At Mecum's Monterey auction two weekends ago, someone bought a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible for $2,250,000. At last year's Monterey auction, a similar car from 1971 brought a jaw-dropping $3.5 million. The Plymouth Barracuda was a production car by any reasonable definition; production in 1970 missed 55,500 by one car; 2,785 of those were convertibles. Only 14 convertibles, though, were ordered with the tire-shredding 426 Hemi engine (named for its hemispherical combustion chambers), because it added about 35% to the cost of the car. So scarcity, along with a reputation for blazing speed (at least in a straight line) mean that today a car which was a hard sell when new is avidly sought by collectors who dream of finding one in a barn somewhere. Their odds of being hit by lightning are probably better…Chrysler wasn't the only outfit offering expensive performance options in this era; Ford offered the Shelby Mustangs and Chevy actually offered an aluminum racing engine, the 7 liter ZL-1, in the Camaro. It had the distinction of being more expensive than the car, adding roughly $4,200 to the Camaro's $2.800 tag, so it took around $7k to drive this Chevy off the showroom floor. Amazingly, some people did this, and GM built 69 ZL-1 Camaros for 1969. One of my high school classmates bought one (I'm sure he's wondering where it is now). All right then, production cars are made in the thousands from standardized parts, but some can be tailored with exotic options. Does that make them works of art? Well, at your local high-zoot hotel, let's say the dessert menu offers an ice cream sundae with a Courvoisier topping option to go with the usual standard components (plain vanilla ice cream, nuts, cherries, whipped cream). The option costs twice as much as the basic sundae. If you check that cognac box, are you getting the equivalent of something tailored by a three-star Michelin chef? Well, no. What you are getting is an unforgettably powerful ice cream sundae...
So now, having defined "production car" in my usual shambling manner, we move on to the more arcane task of defining real works of art, those dessert offerings which are somehow more than just plain vanilla ice cream with something special on top. Here are the Dodge Fire Arrows III and IV. The photo shows 50% of the total stock of Fire Arrows built by Ghia for Chrysler in 1953-'54.
The Fire Arrows were part of a series of show cars created by Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner and Italian coach builder Ghia's Luigi Segre to perk up Chrysler's stodgy image. The hemi V8 engine was also part of that effort, and the smaller but related Red Ram is under the tapered hood. There were 2 roadsters (weather protection zero to minimal), one coupe (Fire Arrow III, background) and the convertible IV in the foreground (wind-up windows, radio, folding top). Both the roadsters were different in detail, so all four Fire Arrows are pretty special. Fire Arrow III, in perfect condition, was sold at auction in 2011 for $852,500. Some people thought that was a crazy price. Take another look at the stock Barracuda convertible in the color shot above it, repeat the phrase "2 to 3 million dollars", and then tell me if you think so. Here's how Fire Arrow III looks now, just in case you can't decide which you'd rather have.
The Fire Arrow story, like most stories, runs parallel with its era. Postwar optimism pacing an economic boom, allied with technical progress (and cheap gas) that led to new V8s at GM, Chrysler, Ford and even little Studebaker, coincided with the demise of some European carriage trade marques like Bugatti, Delahaye, Delage, and Talbot. This in turn left coach builders who'd been supplying bodies to those old firms searching for more modern chassis with cheaper power, and led to experiments with American power in European chassis. In Italy, Siata tried Chrysler, Ford and even the 4 cylinder Crosley. In France, Facel used a Ford V8 in its Comete and then graduated to the Chrysler hemi for its Facel Vega. The Ghia Chryslers hit the show circuit right before that Facel Vega, and showed that you might save time (and francs or lira) by adopting an entire American chassis, not just the engine. Maybe you could undercut Ferrrari and Aston Martin by adapting something reasonably simple, strong and powerful; possibly a Dodge convertible...
This Dual-Ghia resulted from that thinking, and it happened when Chrysler, in a close (and probably wrong) call, decided not to put the Fire Arrow into production. By 1955, frustrated Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth dealers watched as Ford sold over sixteen thousand new Thunderbirds. Paul Farrago, Ghia's ambassador to Motown, and Eugene Casaroll of Dual Motors (military vehicles and car transporters) decided to develop the Fire Arrow into their idea of a production car. Their first pass, the Firebomb (this was way before the War on Terror) added real bumpers. On their second try they added embryonic fins, interior space and headroom, and wisely ditched the Firebomb moniker. This is the car you see above. Their goal was to build 150 cars a year to test the market, possibly based on the example of Aston Martin, then building that number of cars, as well as Ferrari and Maserati, both introducing their first production GTs in 1957. The price was set at $7,750…about a thousand dollars more than Imperial's posh convertible, but a couple thousand dollars less than Lincoln's Continental Mk. II. Lacking a budget for advertising, they released the first cars in a slow trickle to Hollywood celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Dean Martin. At the time, a gossip columnist commented that stars unable to get on the waiting list for a Ghia "would just have to settle for a Rolls-Royce." But Ghia's small workshops weren't suited to anything like series production (one reason VW had offloaded production of Ghia's VW prototype to Karmann, resulting in the Karmann-Ghia), and the intensive hand labor and expense of sending each chassis on an Italian vacation meant that Dual Motors lost money on every car. Total production for 1957 and '58 was only 117 cars, which makes the D-G not quite a production car. Customers, though, were generally happy, and a high percentage of the cars survived because of the easy maintenance and parts supply for the Dodge chassis and running gear. Ronald Reagan eventually lost his Ghia in a poker game to President Lyndon Johnson, which might have made a good headline if anybody had leaked it, and proved that, while these guys couldn't agree on the need for a big, powerful Federal government, they agreed that big, powerful cars were still in the cards. Happy clients encouraged Dual Motors and Ghia to try again, this time with the glassy and elegant Ghia L6.4, from 1961 to '63. By this time, production and transport costs resulted in an eye-watering $13,500 price tag, which was in Maserati territory. Dual Motors drifted away from the project while Farrago and Ghia soldiered on, selling only 26 cars, mostly to repeat Hollywood Rat Pack clients and affluent swingers. The classic car market has been slow to catch up with these cars, but finally has embraced them. The red convertible recently brought $412,000 at auction, and the black L6.4 coupe below rolled off the stage for $297,000. Paul Farrago and Eugene Casaroll might be happy to know that their brainchild is finally earning money.
Photo credits: Top: Mecum Auction Company (catalog).
2nd from top: Chrysler Corporation.
3rd from top: RM Sotheby's Auctions (catalog)
4th from top: Russo and Steele Auctions (catalog).
Bottom: RM Sotheby's Auctions (catalog).