The mystery of the Ghia 450/SS, a Barracuda-based Italian beauty

Jim MacDougald and his wife on the 2014 Mountain Mille rally, with the Ghia-made hardtop in place.

Jim MacDougald went looking for a “rare and interesting” car to drive in the 2014 Mountain Mille, a 1000-mile tour through North Carolina and Tennessee that included the famous Tail of the Dragon. To borrow a phrase that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once used to describe Russia, what MacDougald found was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He would spend the next two years doing a lot of unraveling.

Ivan Ruiz, a collector of Italian cars, showed MacDougald his 1967 Ghia 450/SS—a pretty coachbuilt Italian convertible based on Plymouth Barracuda running gear. MacDougald had never heard of the Ghia. But he was captivated by its design, which resembled the Maserati Ghibli Spyder conversion that he traded to Ruiz for it. The second 450/SS Ruiz that restored he traded to collector Ed Howell for a Ferrari.

Heeere’s Johnny! (Not)

Ed Howell’s Ghia 450/SS with its standard hardtop in place.
Ed Howell’s Ghia 450/SS with its standard hardtop in place.
courtesy Ed Howell

MacDougald’s early research into the 450/SS dispelled the tantalizing claim that his car had once belonged to Johnny Carson, host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, 1962–92. “I thought, if that was wrong, what else might be wrong?” MacDougald says.

The Ghia 440/SS was obscure to begin with. An estimated 57 were hand-built, according to MacDougald’s findings. Decades after the car faded from sight and memory, many of the major players behind it had died or moved on to other things. Facts became distorted, misinterpreted and misreported.

MacDougald, who had the means and the time to chase down long-buried information, dug deeper. He spoke with 30 different 450/SS owners, along with restorers and historians. He bought numerous books and magazines that featured the 450/SS, even paying to have many translated into English. But the critical piece of the puzzle was his extensive interview with Burt Sugarman, the American entrepreneur who had instigated Ghia 450/SS production.

Ghia mystery theater

Ghia 450/SS
Jim MacDougald’s Ghia 450/SS at the Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance.

For many, the name Ghia represents the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, or, in the 1970s, a premium trim level for some Ford models when the company owned the Italian design house. Many also remember the 1950s Chrysler concept cars designed by Virgil Exner and built by Ghia. One of those became the limited-production Dual-Ghia, built on a Dodge chassis, in the late 1950s. Just over 100 were made, and extant examples can approach a half-million dollars today.

MacDougald’s research revealed deeper Chrysler involvement in the 450/SS than had previously been reported. He believes it might have been a market test before moving to possible low-volume production by Ghia.

Beverly Hills intrigue

Burt Sugarman’s Ghia dealership in 1966.
Burt Sugarman’s Ghia dealership in 1966.
courtesy Burt Sugarman

Sugarman was 26 years old when he spotted an alluring Ghia-bodied Fiat coupe on the cover of Road & Track in March 1965. Ghia had built the prototype with the goal of persuading Fiat to provide mechanicals for low-volume production, as it had done for a previous model, the 2300 S.

MacDougald confirmed that Sugarman went to Turin, intending to persuade Ghia to build the car he saw. A successful drag racer turned entrepreneur and Beverly Hills socialite, Sugarman was a guy who could make things happen. He’d been engaged to actress Ann-Margret, and he hung out with John DeLorean when the urbane Pontiac Division general manager visited California to scope out the car culture and social scene.

Once at Ghia, Sugarman also witnessed a prototype convertible, the 230 S, in the works. Small-series production, he learned, would require a commitment from a major carmaker to supply mechanicals. Ghia could then coachbuild a small series or offer low-volume production through its affiliate, Officine Stampaggi Industriale (OSI). Fiat and Ford (Europe) were among OSIs main clients, and O.S.I. had also built the 50 Chrysler Turbine cars that were used for nationwide public evaluation in the early 1960s.

A call to DeLorean, a meeting with Chrysler

1967 Ghia 450SS
1967 Ghia 450SS
RM Sotheby's

Sugarman pitched his friend DeLorean on the idea of Pontiac backing the car, but DeLorean passed, having had a proposal for the two-seat Banshee shot down by General Motors management. DeLorean suggested Sugarman meet with Bob Anderson, head of the Chrysler-Plymouth Division.

A champion of Plymouth’s performance and racing programs, Anderson was open to the idea. He had a 1965 Barracuda Formula S shipped to Ghia for prototype development and agreed to supply powertrains and other hardware for a run of perhaps 100 cars.

Anderson also dispatched Chrysler product development executive Paul Farago to Ghia to act as engineering liaison. An Italian émigré well known in Detroit for his car-building skills, Farago had worked with Ghia to transform Exner’s concepts into drivable prototypes. Before joining Chrysler, Farago had been vice president of production at Dual-Ghia and then engineered that car’s successor, the Chrysler-powered Ghia L6.4 (25 made).

Farago designed a ladder frame that could combine the Ghia 230 S Spyder body and the Barracuda’s mechanicals, including 273-cubic-inch, 235-horsepower Commando V-8; four-speed manual or TorqueFlite automatic transmission; K-frame and torsion-bar front suspension; rear axle and leaf-spring suspension; plus power steering and brakes.

The car was renamed 450/SS with regard to its 4.5-liter V-8. It rode on a 98-inch wheelbase, versus 106 for the Barracuda, and it was 10 inches shorter (178 inches) and 6 inches lower. Weight was similar at about 3100 pounds.

Sports Car Graphic Ghia cover

“The array of Chrysler parts Farago incorporated into the 450/SS was staggering,” MacDougald says.

Nearly all the car’s hardware and systems came from the Valiant-based Barracuda, including wiring harness, ignition switch, heater, shifter, parking brake, shortened drive shaft and exhaust system, gauges, door handles, window cranks, and more. The hand-built production cars even got a Barracuda owner’s manual, with non‐applicable portions crossed out. Some parts came from Italian cars, including taillights from an Alfa Romeo sedan.

The steel body was made by shaping the metal over a wooden buck. Each part had the car’s serial number stamped into it and fit only that particular car. The body was welded together, and then welded to the frame, making it a semi-unitized design.

“If you crash it, you’re basically screwed,” MacDougald says, “because there are no spare parts.”

Although Giorgetto Giugiaro has sometimes been credited with designing the 450/SS, he had only joined Ghia in late 1965, when development was well along. Sergio Sartorelli had done the initial design, and Giugiaro refined the front bumper, grille, and rear fascia. Giugiaro designed the Maserati Ghibli, first shown in 1966.

The high price of Italian style

Jim MacDougald’s Ghia 450/SS at the Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance.
Jim MacDougald’s Ghia 450/SS at the Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance.

More evidence of Chrysler’s participation in the 450/SS, MacDougald indicates, was that all of the company’s components carried a full Chrysler warranty, and the cars could be serviced at any Chrysler Corporation dealership. “That was a huge advantage over European sports cars,” he says.

Unfortunately, the 450/SS had no price advantage over those cars. By the time hand-built production began in summer 1966, the $8000 target price—twice that of a base Corvette—had swelled to $13,200. That was Ferrari money.

Sugarman sold some of the cars from Beverly Hills Ghia, a dealership he had set up. He also sold cars to dealers in California and Nevada and told MacDougald that a Chevy dealer in San Jose moved seven of them.

Meanwhile, the situation at Ghia was unraveling. Alejandro de Tomaso and New Jersey-based electric motor maker Rowan Industries bought the company in 1967, and the last 450/SS was made that year, ending Ghia’s nearly 20-year association with Chrysler.

Rock on, past the Ghia

1966 Ghia 450/SS, #BS 4008, owned by Jim MacDougald.
1966 Ghia 450/SS, #BS 4008, owned by Jim MacDougald.
courtesy Jim MacDougald

Sugarman imported another American-powered Italian beauty, the Intermeccanica Omega, but instead of becoming a car tycoon, he went on to produce television and films. He launched the world of late-late-night TV viewing in 1972 with The Midnight Special, the seminal weekly rock concert show that aired until 1981. Interestingly, Sugarman is not one of the owners of the 37 Ghia 450/SS roadsters that MacDougald believes remain.

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Editor’s note: Jim MacDougald has compiled his extensive research on the Ghia 450/SS into an in-depth 170-page report, including photos. The report goes into great detail on the companies, personalities, design and engineering that made the 450/SS possible and corrects misinformation that has been circulating for years. He will email a PDF file to anyone who sends a request to jimm@wesven.com.