Chrysler Diablo Concept review

By: Isaac Hernández, Photography by: RM Auctions

Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept
Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept Chrysler Diablo Concept

A unique concept car that might have ended on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean should generate frenzied bidding when it goes under the hammer in California next month.

Chrysler Diablo Concept review
Chrysler Diablo Concept

From Unique Cars #288, Jul 2008


Chrysler Diablo Concept

Before Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler America from extinction, he worked as manager at Ford Motor Company and, as the legend relates, thanks to Iacocca, Ford bought Carrozzeria Ghia.

Ironically, it was Chrysler which had a long history of creative cooperation with the famous Italian coachbuilder, from as early as 1929, when Giacinto Ghia bodied a Chrysler 75. But it wasn’t until 1950 that Chrysler and Ghia started a close collaboration that resulted in a number of very special Chrysler Ghia one-offs

Their Chrysler K-310, built on the Saratoga chassis with the new Hemi V8 engine, was so successful that many Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto Ghias would follow all the way into the ’60s. It was a collaboration based on the friendship of Luigi Segre of Ghia, with CB Thomas, Chrysler’s vice-president, and Virgil E Exner, Chrysler’s stylist.

At the time, Chrysler and General Motors were involved in a concept car battle, to see which could show the most outrageous projects. Many of the General’s dream cars were produced in-house, while others were developed by Pininfarina.

The relationship between GM and Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina was also based in friendship, starting in 1934, when Harley Earl, head of the General Motors Art & Colour Department, toured Europe with a 1927 LaSalle convertible of his own design. There he met Pinin, who already had experience designing Cadillac bodies.

Many other Ghia Chrysler cars would follow the K-310. The DeSoto Adventurer I concept was built by Ghia in 1952, as an evolution of the K-310. Exner liked it so much he used it as his personal car for three years.

The Chrysler Thomas Special, also known as SS (Styling Special), was designed by Exner and built by Ghia on a modified New Yorker chassis. Named after Chrysler’s Vice President, only two were made; one was shown at the 1952 Paris Auto Show. A series of 50 similar cars was built exclusively to export to France under the name GS-1.

With Ghia, Chrysler could produce cheaper concept cars than doing them in-house. There were some disadvantages though: the Ghia studios were frequented by other manufacturers, some of which would be inspired by the designs of Virgil Exner. For example, the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was very much based on Exner’s 1953 Prototype d’Elegance. And even rival GM would use Ghia for some of its prototypes, including the beautiful ’53 Cadillac Ghias (one of which became the property of actress Rita Hayworth).

Virgil Exner worked extensively with Ghia, providing many designs for the Italian coachbuilder to work on, even giving his name to one of them, the asymmetrical Plymouth XNR (Exner). The collaboration went both ways. The 1954 De Soto Adventurer I was designed by Exner, and the Adventurer II was conceived by Ghia; in fact it was inspired by the Cornero-Alfa designed by Ghia’s Giovanni Savonuzzi, which was built in Turin for the 1953 Mille Miglia.


For the Diablo, Ghia started with the ’56 Chrysler Dart concept, after it had done its show circuit rounds, where it was introduced as a "hydroplane on wheels".

Designers at Exner’s Advance Styling Studio supposedly found inspiration in ink blots on plastic models inside the wind tunnel for the Dart, which received its name from the shape of its body with gigantic fins.

The Dart, built on a shortened ’55 Chrysler 300 series chassis, was 2.5cm wider than the 300 and the longest concept car ever (557.5 x 200 x 135cm). It was powered by the 300’s 354ci V8, but it’s said that the Hemi was modified, increasing its capacity to 383ci, for a final 375hp (280kW). It featured a black retractable metal hardtop that fitted into the rear deck.

After receiving the silver and black Dart, Ghia replaced the hardtop with a soft-top, downsized the fins considerably, changed the windshield and trim, painted the body red and called it the Chrysler Diablo. The convertible had four bucket seats and spaceship-inspired giant gauges, almost 25cm in diameter. The car made its debut at the 1958 Chicago Auto Show.

If the names Dart and Diablo sound familiar, it’s because Chrysler revived the Dart name in the ’60s with a Dodge, and the Diablo with a Chrysler concept in 1988, and then again, with the Lamborghini of the same name, launched in 1990, when the American company owned Lamborghini.

The Diablo was to be shipped to New York in the belly of the ill-fated SS Andrea Doria, but delays at the factory kept it ashore, thereby avoiding the collision between that steamship and the MS Stockholm off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on July 25, 1956. A quick response by rescue boats saved 1660 passengers and crew, while 46 people died. The capsized ship sank the next day with its cargo, including the Chrysler Norseman, another Ghia-built concept that did make the deadline.

The current owner of the Chrysler Diablo, Joe Bortz, was going to pay a diver $20,000 to locate the Norseman under the waters of the Atlantic. But he gave up on the idea, when he became convinced that the salt would have already destroyed whatever might have survived of the wreck, except for perhaps the engine.


The Bortz Auto Collection in Illinois, USA includes about a dozen dream cars; classic designs like the 1953 Chrysler Ghia Thomas Special, ’53 Pontiac Parisienne, ’53 Buick Wildcat I, ’55 Chrysler Ghia Falcon and ’64 Pontiac Banshee. 

It also houses one of two ’54 Pontiac Bonneville Special concepts that toured the country in the GM Motorama between 1949 and 1961. According to Bortz, his bronze Special is in original condition, claiming even 90 percent of the air in the tyres is from 1954! The other, a restored green model, sold at the Scottsdale, Arizona 2007 Barrett-Jackson auction for US$2.8million.

The record price for a concept car and for a Barrett-Jackson auction car, so far, has been $3.24million for a ’54 Oldsmobile F-88 (known as the Oldsmobile Corvette), sold in 2005. John and Maureen Hendricks won the bid, and the golden car is now on display at the Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum. It’s one of four different styling versions of the XP-20 project, and presumably the only one to survive, in the hands of EL Cord (owner of Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg), who received it as a gift in 1955.

While many concept cars were destroyed, others were hidden away by designers not wanting to part with their works of art. Bortz has found his forgotten prototypes in the most unlikely of places. The ’55 Chevy Biscayne had been cut in four large pieces and hidden for 35 years before Bortz found it in a junk yard. He’s currently looking for the other Oldsmobile F-88 concepts that may still exist, and others that might be hidden in some garage, if they survived the corporate axe.

Joe, who made his fortune with Russian natural gas, found the Diablo in Chicago, near his home. The Italian-made Chrysler cars would normally be shipped out of the country within 18 months to avoid paying expensive taxes. The Diablo seems to have gone back to Italy for different Ghia promotional events, but eventually came back to the US, when a buyer was willing to pay the import duties.

A wealthy man from Chicago found it in Milwaukee in the mid-’70s and used it to drive around town and for long trips. He modified the car considerably, with new paint, new top, new seats, new chrome, and added an air-conditioning system. Bortz bought it more than 25 years ago, restoring it.

RM Auctions is putting this original Diablo on the block in Monterey, California, on August 15. According to Bortz, Chrysler invested over US$250,000 in the Diablo, which was the most expensive concept car of the 1950s and ’60s. Building a car like this today would probably cost about US$2.5million, perhaps more, due to the exchange rate of the euro to the dollar.

So how much will it sell for? Will it beat the F-88’s record? It’s likely it will, even in these times of recession, thanks to a weak dollar. RM Auctions has an estimated price range of US$2.5-3million.

Too late for the boat, surviving five decades and several wars, the devil’s up for grabs.


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