absentee landlord while Gaspardo Moro filled Segre's shoes. Ghia struggled to acquire new business, but thanks to one particularly powerful customer--Alejandro de Tomaso, Argentine racer and entrepreneur--the contract to build de Tomaso's Vallelunga kept the company going. In 1965, Ghia needed a stylistic shot in the arm, and Moro found the right medicine in a young man at Bertone named Giorgetto Giugiaro. Within a year, Giugiaro cranked out four brand new prototypes that took the Turin Auto Show by storm: the DeTomaso Pantera and Mangusta, the Maserati Ghibli, and a "woman's car" called the Fiat Vanessa.
Trujillo sold his holdings to de Tomaso in 1967, and between the Argentine's fiery temper and Giugiaro's difficult management style, Ghia was thrown into disarray. Tom Tjaarda returned in 1968 after much of the old staff--including Giugiaro--had left, and worked with de Tomaso over the next few years. It was de Tomaso who proposed a merger with Ford Motor Company after members of the American Rowan Company, his financial backers, were killed in a plane crash. In 1970 Ford acquired 84% of the stock, but only a year later they claimed the remaining 16%.
After the turmoil of the late '60s, the '70s at Ghia were relatively calm. Much of the credit for this belongs to Filippo Sapino, who'd joined Ghia as a young man way back in 1960, left during the "confused period" (as he calls it), and returned with Ford (since he'd been working for several years at their Bruino studio near Turin). Sapino is still in charge to this day, and has personally contributed or managed design and construction of hundreds of show cars and prototypes. Though some might assume Ford's international bureaucracy would stifle Ghia's creative output, two decades of striking designs prove otherwise. Under Sapino's management, the only thing that might've been stifled is the grandstanding egos of limelight seekers, as both Ford and Sapino prefer that Ghia's creative talents work together as a team.
When Ford first took over, Ghia worked more as a think tank than a design studio. To this day, their work is rarely "signed." The first Ford to wear the Ghia shield and crown was the 1974 Granada Ghia, when Ford-Europe's chairman announced the emblem stood for "luxury, reliability, and practical motoring in the same car at a sensible price."
Since then, Ghia has contributed to everything from Rally cars like the RS200 to production cars like the popular Ford Modeo. As for Dream Cars, at January's 1997 Detroit Auto Show, Ford introduced Ghia's Lincoln Sentinel, a futuristic luxury sedan incorporating all the calling-cards of Ghia's much-publicized "New Edge" exterior design with some post-millennium interior features--like the saucer-shaped gearshifter built into the center console that works like a computer mouse: one click at the top for drive, a click at the bottom for reverse, and two clicks for park.
The fully operational Sentinel is only one of several recent projects that have garnered much attention, from the sporty Escort-based Focus and compact Saetta speedster, to the elegant 1993 Aston Marton Lagonda Vignale, the first collaboration between the British auto maker and Ghia since the 1954 DB2/4. The Vignale name honors another Italian designer, Alfredo Vignale, whose factory Ghia absorbed in 1969. Ghia's Lagonda harkens back to the days of gran lusso, but with high-tech touches that would have mystified Alfredo--like the on-board satellite navigation system or the lap top computers built into power-operated desktops for each rear passenger. And in case you were worried, Ghia publicity said the Lagonda was "designed to appeal to the owner-driver while being equally appropriate when used with a chauffeur."
Instead of mile-long fenders and chrome-heavy trim, today's Dream Cars sport new edges, high-tech gadgets and room for the chauffeur. Some things fade away, but Ghia Dream Cars live on.
Arioso & Vivace
ZA9 and ZI9