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The handsome lad who never made it to his prom
Ghia Chrysler Norseman

While studying the domain of classic coachbuilding one inevitably encounters many creations that have been lost forever. Wars, political and economic turmoil, accidents or simply rust have caused hundreds of unique cars and bodies to disappear into oblivion. Sometimes cars thought to have been lost for decades, miraculously appear back in the public - examples include the Pourtout Talbot-Lago T150C SS #90120, the Volvo Elisabeth II or the B124MR Bentley 4 ¼ Van Vooren DHC. But what about a car, the whereabouts of which has been known all the time, but which nevertheless has been considered lost for more than half a century now? Here is the story of the sensational Chrysler Norseman and of its unfortunate demise.

 

In the beginning of the 50s Italian economy was still rebuilding itself from the war aftermath and the labour costs were rather low, especially compared to the United States. Considering this and the tradition of exquisite craftsmanship of Italian coachbuilders, it is not surprising that when Chrysler wanted to create some research prototypes, it turned its looks to Italy. In 1950 C. B. Thomas, head of styling  at Chrysler, contacted the Italian manufacturer Fiat and asked them to suggest which companies could take on this contract. The Italians gave two names: Ghia and Pinin Farina.

In the end it was Ghia that got the contract – thanks to the level of craftsmanship and smaller costs rather than better styling proposals, seeing as both companies had to build a car based on the same set of drawings sent from Detroit. This was to become a turning point in the history of the little company from Turin, as this contract provided Ghia with a priceless opportunity to show its designs  all over the world, under the auspices of (and with the costs covered by) Chrysler.

After a few development prototypes and low-volume specials, in 1956 Chrysler finally commissioned Ghia to build a show car. It was to be "the most automated car in the world". The design has been usually credited to Virgil Exner, however in reality most of the work was done by one of his subordinates – Billie Brownlie.

Ghia Chrysler Norseman design sketch
Design sketch by Deo Lewton

It was truly an innovative design, its most striking feature being the cantilevered roof, which was supported only at the rear pillars. There were no side pillars (and no vent windows – another unusual feature for the time) and in front the roof sat directly on a frameless curved windscreen. To make things even more complex, there was an electrically-operated sunroof fitted - a very advanced feature at the time and extremely difficult to integrate into the slender roof structure. The interior had four leather bucket seats and a set of futuristic gauge pods, complete with luminescent paint at the back of front seats as an experimental method of lighting. The car was fully operational, with a 331 ci Hemi V8 (235 hp) and 2-speed Powerflite transmission, shifted by push-buttons. The chassis was most probably sourced from the Chrysler 300 „letter” series cars.

 

Ghia Chrysler Norseman


There is no consensus over the subject of the car's colour. Chrysler ordered the car in dark green, with green and gray interior, while according to Exner it was to be painted silver. The reporters who  saw the car in Italy, before shipping, wrote that it was finished in two-tone blue, with red leather and black accents.

Ghia Chrysler Norseman Interior

Needless to say, such a complex design required a lot of time and money to be completed. It took the team, led by Sergio Coggiola, fifteen months and cost Chrysler over 150,000 dollars to finish the Norseman. Long as it lasted, the project was finished on schedule and on 17 July 1956 the Norseman, carefully packed in a wooden create, was loaded onto the board of a luxury liner of the Italian Line, operating between Genoa and New York. The ship's name was Andrea Doria.

Andrea Doria

Back in Highland Park, Michigan the Chrysler design team eagerly awaited the new show car that was planned to be a star of the 1957 auto show circuit. Although they designed it, almost none of them had seen the final creation in flesh. Instead of the car however, the forwarding agent delivered the news that Norseman had been lost forever.

On the evening of Wednesday, 25 July 1956, Andrea Doria was heading west through the New York Bay. It was the last night of the cruise, the ship was expected to dock in NY the next morning. At 11:10 PM, 40 miles off the coast of Nantucket, SS Andrea Doria collided in thick fog with MS Stockholm, a Swedish passenger ship on its way from New York to Gothenburg. Thanks to a swift and professional rescue operation, only 53 people (out of around 2500) perished in the catastrophe. Eleven hours later the Italian ship sank, taking all of its cargo, including the Norseman, 72 metres deep to the bottom of the ocean.

Andrea Doria sinking

Andrea Doria sinking

Since then, only one person has seen the car. In 1994 a famous wreck diver David Bright during one of his numerous expedition to the wreck found what he described as a "rusted hulk" of the Norseman. According to his description, the car's position in the wreck makes it almost certain that no-one will ever see it again. David Bright died in 2006 from decompression sickness after another of his divings to the Andrea Doria wreck.

Andrea Doria wreck

Had the Norseman reached America, it would have certainly influenced the design of Chrysler cars in the late 50s / early 60s. As it is, only a few period photos are left for us to look at and think of the car that was once described as "the handsome lad who never made it to his prom."

Ghia Chrysler Norseman

Click here for the Chrysler Norseman Gallery.

 

 
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