Swingin’ Wheels

The Cars Of the Rat Pack

Nostalgia and a generalized Mad Men-stoked yearning for all things mid-century have rendered the Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr. element numero uno on the Periodic Table of Cool. Humphrey Bogart was actually the original ringleader, and it was his wife, Lauren Bacall, who named the group. Sinatra took over on Bogart’s death and gave it its definitive Vegas-centric form with the famous “Summit at the Sands” in 1960. Although it’s hard to imagine it now, there was a time when the Rat Pack wasn’t considered cool.

In much the same way that Miami Vice’s Crockett and Tubbs and Henry Winkler’s take on “The Fonz” eventually became caricatures, the moment the Beatles landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in April 1964, the pork pie hats, caper films, skinny ties and Manhattans of the Rat Pack were no longer considered even remotely hip. And when the real acid-dropping, tune in/turn on psychedelic 1960s actually started (about 1965), watching Frank, Dean, Joey, Peter and Sammy trying to fit into the era of hallucinogens, love beads and fat sideburns was truly painful.

But you can certainly make the case that their cars never went out of style — and the boys of the Rat Pack loved their automobiles. Their heyday was roughly the late 1950s and early 1960s. The mob was perfecting running the skim in Las Vegas, and there were some pretty interesting cars to be had for those cats who could afford to blow ten grand or more on a swingin’ set of wheels.

By and large, the Rat Pack weren’t sports car guys. They left the Jaguars and Ferraris to the likes of Clark Gable, James Coburn and Steve McQueen. The Rat Pack liked their luxury and comfort with a dollop of exclusivity and style, like the Copa Room at the Sands. One of Dean Martin’s favorite cars of this period fit that bill perfectly — the Facel Vega HK500. He was photographed extensively with it; the most famous shots were a series of black-and-whites taken in the driveway of his Beverly Hills home.

An unknown marque to most Americans, Facel was started in the 1950s by French industrialist Jean Daninos, and while the Vega’s beautiful coachwork was French, its heart was all-American. Generally, Facel Vegas were powered by a Chrysler Hemi V-8 mated to either a TorqueFlite automatic or a French-made Pont-à-Mousson four-speed manual transmission. Incidentally, “pont” means “bridge” in French, and that box had to have been built like an iron one to cope with the Hemi’s torque. Dino didn’t have to worry about that, though; he bought the automatic, which was actually a pretty good match for the big V-8, knocking off smooth shifts that were as lazy as his pseudo-drunk drawl.

Facels were among the fastest cars you could buy at the time, and they were the darlings of the motoring press. Celebrities snapped up as many as Facel could build (which was not all that many, adding to the exclusivity). In addition to Dean Martin, the list of high-profile owners was seemingly endless, including Sinatra-ex Ava Gardner, Pablo Picasso, Ringo Starr, Tony Curtis, Fred Astaire, film director François Truffaut, fashion designer Christian Dior, several Saudi princes and racing driver Stirling Moss.

It may have been this unfortunate lack of “exclusivity” that pushed Dino and Frank into an even rarer Chrysler-powered car, the Dual-Ghia. The brainchild of Chicago shipping tycoon Eugene Casaroll, the Dual-Ghia convertible had its roots in the Chrysler-Ghia Firearrow concept car. Just 117 were built between 1956 and 1958, and Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford all owned one. A Chrysler chassis was shipped to Ghia in Italy, where the coachwork was fabricated. They were finished in Detroit, and while not the powerhouse that the Facel Vega was, they went well enough with either the 315-cid Chrysler polyspheric or Hemi V-8.

The 1960–62 Ghia L6.4 was the second Chrysler-powered Ghia design adopted by the Rat Pack. By the early 1960s, Mr. Casaroll’s health was failing and the 26 L6.4s built were mostly a Ghia effort. Dean Martin was particularly fond of his and apparently not satisfied with the standard car, so he had famed customizer George Barris add a few more unusual touches to the car, like its non-standard rectangular headlamps. Powered by a 335-horsepower 383-cid Chrysler “Wedge” V-8, the Ghia was no slug. Again, the ever-laid-back Dino couldn’t be bothered to shift gears, and his L6.4 was fitted with an automatic.

The Rat Pack didn’t completely ignore Ford and GM. It’s just that precious few of their products were deemed exclusive enough for the five guys at the summit of the entertainment industry. The three exceptions were the first-generation Ford Thunderbird, Continental Mark II and the 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

When the T-Bird came out, Sinatra was 12 years removed from his famous split with Tommy Dorsey, but his career had seen its share of ups and downs, with 1953’s From Here to Eternity really marking the start of better things for a now-maturing star. Possibly to celebrate the success of his second collaboration with the great Nelson Riddle, Sinatra’s record company, Capitol, bought him a black 1955 Thunderbird and had it delivered to him at the iconic mid-century Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach. Sinatra used the car briefly until Capitol took it back to use as a courtesy car before disposing of it in 1963.

After the T-Bird, Sinatra bought the most expensive production car Ford Motor Company had produced to date — the 1956 Continental Mark II. Virtually hand-built and as imposing and beautiful as any car on planet earth at the time, it cost a whopping $10,000, or about $90,000 in today’s money, yet Ford was rumored to have lost money on each one. And contrary to popular belief, it was never badged as a Lincoln. Continental was a separate division for the two model years the Mark II was built.

To compete with the Continental, GM adopted Ford’s business plan of creating a hyper-exclusive luxury car and pricing it well below cost. True to form, Sinatra was attracted to it like a craps table or a dry Martini. The car was the 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. Harley Earl’s design team pulled out all the stops, including a pillarless four-door hardtop design with suicide doors, then-revolutionary power memory seats and quad headlamps. To top things off (literally), there was a brushed stainless steel roof. The car lacked for no amenity that the 1950s marketing mind could conceive, including air conditioning and doors that opened and closed at the touch of a button. In a sign that Cadillac knew its market well, there were “vanity” accessories that consisted of a stainless steel Cross pen, a perfume atomizer, a cigarette case and, astonishingly, a set of magnetized cocktail tumblers. These were truly different times.

The Brougham cost almost $14,000 — about $114,000 in today’s money. A July 2014 RM/Sotheby’s catalog description of a Brougham that sold for $187,000 states that GM lost almost $10,000 per car. Just 704 examples were built over two model years.

As a cultural phenomenon, the Rat Pack was done by 1964 or so, and the solo years were a bit hit-and-miss in both cars and careers. Peter Lawford was kicked out of the Rat Pack over a perceived snub of Frank surrounding a called-off visit by Lawford’s then-brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy. Lawford continued to marry a series of women less than half his age and sank into Scotch and obscurity before passing away at just 61. Joey Bishop got a talk show but owned few cars of note. He lived the longest of all the Rat Packers, passing away in 2007 at age 89. Frank, Dean and Sammy continued to buy interesting cars, like the Ferrari 400i, Jaguar XJS and the Stutz Blackhawk, which both Dean and Sammy owned. There was even the infamous Sinatra Edition 1981 Imperial coupe that came about as the result of Frank’s relationship with Lee Iacocca. It featured a briefcase full of Sinatra tapes and special “Old Blue Eyes” paint.

The cars from the solo Rat Pack years are interesting on their own and still quite affordable, and they could easily fill another story. But the cars covered here — exclusive then and rare now, and each owned and driven during the height of the Rat Pack’s powers — deserve a place at the top of the marquee.

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