Ghia’s Gilda, Elon Musk, and Automotive Romance

Ghia’s Gilda, Elon Musk, and Automotive Romance

Ghia’s Gilda, Elon Musk, and Automotive Romance

Back in the 1950s, people firmly believed in the next decade or two cars would be able to fly. Automotive design played into the trend, and one of the most sensational offerings from that period was Ghia’s one-off Gilda. It starred at 1955’s Turin Auto Show, with a shape and colors that truly captured the romance of the era. That got me reflecting on today’s industry and designs, and how that type of “romance” seems to be missing—both in terms of design, and the industry in general.

Is the automotive world devoid of “romance”? When everything is consistently driven by numbers—0-60 and quarter-mile times, a lap around the ‘Ring, how many “hits” something has to gauge its impact, the bottom line to shareholders, and much more—that intangible but key element that made the automobile so alluring for decades sure seems in short supply these days.

In many ways this fantastic period ad is almost like a movie poster, with only the main character’s name missing. Will we ever see anything like this ad again? And if so, will it be a marketing alliance, or something truly spontaneous?
The man behind the Gilda was an extraordinarily artistic engineer, Giovanni Savonuzzi. “When the movie (Gilda) came out, an ad said (actress Rita Hayworth) was a super sexy bomb,” Savonuzzi’s daughter Alberta recalls. “My father had a real sense of humor, and because of that description, the name ‘Gilda’ stuck with him. He couldn’t resist calling the car that.”

No longer is it about driving for the sake of having a unique experience, the way a car has a conversation with you, or a company overcoming great odds. It’s now an arms race between manufacturers for lower (or larger) numbers, and unfortunately, this take-no-prisoners attitude seems to have propagated exaggerated design, where most every car looks as aggressive as possible in an overdone effort to draw attention. Truly graceful designs are in exceedingly short supply—which brings us to our subject car, the fabulous one-off Ghia Gilda.

Beauty, Symmetry & Grace

More than 60 years after it was first seen the Gilda still looks way “out there,” yet it still has beauty, symmetry, and grace. There’s a dreamy and romantic quality to the car, its shape, and history, especially when examining the creators, and the way it was named after a sultry movie character, played by one of Hollywood’s top stars.

In many ways this fantastic period ad is almost like a movie poster, with only the main character’s name missing. Will we ever see anything like this ad again? And if so, will it be a marketing alliance, or something truly spontaneous?
The man behind the Gilda was an extraordinarily artistic engineer, Giovanni Savonuzzi. “When the movie (Gilda) came out, an ad said (actress Rita Hayworth) was a super sexy bomb,” Savonuzzi’s daughter Alberta recalls. “My father had a real sense of humor, and because of that description, the name ‘Gilda’ stuck with him. He couldn’t resist calling the car that.”

The romance starts with Carrozzeria Ghia, for the noted coachbuilding firm was on its knees less than a decade prior to the Gilda wowing the world. Founded in 1915 by Giacinto Ghia, the company rose to prominence in the 1930s, only to fall on hard times during World War II when the factory was decimated by air raids in 1943, and founder Giacinto passed away a year later.

When the Magic Happened…

Shortly after the war, the Ghia family went into partnership with former Pinin Farina stylist Mario Boano. Thanks to his design and business instincts, and the hiring of Luigi Segre as Ghia’s marketing manager, in the first half of the 1950s Ghia was once again headlining the Turin Auto Show and elsewhere, due in great part to its association with Chrysler and a number of dream cars it made for the American firm.

Boano used other designers in addition to himself, and one of the best was Giovanni Savonuzzi. Even then his name was largely unknown, but this Renaissance man was a talented engineer who worked with Fiat and its airplane engine division before becoming technical director of Piero Dusio’s upstart Cisitalia marque in 1945. In addition to engineering duties, Savonuzzi designed a number of Cisitalia cars, including the hugely influential (and supremely graceful) 202 Berlinetta.

Foundation for Design

There is something about the Gilda’s shape that is romantic in a way that is hard to find today. As radical as it was back then, it still seemed like you could see something similar entering production eventually. One of its greatest accomplishments was being seriously “out there,” yet, harmonious, elegant and graceful at the same time—which are three words that are very hard to apply to today’s automotive design language.

After Cisitalia Savonuzzi freelanced as a stylist, with one of his most famous designs appearing in 1953. The “Supersonic” was originally done for tuner Virgilio Conrero and his Alfa-based racer that participated in that year’s Mille Miglia, and Ghia did the coachwork. The shape was so startling that it was also used on Fiat’s 8V, and Jaguar and Aston chassis.

Savonuzzi became Ghia’s technical director in 1954, and the following year the Gilda broke cover. Filippo Sapino, a stylist who was Carrozzeria Ghia’s last managing director, told me that in the mid-1950s, “Designing cars was much more of an adventure so you would think of what would cars evolve into—something that could take off into the sky and fly. You would think of anything, for everything seemed possible.”

Ghia’s Gilda, Elon Musk, and Automotive Romance

Back when Ghia’s sensational Gilda debuted in 1955, “designing cars was much more an adventure,” observed Filippo Sapino, a former stylist who was Ghia’s last managing director. “You would think of what would cars evolve into—something that could take off into the sky and fly. You would think of anything, for everything seemed possible.” Indeed it did seem possible, for here the Gilda seems to show movement by levitation.

Our Kind of Romance

Now that’s romance, that type of dreaming, and it certainly seems to be prevalent on the Gilda. One can clearly see Savonuzzi’s instinctual feel for aerodynamic forms, as well as his artistic mastery of highlights, colors, and contrast in the way he used an unusual silver-orange combination to highlight the sleek shape’s form. The end result starred at 1955’s Turin Auto Show, graced numerous magazine covers, and was named after the very sultry siren in the film noir classic “Gilda,” who was played by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Rita Hayworth.

“When the movie (Gilda) came out,” Savonuzzi’s daughter Alberta told me, “an ad said (Rita Hayworth) was a super sexy bomb. My father had a real sense of humor, and because of that description, the name ‘Gilda’ stuck with him. He couldn’t resist calling the car that.”

So what does a one-off car named after a movie character, have to do with today? Current designs, and especially their volumes and silhouettes, generally look much alike. Worse, many cars have an aggressive “look at me” design language that is often out of touch with their market segment. For instance, how many economy cars have a face as aggressive as a modern supercar?

It Started With A Feeling

Ghia’s Gilda, Elon Musk, and Automotive Romance

When the jet age was sweeping the world in the mid-1950s, and the automotive industry in particular, Ghia’s one-off Gilda was “Exhibit A.” The car’s designer Giovanni Savonuzzi was a proponent of the trend, having previously designed the fantastic (and aptly named) “Supersonic.” Needless to say, back then (or even five years ago) no one could have foreseen a production model electric car in outer space…

Thus, the romantic concept of going by “feel” and sketching what one’s imagination conjures up seems far in the past, even though it is not. To see if this observation was off-base or not, I asked Jason Castriota, the former head of design at Pininfarina and Bertone who has a number of Ferrari and Maserati production models and one-offs to his name, and today works with Ford.

“Design always starts with instinct/feel/gesture,” he noted. “The challenge occurs in the process of evolving that desire into something feasible within certain constraints. Keeping that ‘feel’ of intent is the challenge today.

Ghia’s Gilda, Elon Musk, and Automotive Romance

Two to three years before the Gilda, there was the Supersonic. Perhaps Giovanni Savonuzzi’s most famous design for which he is credited, seen here is a scrumptious Fiat 8V of which approximately 15 were made. The Supersonic design first appeared on an Alfa 1900 done by Virgilio Conrero, and also an Aston Martin DB2 chassis, and a Jaguar XK.

“However, the great designs of yesteryear had little in the way of constraints so in the past it can be said that the designs were more about instinct/feel/gesture than they are today—where regulation, technology and production processes are limiting factors.”

Which only makes me yearn all the more for a romantic saga like Ghia’s Gilda. But then, as I was completing this post and speaking with John Clinard, a car-loving friend who works in the auto industry, something very surprising happened. I flashed on romantic “solace” in a most surprising place—Elon Musk.

Whether you love or hate him, think he is flimflam or truly brilliant, here is a man who has defied the odds by continuing to march to the beat of his own drum and is transforming the auto industry in the process. And in a very 21st Century spin on “romance,” he has literally put a production car in outer space. Now, if we could just bring back some grace into design—which is where we will pick up next week.

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One reply on “Ghia’s Gilda, Elon Musk, and Automotive Romance

  • Mau Rice

    It’s not lost on me that for whatever faults he has the original Tesla Roadster was a beautiful evolution of the Lotus Elite it was based on. That, and the original Model S. Both clean, bordering on elegant designs.
    I welcome the potential turn around from silly fussy and sometimes just plain stupid aggressive styling. Tonka Toys for grown up boys. All this, then Lexus falls on it’s head and races in that direction just as others are perhaps waking up.

    Nice piece. Thanks

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