Chrysler Dart Diablo Concept, an Italian-American Beauty

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
chrysler dart diablo concept an italian american beauty

From the late 1940s into the 1960s, Chrysler had most of its high profile concept and show cars fabricated by Ghia in Italy. Chrysler liked how the Italians did high quality work at prices far below what union labor would have cost them in Detroit, and Ghia liked the work and the revenue as Italy was rebuilding after World War II.

The relationship was mutually beneficial in more ways than just financial. Styling and technical ideas flowed in both directions between Highland Park and Turin. Giovanni Savonuzzi scaled down Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner Sr.’s Chrysler D’Elegance concept into Volkswagen’s Karmann Ghia. Exner, for his part, was perfectly happy to put Chrysler corporation nameplates on concepts that originated at Ghia.

Ghia Gilda sketch

According to Virgil Exner Jr., the 1956 Chrysler Dart show car — later modified and renamed the Dart Diablo — was first drawn by his father on the senior Exner’s personal drawing board. Some sources also say that it was Ex Sr.’s favorite concept. Those stories may be true, but the Dart was undoubtedly based on the Ghia Gilda concept car, though at least one source says that the Gilda was commissioned by Chrysler.

The Gilda was the full-sized result of a series of wind tunnel tests Dr. Savonuzzi and Ghia head Luigi Segre had performed at Turin’s University Polytechnico. The “turbine powered” Gilda, however, was a static pushmobile. The Dart was intended to be a fully functioning automobile so Chrysler could perform their own aerodynamic research at the company’s Chelsea Proving Grounds.

Ghia Gilda pushmobile

“Fully functioning” included bucket seats for four, power steering unit, power brakes with special wheel covers that poured cooling air over the brake drums, power windows, signal seeking radio with a power antenna, and air conditioning.

The Dart was built on a modified Chrysler 300 chassis with torsion bar suspension and a 392 cubic inch K300 Chrysler V-8 (rated at 375 horsepower) mated to Chrysler’s then-new automatic TorqueFlite transmission. The final body design — what some call an early wedge design, but to me looks more bullet or rocket shaped — was the result of a collaboration between Ghia and Chrysler, with Exner, his primary assistant Bill Schmidt and Chrysler engineering VP Paul Ackerman having significant input.

With a streamlined body and faired-in wheels, the Dart had a coefficient of drag that would be considered remarkably low for a concept car even today: o.17. Such low drag allowed for high speed running, high enough to discover stability issues, which were resolved in testing at the Polytechnico by the application of large vertical tail fins.

Exner’s own “Forward Look” styling that would be fully realized in the 1957 model year also featured large tail fins, so there was continuity with other Chrysler vehicles. The wide chrome band that surrounded the large oval grille and then swept back around the car’s beltline was also similar to a motif Exner had used on the Dodge Firearrow concepts of 1953-54.

As originally built, the Dart had an innovative electrically powered retractable steel hardtop roof that had sunroof, landau and convertible options, and could be operated while the car was moving. The doors were also steel but the rest of the body was made of aluminum.

The Dart had a steeply raked windshield that extended fairly deep into the roofline. As with other Exner supervised designs of the era, the A pillars were relatively thin. The grille opening was modified after testing at speed revealed that airflow into the engine compartment was creating lift.

The Dart would eventually put on over 85,000 miles in track testing, which may be a record for concept cars from large automakers, but it almost never made it to Chelsea. The Dart was intended to be shipped by Ghia to the United States upon completion.

Chrysler Dart Concept

It was originally scheduled to travel on the Andrea Doria ocean liner, along with the Chrysler Norseman (another Chrysler show car), but some last minute work delayed shipment by a month. In the meantime the Andrea Doria famously sunk and the public never got to see the Norseman.

After a couple of years of testing and showing the Dart concept, Exner decided to make it look closer to a production car and the vehicle was shipped back to Ghia for revisions. The fins were made smaller and the radical windshield was replaced with something more like what would be used in production.

Chrysler Dart concept with roof retracted.

The novel retractable roof had proved to be unreliable so it was replaced with a conventional folding convertible fabric top. Most of the period photographs are black and white, but based on a magazine cover from the time and the one color print I could find, the original Dart had a two-tone paint job; the body above the chrome belt line either white or light blue and the roof and lower body in black. After the bodywork was revised, the car was repainted Diablo red, renamed the Dart Diablo, given a devil’s trident as a logo (the Dart’s logo would survive and be used on the production Dodge Dart compact car), and first shown to the public at the 1958 Chicago Auto Show.

David Fetherston and Tony Thacker’s book on Chrysler concept cars says that when it was done with the Diablo, Chrysler sold the car back to Ghia, but it’s possible that the automaker was trying to avoid customs tariffs for permanently importing it. Ghia used it as a display in their headquarters but eventually it made its way into noted concept car collector Joe Bortz’s holdings. It was offered at auction in 2008, but the high bid of $1.2 million did not meet the reserve price. It did sell for that same price (plus commission) in 2013.

Since acquiring it, current owners Linda and Paul Gould have shown it a number of top-shelf car shows, including the 2014 Concours of America, which featured a judged class of Virgil Exner Sr.’s production cars, where I had the opportunity to photograph it. To further honor Exner, the Dart Diablo was part of a special display along with the Plymouth XNR concept car, also owned by the Goulds.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Dart Diablo has never been restored and is still in original (to the 1958 revisions) condition. Despite its age and high mileage for a show car, it’s in beautiful shape, a tribute the Exner, Segre and their designers and craftsmen in Italy and America.

Color photos courtesy of RM Auctions and the author.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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2 of 18 comments
  • Amca Amca on Nov 19, 2015

    I saw it when it was sold at Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale in '13. Absolutely gorgeous. What the photos don't show is just BIG it is. Which makes it all the more stunning.

  • Zackman Zackman on Nov 20, 2015

    Want to make cars appealing again? Look no further than the subject of this thread! Although the car style-wise was somewhat over the top, it's styling like this that turns people on and actually WANT to buy a new car.

  • Tassos 25 years old, 200k miles, $12,000 devalued worthless Biden Dollars?Hard pass.
  • GrumpyOldMan Lost me at the last word of the second paragraph.
  • Bobbysirhan I suppose this explains why almost everything that makes a GM product function has been Chinese for several years now.
  • Kevin 35 grand if a 2 door but not a 4 door!
  • Kevin 35 grand USD for a 57 wagon that still needs lots of work such as spindles body work and what ever else maybe 25 but 35 no thanks I'll stick with what I have. Floor pans replaced and whatever else my 68 chevelle I paid $4800.00 USD 20 years ago and is all original.