Missed Opportunities: Rita’s Ghia Cadillac

by Wally on August 8, 2013

Art by Wallace Wyss

By Wallace Wyss

This is a story of unrequited love all the way around. It occurred in the early ‘50s. Think film noir, mood lighting, moonlight on the Riviera, that sort of thing.

First, (and good casting for this story I might add) as the female lead was Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino, to a Spanish Flamenco dancer father and Ziegfield girl mother. She was reportedly an under-age dancer at a Tijuana club when she was discovered by Fox Studios.

She became one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood. Her one-glove strip tease in the movie Gilda put her on the map. Rita was a top movie star and a popular pinup girl during the forties. Her second husband was famed director Orson Wells, who she married in 1943. Her career bloomed during that time, but she lived on the edge, by having a fling around 1948. Not with some ordinary Joe, mind you, but with an Ismaili prince, Aly Kahn.

I had heard about Aly Khan since I was a teenager but back then (you might say “before Wikipedia”) I never actually had been able to figure out what country he was a prince of, primarily because the Ismaili sect of Muslims have no country or territory of their own. Prince Ali Salman Aga Khan, known as Aly Khan, was a son of Sultan Mohammed Shah, Aga Khan III, the head of the Ismaili Muslims. Aly Khan’s son, born in 1957, is the current Sultan Aga Khan IV and worth about $800 million.

Rita was also associated with the Savonuzzi Gilda project. Click here to read story.

Well, a girl doesn’t meet a prince every day! She dumps Orson Wells and marries the prince, becoming – for a short time – a Princess. The couple had a daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. Now this is a car magazine, not a movie rag, so back to the Caddy. The Prince sees a flamboyant car at a European auto show and orders an identical one for her. Oddly, it’s an American car but you can’t tell that because Ghia, a famous Italian coachbuilder, has clothed it in a svelte European shaped body. And amazingly it has quad headlamps though no one told Ghia that GM wouldn’t have that for five more years!

They were both on Cadillac series 62 chassis.

Ever the sportsman, Aly Kahn was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1959.

Ghia had built the first car on spec—Cadillac did not pay – but Ghia was hoping that either wealthy individuals would order a copy or they could get a contract from GM. Ironically it was Chrysler who later came a-callin’ for the run of 52 turbine cars but that was later. Actually Ford did a deal with Ghia first on the Lincoln Futura dream car that became the first Bat Car.

Back to the Prince. The marriage was already falling apart and Rita filed divorce papers in 1951, though it took some time for the divorce to take effect. Some say the Ghia coupe was still being pounded out at Ghia when the marriage fell apart. Maybe it was intended as a reconciliation gift. If so, it didn’t take. Her next of five marriages had already begun in 1953. But good publicity never dies and from that point on this design on a Cadillac is called the “Rita Hayworth Cadillac”, regardless of the fact that the car may have never been actually owned or driven by her.

One of the two cars finally ended up at the Petersen Museum while its twin is at the Imperial Palace collection in Las Vegas.

Art by Wallace Wyss.

It so happens the author, yours truly, had a brief encounter not with Rita but the Caddy. It was early in the ‘80s. I was driving down Highway 1, the coast road, through Encinitas, a few miles from San Diego and I passed a used car lot.

It had an odd turquoise blue car in the front row lineup. I slammed on the brakes and went back. The salesman said, “It’s a Ghia Cadillac.” Well, I knew about Carrozzeria Ghia. I knew about all the Chrysler dream cars they had built and I had never heard they had done a Cadillac. I proudly announced “Well, I know Ghia and they never did a Cadillac.” [There is no mention of the car in Ghia, Ford’s Carrozzeria, published in 1985. Ed.]

The more fool I.

He wanted $14,000. Now I had about $10,000 between my wife and me. We were saving for a down payment on a house. It woulda been a stretch but maybe he would have taken less. But what turned me off were the three exhaust pipes per side sprouting out of the body aft of the rear wheel wells. These looked hokey as hell, very George Barris-ish (sorry George!). I thought this has to be some Hollywood custom car. Certainly Not Ghia.

And the exhausts pipes were painted a dull gold, as was all the chrome trim. More Hollywood crapola, I thought.

But I had to admit the grille shape was beautiful as were the fenders. It probably had the best front end of any Italian-bodied American car I had ever seen, despite the four headlamps.

We found this image on Curbside Classic.

We drove off, me feeling smug that I had spotted a mis-represented car. Well, I was wrong. One of the two was later bought by Ken Behring, founder of the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, CA, and restored and became a million dollar car that appeared at many an event including Pebble Beach. The ugly exhaust pipes I hated had been “lost” along the way. I know they were probably original because the Touring- bodied Hudson Italia, done about the same time period, had them and so did the Boano-bodied Lincoln Indianapolis, though on the Lincoln their three exhausts per side were sprouting out of the front fenders behind the wheels. The Italians probably thought, “Americans like exhausts.”

Lesson to be learned here? Pride cometh before a fall. I bragged to the salesman that I had seen every Ghia design and the truth was I hadn’t. Not even close. And here it was, a genuine treasure, an-ex Royal car if you wanted to hang it on the man that ordered it, probably at the cheapest it would ever be at that point in time. So now I don’t make that mistake anymore, thinking I’ve seen everything, I’ve read everything so what I see before me must be misrepresented. I’m always willing to learn…but in this car’s case, it’s too late, that’s another one that got away….

All this happened decades ago and I’ve yet to find out whether the one I was offered -which was turquoise blue at the time – was the car intended for Rita Hayworth or not.

If any readers know which of the two Ghia Cadillacs was intended for Hayworth, do post a comment to help the author nail this down before Volume 2 of Barn Finds is ready for print.

The Ghia Cadillac at the Petersen. Courtesy Petersen

And then what?

Aly Kahn was killed driving his new Lancia in a head-on collision in Suresnes, outside of Paris on May 12th, 1960.

After a series of unsuccessful marriages but great films, Rita Hayworth died in New York City at age 68 from Alzheimer’s disease on May 14, 1987.

THE AUTHOR: Wyss will be at Automobilia at Monterey signing the first Vol. of Incredible Barn Finds and also at Concorso Italiano on Friday

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

thomas bromehead August 8, 2013 at 11:23 am

Fantastic story. Coming this close to buying a unique piece of history.
You’re right, never think you’ve seen it all, the beauty of the classic car world is that there’s always something to be learnt around the corner.
Incredible Barn Finds will be available here I suppose?

Alberta Savonuzzi August 8, 2013 at 8:31 pm

It was called Carrozzeria GHIA and never the other way around

Hugh August 8, 2013 at 11:03 pm

I saw Rita driving it in Palm Beach in December of 1954. At the time it was Black with a red side insert. Shortly after seeing it there was a Ghia Cadillac on the cover of Road & Track which was blue with a silver side insert. Having grown up near Detroit, I had seen several of the Ghia Chryslers, but I had no idea of what this black and red car was until I got my Road & Track in the mail.

Wallace Wyss August 9, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Thanks Hugh for the visual sighting. Maybe you are like me–even if it was 60 years ago, I can remember seeing certain cars go by, even the engine sound! It is good to hear that these cars intended for someone actually get to them once in a while. Too bad he couldn’t sway her to coming back after buying her such a nice present. That must be the black one that is currently being shown. Do you remember if it had three tailpipes sprouting out the rear fenders behind the rear wheel like on the Hudson Italia? I am also surprised, in retrospect, that with all the Princes’ riches, he couldn’t just sway the owner of the first car and there would have been no waiting.

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