It's pretty hard to find a Cadillac from the 1940s or 1950s that you would call ugly. Some, however, are even more beautiful than others. Allow me to introduce you to the supermodel variant, once owned by bombshell Rita Hayworth. This 1953 Cadillac Ghia is one of only two ever made and is now part of the permanent collection at The Petersen Automotive Museum, which lovingly restored it to perfection.
The Petersen was gracious enough recently to loan me the vehicle at my Icon shop in Los Angeles for our annual Cars & Casino charity party for GO Campaign. Naturally, I displayed it right in front of my office. While I have known the car for many years and have always appreciated it, walking by it day in and day out made me truly fall in love with it. After I briefly considered stealing it-an idea I decided might be unwise-I asked my friends at The Petersen if I could at least keep it a bit longer to take some photos for this column. I just wasn't quite ready to part with her yet.
The car was originally built on spec by the Italian coachbuilder Ghia. At the time, Ghia was trying to diversify its market with a styling and custom program targeted at non-European platforms to bring in new customers. It had already looked stateside and built a few Chrysler projects, which were well received in the U.S. and abroad (you may recall the beautiful Chrysler Ghia cars starting in 1951). Encouraged by its earlier success, Ghia designed and built this Cadillac for display in its booth at the 1953 Paris Auto Salon. We can assume the hope was to woo Cadillac into ordering a bunch of them. That never happened, but the car did catch the attention of Prince Aly Kahn.
At the time, Kahn, the son of a Sultan, was known for his immense wealth, great sense of style, and success with the ladies. He was also married to Rita Hayworth, but their relationship was anything but stable. Old habits die hard, and a few years earlier he'd been seen dancing with Joan Fontaine at a club. Rumors that he was having an affair with Fontaine quickly swirled. Kahn had long been suspected of infidelity, and for Hayworth, this was the last straw. She took their daughter and moved back to Nevada to begin divorce proceedings that eventually wrapped up in 1953. But Kahn wasn't prepared to end the relationship.
Whereas most men might send flowers or maybe a puppy to try and repair relations, Kahn bought the Caddy in Paris and sent it to Hayworth in Nevada. Around that time, he also offered her $1,000,000 if she would raise their daughter as a Muslim (his faith) and allow her to visit him for a few months each year. Hayworth rejected the deal and continued the divorce process on the grounds of "extreme cruelty, entirely mental in nature," and left him in the dust. She kept custody of the car (and daughter) though!
Whereas most men might send flowers or maybe a puppy to try and repair relations, Kahn bought the Caddy and sent it to Hayworth.
The car changed hands over the years, eventually being fairly well restored (black exterior with a red-and-black interior) by a German owner. He loaned the car to The Petersen Automotive Museum, and it was on display in the Hollywood gallery for a long time. Eventually, Mr. Petersen arranged to purchase the car. Once purchased, the car underwent a full concours restoration.
Because the first restoration had been so thorough, there was no way to tell what the car's original color had been. So the Petersen people decided to paint it this lovely dark burgundy with fine silver metallic particles in suspension. It's the perfect color for the lines of this car; while Ghia mostly did smaller European cars, their trademark high beltline and arcing lines flow perfectly on this big Cadillac.
Under the custom Ghia body and interior, the car is a dead-stock Cadillac, with a 210-hp, 331-cubic-inch overhead valve V8 and automatic transmission. Performance is slightly better than stock due to the lighter weight aluminum body.
The interior is quite simple and classy, with a three-passenger front bench and a set of fitted luggage, all in same soft tan leather as the interior, nestled behind the seats. Due to the low roofline, the seat sits very close to the floor, and the sun visors are tinted Plexiglas so that you can still see when they are down. Even then, headroom is tight. That's okay with me, though: I would gladly remove a few cervical vertebrae to better enjoy this car if I owned it.
There were two versions of this vehicle originally built by Ghia. Each was unique, with small details differing on each. The other car, which was blue, ended up the cover of the 1955 Road & Track. It was later owned by the famous Blackhawk Collection in Northern California for many years before being sold to a private client. That was the first car built, and many feel that the details on this second car were more refined.
After restoring the car, Mr. and Mrs. Petersen drove it in the 2002 Pebble Beach Tour d'Elegance, where it went on to win Best In Class at the Pebble Beach Concours the following Sunday. It won Best In Class again at the 2013 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Knowing that, you can only imagine how nervous I was taking the car out on my trailer for this photography session. But don't worry: She didn't get a scratch, and I finally returned her to the rightful owners. I might not have mentioned that whole stealing idea, though.
Jonathan Ward is the founder of Icon 4X4 and an avid car geek. As a Road & Track contributor, his monthly column, Ward's World, covers all matters of design and automotive miscellany.