Thursday, May 19, 2011

1954 DeSoto Adventurer II - Granturismo Show Car

The 1954 DeSoto Adventurer II show car was built for Chrysler by Ghia in Turin (Spanish for Torino), Italy. It was one of many show cars Chrysler Corp. had built during the 1950s but one of only a few not designed by the company’s chief stylist Virgil Exner.

Photography and Text by David W. Temple

When World War II ended, automobile makers were not quite ready to offer new designs. Chrysler Corporation was no exception in that regard; their first all new designs appeared in the latter part of 1949. In the case of the public, new styling made little difference during the first few years after the war as they were hungry for new cars to replace their well worn ones. Eventually, though, styling made a major difference to the consumer. In the specific case of Chrysler, however, company president K.T. Keller was not styling minded. Chrysler had a reputation for good engineering, but styling was not always their strong point. The new ‘49s and those that followed through 1954, had the “three box look” – as in one box piled on top of two others. The Chrysler products were not nearly as flashy as those coming from Ford and General Motors. Actually, this did not need to happen. Chrysler designers created some styling proposals that somewhat resembled Lincolns and did away with bolt-on rear fenders. The look was modern, but for whatever reason the proposed styling was not chosen for the production cars.
A DeSoto logo similar to those used on production 1953 and 1954 models appears on the hood of the Adventurer II. The logo signifies the namesake of the car, Hernando De Soto the 16th century Spanish explorer of the Americas.
          General Motors, on the other hand, had people in charge who knew the value of styling as a selling tool. Harley Earl and his people inside GM Styling were leading the way in that regard and as a result GM was getting the vast majority of customers. Change was needed at Chrysler because engineering alone was not selling their cars in great enough quantity. Keller left the presidency of Chrysler Corp. in late 1950 and was replaced by Lester “Tex” Colbert. Colbert had a different vision for what the company’s cars should become and he already had what he needed to implement his vision. Virgil Exner had been with Chrysler for about a year when “Tex” became president. Exner first worked under the legendary Harley Earl at GM and then for Raymond Lowey at Studebaker. When Exner stepped into his job, the styling of the new cars was locked in place for a while, but there was work to be done in the advanced studio. Exner went to work on show cars like the Chrysler K-310, Chrysler C-200, Chrysler Special, Dodge Firearrow, DeSoto Adventurer I, etc. He had learned that Ghia in Turin, Italy could build show cars for modest sums of money and arranged for through Ghia’s design chief, Luigi Segre, to have show cars built there. This arrangement had another advantage – Exner was drawn to Italian design, so no better situation could have resulted. Under Exner’s guidance, Chrysler’s cars got the styling needed to attract buyers while the exotic show cars served as design exercises and as a means of generating publicity.
DeSoto’s “Red Ram” 170hp engine coupled to a two-speed Powerflite automatic transmission was chosen to power the Adventurer II show car.
The black and red interior was made just for two.
Colbert had something else important aimed at making the cars of the company more exciting – the Hemi V8. The engine which had been under development since 1935 was ready for production for model year 1951 and appeared in Chryslers and Imperials first. Chrysler’s “Fire Power” displaced 331 cubic inches while Dodge, DeSoto, and Plymouth got smaller, less powerful versions during the following model years. DeSoto’s Hemi displaced 276.1 cubic inches and provided 160 hp for 1953 and 170hp for 1954. The design of the new hemi-head offered more power from a given displacement without the need for increased octane fuels. The key to this was in the hemispherical combustion chamber shape (hence the name). The arrangement reduced the chance for pre-ignition, allowed higher volumetric efficiency, and resulted in a cooler running engine.
A DeSoto “Red Ram” 170 horsepower V8, two-speed Powerflite, and a 125.5-inch wheelbase S-19 Series chassis served as a platform for the two-passenger car featured here dubbed the 1954 Adventurer II. Somewhat ironically, this car did not have much in common with the preceding, four-passenger, Exner-designed Adventurer I nor did Virgil Exner have much to do with its styling. This car’s design was largely the responsibility of a creative stylist and engineer at Ghia named Giovanni Savonuzzi. Savonuzzi had designed a sleek aluminum coupe body for engineer Virgilio Conrero’s tube-frame, Alfa Romeo-powered racecar for the 1953 Mille Miglia. It was followed shortly afterwards by a similar body for the Fiat 8V chassis which incidentally went into production with a run of 50 cars. During the early part of 1954, Segre met with Exner and showed to him photos of the Alfa-Conrero. According to an article in the Fall 1990 issue of “Exotic Cars Quarterly,” Exner judged it to be a “beautiful design.” His occasional Italian translator and racecar builder, Paul Farrago, actually bought a Ghia-bodied Fiat 8V which gave Virgil Exner a chance to examine the actual car. Later, Segre suggested the basic design known as the “Supersonic Look” be adapted to a follow-up to the Adventurer I. Exner agreed and saw that the funds were made available for the project. By the way, the “Supersonic Look” was applied to a few other cars as well such as at least a couple of Jaguar XK-140s and a 1956 Aston Martin DB2/4 Mk. II.
A burnished aluminum plate surrounds the instrument dials. The odometer shows less than 15,000 actual miles.
Two-piece luggage is fitted in the space behind the seats.
Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels were selected for the Adventurer II. The wheels were optional on production Chrysler-built cars.
The DeSoto Adventurer II was introduced to the American press on June 16, 1954 during ceremonies for the new Chrysler proving grounds near Chelsea, Michigan. It was first exhibited at the Turin Auto Show soon thereafter. In its August 1954 issue, “Motor Trend” ridiculed the styling of the Adventurer II by suggesting the car’s “slab sides and illusion of excessive width” violated Exner’s philosophy of “emphasis on the mechanical beauty and function of an automobile.” According to the aforementioned article in “Exotic Cars Quarterly,” Virgil Exner, Jr. said his father approved of the car and “realized that Savonuzzi was not only a great engineer but had a terrific styling eye.” Beauty, as the adage declares, is in the eye of the beholder.
The backlight of the Adventurer II is retractable.
The spare tire and wheel assembly takes up most of the trunk space. The backlight retracts into the cover just above and ahead of the spare.
After the Turin Auto Show in the summer of ’54, the history of the Adventurer II is a bit unclear. The car’s first documented private owner was a U.S. civilian named Art Spanjian who worked for Nouasseur Air Force Base in Morocco. As stated by an article in a 1959 issue of “Automobile Topics,” Spanjian affirmed that the Chrysler dealer in Casablanca purchased the show car at an auction following the auto show in Brussels. The dealer believed it could be sold to Morocco’s King Mohammed V. Reportedly the king drove the car for a week and then decided to not purchase it. The dealer then displayed the Adventurer II in the showroom while hoping someone would be willing to pay the $25,000 asking price. This is where Art Spanjian entered the scene. He saw the car in the showroom and tried to negotiate a better price but the dealer did not accept a lesser offer until three years later. Spanjian by that time had been appointed chief of Maintenance Planning in Dayton, Ohio. Before going to his new assignment, he made a final offer for the unique automobile and this time his price was accepted though the exact amount was not disclosed; Spanjian revealed to “Automobile Topics” that the price was “more than $2,500 and less than $10,000.”
The design of the rear of the car is similar to that of the front. It is bumperless and the paired exhaust outlets exit through a pod mounted directly beneath the taillights.
By around 1960, the Adventurer II was once again in a showroom – this time at a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Dayton. It was sold on December 26, 1960 to Fort Lauderdale resident, Armand Archer, Sr., during a Christmas visit to see his family. Archer drove the car back home to Florida but soon realized the drawbacks of owning such a car – mainly the irreparable damage that could potentially occur. The Adventurer II was locked away in a garage for more than a quarter century. Archer’s son, Armand, Jr., revived the car in 1986. It still had its original Dayton General tires and had logged less than 15,000 miles. In 1988, the Adventurer II was purchased by collector Ken Behring who had it restored in time for the 1989 Pebble Beach Concours, though another version of the story is that an anonymous West Coast collector bought the car, had it restored, and then donated it to the Behring Auto Museum. Today the Adventurer II is part of the collection of San Diego resident Chuck Swimmer. This one-of-a-kind show car which was supposedly unfit for a king has found a number of admirers over the years and remains an ageless and striking design more than 50 years after it was built.

1954 DeSoto Adventurer II
Engine:  276.1cid V8
Horsepower:  170@4,400rpm
Torque:  255@2,000rpm
Compression:  7.5:1
Bore and Stroke:  3.625 x 3.344 inches
Carburetion:  Carter 2-bbl.
Exhaust:  dual
Transmission:  Powerflite two-speed automatic
Number Built:  1
Wheelbase:  125.5 inches
Length:  214.2 inches
Height:  55.5 inches
Width:  77.9 inches


  1. any information on the "cello" circa '56 - '58?

    1. Sorry for the long delay in responding. Somehow I missed seeing your question until now. Unfortunately, I have no information on the Cello other than I believe it was built only in scale form.