Collection of Kathleen Redmond and Scott Grundfor, Arroyo Grande, California

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In the exuberant post–World War II era, automobile design was heavily influenced by jet aircraft styling. Cadillac’s tail fins appeared in 1948. Other makes soon followed, and by the mid-1950s, sharply pointed appendages on automobile rear fenders were ubiquitous. Chrysler’s renowned styling chief, Virgil Exner, was determined to prove that aero design wasn’t risky in the marketplace—that, after the devastating war years, consumers were eager to embrace the design cues of the future—and that fins could be functional on cars.

With a directive from Exner to produce a wedge-shaped coupe, Carrozzeria Ghia built a full-scale mockup for the 1955 Salone dell’automobile di Torino, with an interior but no engine, and called it the Gilda, after the 1946 film noir starring Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. Painted a startling pairing of silver and orange, with arrow-shaped door handles that accentuated the show car’s slippery silhouette, the Gilda was a big hit in Turin, where it was presented as “shaped by the wind.”

The Gilda show car inspired the futuristic Dart and influenced Chrysler’s entire 1957 “Forward Look” styling theme. After its career as a show car ended, the Ghia Gilda prototype was displayed at the Henry Ford Museum until 1969. It was then at the famed Harrah Collection in Reno, and subsequently at the Blackhawk Collection in Danville, California, along with other Ghia show cars. Scott Grundfor, a highly respected Mercedes-Benz restorer, purchased the Gilda more than twenty years ago, in excellent, unrestored condition. Grundfor had the skill and wherewithal to install a gas turbine power plant, a development he feels could have happened when the Gilda was first designed. Components were installed in such a way that the integrity of the original model was maintained, and they can be easily removed.

For a low-slung, edgy car that looks for all the world like a wingless jet aircraft, the Gilda’s powerful gas turbine power plant, with its characteristically shrill jet engine whine, is the perfect complement. Now nearly sixty years old, but far ahead of its time, the stunning Ghia Gilda still attracts appreciative spectators who think it’s a much younger car. The Gilda has inspired many famous designers, including the former head of Mercedes-Benz styling, Bruno Sacco, and the late Strother MacMinn, one of America’s most influential designers and teachers, who called it “one of the 10 most significant showcars ever built.”

—Adapted from the exhibition catalogue essay by Ken Gross

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