Solving A Decades-Old Mystery

The automotive horizon was unlimited in the 1950s. America was the world’s economic superpower, and in the middle of the decade the U.S. began a horsepower binge that led to the musclecar era, Le Mans victories and more. On the other side of the Atlantic Europe was rebuilding after its decimation in World War II, leading to an unprecedented economic boom that became known as “the economic miracle.”

The jet also came of age at the time, so automakers such as Fiat and Chrysler put turbine engines into cars. Wings and other appendages became the styling rage in the second half of the ‘50s, appearing on numerous dream cars, prototypes and production automobiles.

Savonuzzi's incredible sense of surface treatment and sensitive use of color only enhances the "flight" theme.

Savonuzzi’s incredible sense of surface treatment and sensitive use of color only enhances the “flight” theme.

Those design, engineering and social trends had everyone convinced that within a matter of two or three decades cars would fly, and if any machine seemed destined to prove it, it was the one-off Ghia Gilda. Its smooth, slinky, aircraft-inspired shape was a true work of art done by Giovanni Savonuzzi, and it looked like it was doing Mach 2 just sitting on its Turin Show stand in 1955.

After starring at that auto show and appearing on a number of magazine covers, the Gilda made its way to America and soon slipped into obscurity, remembered only by designers and automotive geeks. It bounced between collections until 2005 when it found a home with someone who truly understood what it was.

Scott Grundfor is a friend, top-flight restorer and Pebble Beach judge who purchased the Gilda then took it completely apart and very sensitively gave it a proper cleaning and refurbishment. When it was back together one thing stuck with him—the Gilda was never made a runner even though several period articles said it would get an engine and transmission. He decided to follow through on the creators’ original intention, found a period correct turbine engine, and installed the drivetrain in such a way that the authenticity of the car remained uncompromised.

Earlier this year I visited Scott to do an article on the Gilda for Motor Trend Classic’s Fall 2012 issue. It was one of those rare occasions where I did not do the shoot, but with good reason. Evan Klein is a stellar photographer, and it was an absolute blast watching him work. At the end of the shoot we used a location with plants near the side of the road and Scott did several passes, Evan shooting from one angle, me low down from another. The lead shot in the slide show above captures exactly what I wanted—the illusion that the Gilda is indeed flying.

As much fun as it was to pull that shot off, the best part of the trip happened several weeks later. When Scott took the Gilda apart shortly after taking possession of it, he discovered something only the Italians would do—a handwritten poem under the driver’s seat floorboard. Dated September 25, Ghia Torino Italia, it read “A woman makes you feel like being intoxicated, but then she leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth.”

Ever since he discovered the words Scott has wondered the identity of the author, figuring the answer was lost to time. After writing the article (I used the poem in the conclusion), I sent a copy to Tom Tjaarda in Italy to proof it, and to see if he could add anything. Tom started his career at Ghia in August 1958, and did his reply ever bring a smile to my face.

Evan in action. When we did tracking photos out of another moving vehicle on a very quiet road, cars going in the opposite direction pulled over and waited for us to return, cell phones handy to catch the Gilda and its screaming turbine sweep by.

Evan in action. When we did tracking photos out of another moving vehicle on a very quiet road, cars going in the opposite direction pulled over and waited for us to return, cell phones handy to catch the Gilda and its screaming turbine sweep by.

When speaking about his early days at the carrozzeria, “I became a friend of Giuseppe Nicolotti,” Tom remembered. “He was the son of the director of the model making department at Ghia, and invited me many times to his home…Giuseppe knew many young girls that I also got to know, but for some reason he warned me a number of times to be careful about becoming emotionally involved.

“After 50 years I still remember the phrase he would use in his broken English: First they are at your side, and then you have nothing.

“When the Gilda was made Giuseppe was everywhere in the Ghia factory. He worked on the wooden bucks but also had a hand in the prototype-making phase, and it would not surprise me that he might have left his ‘warning’ in some way.”

And that is one of the joys of research, for you never know what a day will bring—both for the researcher and the restorer!

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