The 1954 DeSoto Adventurer II is one of the great automobile designs of all time. Voted among the Top Ten Concept Cars ever constructed, it has been an influential inspiration for over half a century. A joint venture between Ghia and Chrysler, powered by the famous Red Ram HEMI V8, it was sold new to King Mohammed V of Morocco and has enjoyed continuous ownership by sympathetic collectors for its entire life.
The car was cosmetically restored before being exhibited at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1989, and has covered less than 250 miles since. The odometer still shows under 15,000 original miles. The Adventurer II has actually been displayed twice at Pebble Beach — by Ken Behring in 1989, and after another refresh, by Chuck and Carol Swimmer in 2010, garnering “Second in Class” the last time out. It remains in Pebble Beach condition.
In the years immediately after World War II, Chrysler Corp. earned a reputation for solid engineering. Which is another way of saying that their boxy cars lacked the pizzaz of newly restyled models from General Motors, Ford and Studebaker. In 1949, Chrysler hired stylist Virgil Exner. Exner had been in charge of Pontiac styling in the Thirties, then worked for Raymond Loewy, then penned the infamous aircraft-inspired 1947 “coming or going?” Studebaker.
If Chrysler was struggling, times were not so good in post-war Italy, either. As pretty much a last gasp to stave off bankruptcy, in 1950 Mario Boano and Luigi Segre of Carrozzeria Ghia got hold of a Plymouth chassis and built a one-off four door sedan vaguely reminiscent of Pinin Farina’s landmark Cisitalia Coupe and mysteriously labeled the XX-500. As Virgil Exner Jr. once explained, “It was brought over to Detroit by Ghia to show Chrysler their ability and craftsmanship and to get Chrysler to give them some business.”
Intrigued, Virgil Exner convinced Chrysler Export Vice President C.B. Thomas to pay Ghia $10,000 for the XX-500, which was a fraction of what a one-off concept car cost to build in Detroit. Unlike Ford or GM, Chrysler had only a small styling staff. Exner rightly figured that Chrysler could save a lot of money by having Ghia build concepts, plus they’d end up with real cars, not just static mock-ups.
Chrysler’s Advanced Styling Studio consisted of designers Virgil Exner, Maury Baldwin and Cliff Voss. A local sports car importer named Paul Farago whom Virgil Exner Jr. later described as “a very good seat-of-the-pants engineer and who was fluent in Italian” acted as Exner’s interpreter with Segre and Boano at Ghia.
The three Chrysler designers would create a 3/8-scale clay model from which they cast a plaster model that was shipped to Torino. Ghia’s craftsmen then created a full-size running car using the small model as a guide. Typically, the bodies were built in steel, not aluminum, and beautifully finished inside and out. Starting in 1951, Chrysler and Ghia built a series of concept cars that attracted a huge amount of attention, changed the whole direction of American auto design, saved Ghia and ultimately led to stylish production cars that raised Chrysler’s share of the U.S. market from 12 percent to over 20 percent.
Among the famous Ghia-Chryslers are the K-310 coupe, the C-200 convertible, DeSoto Adventurer I, Thomas Special, Chrysler D’Elegance, Firearrow, Firearrow Coupe, Plymouth Explorer, Falcon, Flight Sweep, Dart, Flitewing and DeSoto Adventurer II.
There were also limited production models. Ghia built two-dozen copies of the D’Elegance, plus 400 similar coupes on Chrysler New Yorker chassis. Called GS-1, these were sold only in Europe. The famous Chrysler-powered Dual-Ghia luxury Exotic favored by Frank Sinatra and the “Rat Pack” also grew out of the Firearrow concept.
In 1953, after Mario Boano left Ghia to work for Fiat, Luigi Segre took control and hired young designer Giovanni Savonuzzi. Savonuzzi’s first important design was the Alfa Romeo 1900/Conrero Supersonic, a futuristic coupe inspired by jet aircraft that was created for the 1953 Mille Miglia. The car crashed and was restored with a more conventional Barchetta-type body, but Savonuzzi had hit a nerve with his unusual style.
Savonuzzi picked up the delicate roofline of Virgil Exner’s 1952 Chrysler Thomas Special for his Supersonic. This became a Ghia trademark and was applied successfully to bodies on various Ferrari chassis and to a Supersonic Aston Martin DB-2/4 and Supersonic Jaguar XK-120. Ghia also built 50 copies of a Supersonic on Fiat 8V chassis. Exner’s pretty roofline/side-window treatment was also transferred intact onto Volkswagen’s Karmann-Ghia along with details from the Chrysler D’Elegance.
Early in 1954, Paul Farago imported a Fiat 8V Supersonic, which Virgil Exner examined with pleasure. He then authorized Ghia to build a Supersonic-style body on an S-19 Chrysler chassis fitted with a 170hp DeSoto Red Ram HEMI and 2-speed Powerflite transmission. The idea was to blend Exner’s Chrysler styling motifs with Savonuzzi’s streamlined Supersonic look.
It worked. The Adventurer II is much larger than other Ghia Supersonics, but so graceful that the size is hard to judge. From the outside, there are only a couple of references to contemporary Chrysler products: wide white wall tires on Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels that were a popular Chrysler option and a DeSoto badge on the hood. Open that long hood, and you see a HEMI V8, complete with distinctive chrome valve covers, set well back in the chassis.
The Adventurer II interior is classic Italian, with twin bucket seats upholstered in roll and pleat leather, matching fitted luggage and a beautiful wood-rimmed, Nardi-style steering wheel with three polished aluminum spokes. Five round instruments are set into a sinuous nacelle of engine-turned aluminum. The only American touch is the RNDL shift indicator perched atop the steering column.
Like many Italian sports cars at the time, the two-tone interior harmonizes with the exterior, in this car contrasting black with red leather that matches the Italian Racing Red exterior. About the only “trick” feature of the Adventurer II is a retractable rear window made from Plexiglas.
The Adventurer II was shipped to Detroit in time to be displayed on June 16, 1954, during the opening ceremony of Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds. It was then shipped back to Ghia and exhibited at auto shows in Torino and Brussels. It was subsequently displayed at the Chrysler dealer in Casablanca, where it attracted the attention of King Mohammed V.
It was eventually sold in Morocco to American Arthur Spanijian, who imported it into the United States. Armand Archer Sr. saw the car in the Chrysler dealership in Dayton, Ohio, during a Christmas visit with his family, bought it on December 26, 1960, and drove it home to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where it was stored for over 25 years.
In 1988, Armand Archer Jr. sold the Adventurer II to wealthy California collector Ken Behring, who cosmetically restored it for Pebble Beach in 1989. It later joined the collection of well-known San Diego enthusiast Chuck Swimmer, who has maintained it in pristine condition. It really is a brand-new 1954 concept car.
The design importance of Savonuzzi’s Supersonics, and the Adventurer II in particular, cannot be overemphasized. The delicate Exner greenhouse is set well back on the chassis, giving the Adventurer II a classic long hood/short deck proportion. The slab-sided look of many Fifties cars is avoided by Savonuzzi’s rounded flanks, broken up by a longitudinal body line that cuts off the top of the wheel arches like the eyebrows on a Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
The Adventurer II’s massive grille seemingly floats in place. There are no chrome bumpers front or rear, a daring departure in 1954, though body-colored bumpers have made this look ubiquitous on today’s cars, literally decades later. The projecting headlights, round tail lights and exhausts coming through the rear bodywork are motifs that showed up on Thunderbirds and Corvettes, among many others.
All of Savonuzzi’s Supersonic cars show nascent tailfins atop the rear fenders, an obvious aircraft derivation that goes along with the large round tail lights that mimic a jet exhaust. It was Virgil Exner, of course, who brought the tailfin to its most glorious heights in the Fifties and early-Sixties. All of that can be traced to the Adventurer II. Even the broken fastback roofline has been echoed on dozens of cars by designers who weren’t yet born when the Adventurer II first appeared, while that retractable rear window influenced designers on every continent.
The Adventurer II is what art historians call a “seminal design,” one that led to a whole new art form. That makes this car an outstanding collectible, one of those rare machines — like Pinin Farina’s breakthrough Cisitalia Coupe — that is a true turning point in the history of the automobile.
— By Rich Taylor