Museum Classics: 1953 Fiat 8V Supersonic by Ghia – Fiat’s Only A-Lister

It’s full-on monsoon season here in Thailand. The need to escape the overcast and humid city can be irresistible. A week-end in Khao Yai, a hilly park about three hours north of Bangkok, sounded great, and it was. I had no idea that the Chokchai Farm, where we stopped on our way back, also had a tiny car museum.

I didn’t even notice it for a long while. Running around with my four-year-old for an hour outside among the (farm-themed) flora and fauna in the late steamy morning just about made me pray for a shower, which promptly showed up as the heavens burst open. Thoroughly moistened by it all, we looked at indoor activities such as this museum. The car collection was part of a 1-hour guided group tour (in Thai only) of the museum’s four floors, which would probably bore and/or freeze us to death, so we gave it a miss. The car collection was partially visible on the ground floor anyway.

There were about 20 vehicles there, chromes glistening in the dull light of a cloudy day. All but a few were out of camera reach. A very nice row of Benzes – pretty much the full 20th century SL set. In the back, a few bigger cars: Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, Jaguar Mk X, Daimler DS420, a mid-‘50s Cadillac Fleetwood 75 and a Checker Aerobus. There was also a shiny ’55 Ford Crown Victoria, an Austin-Healey 100/4, a Peugeot 403 pick-up and a Jaguar E-Type, but there was only one car I was interested in that day.

It was at the far end, in a naturally-lit corner of the small space that housed the otherwise tenebrous collection. That menacing long red hood and that gaping maw with its chromed crosshairs, from a distance, looked a bit like a Pegaso Z-102. But as I got closer, I recognized the Otto Vu emblem on top of the grille. “It’s a Fiat.” Not just any Fiat, mind. Just about as rare as the Spanish exotic I thought it was initially.

The Fiat 8V was something of an anomaly in Fiat’s long history. It was Fiat’s only V8 for road car use, allegedly derived from a 70° angle V6 that Dante Giacosa had built in 1948 for Fiat’s future larger saloon. The V6 idea didn’t make it very far, but adding a couple of cylinders made the V8 just under the two-litre mark. What exactly were Fiat thinking? The impetus behind turning this into an exclusive sports car seems to have been, in two words, “Why not?” – Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, OSCA, Cisitallia and Lancia were doing it, so Fiat’s engineering department must have felt they also had to prove their worth. There was no other real rationale: Fiat didn’t use the 8V for sporting glory, nor did they make wads of money from the whole thing. This was a sports car for its own sake. A bespoke ‘50s 8-cyl. Italian sports car for its own sake. With an all-independent suspension, just to show the other Italian “experts” how it should be done.

There were many bodies fitted on the 114 chassis produced by Siata in 1952-54, plus a dozen (or 50, depending on the source) Siata 208 S, which had a slightly tuned-up V8 and a lighter chassis. Body-wise, the largest contingent by far (about 40 units) was the Luigi Rapi-designed coupé that Dottore Andreina featured in this excellent post and can be seen above in two distinct versions. Fiat made those in-house in a corner of the Lingotto plant, so it could be seen as the “official” 8V.

The overwhelming majority of 8Vs were hardtops; not a few were raced back in the ‘50s. Berlinettas or coupés, according to the mood of the client. Alas, that mood soon soured when the V8’s fragility forced many initial owners to call Turin for help. The 8V experiment was not altogether successful, but it was glorious, thanks to the usual suspects: Vignale, Zagato, PininFarina… Some bodies were 100% unique, like the Siata 208 Sport by Bertone pictured at bottom right, others were not.

Left: 1953 Conrero Supersonic (body #1); right: 1956 Aston Martin DB 2/4 Supersonic (body #20)


Ghia’s jet-age Supersonic design was decidedly not unique. The same body, penned by Giovanni Savonuzzi, was draped over several well-born chassis, with minor differences. It was first seen on the Conrero Special, a one-off chassis using an Alfa Romeo 1900 , in 1953. Then fifteen Fiat 8Vs were graced with these bodies in 1953-54, along with three Jaguar XK-120s. In 1956, the heavily modified last body was mated to an Aston Martin chassis.

The design had influenced a number of Ghia specials from this period, such as the 1954 DeSoto Adventurer II, but only twenty genuine Supersonic bodies were made. It’s said that the 8V wore it best. Howard “Dutch” Darrin apparently thought so and bought two when he visited Ghia in 1953.

I wasn’t able to get a rear shot nor an inside shot, unfortunately. But still, that incredibly dynamic and sleek early ‘50s shape is so in motion, so fluid and yet contained within a small, very low-slung body. Light years ahead of the dowdy-looking (by comparison) Series 3 E-Type 2+2 coupé sitting next to it. It may be unfair, but the most feline of the two is definitely not the Jaguar. Didn’t even snap the Jag. Nor the 300SL roadster next to it. I only had eyes for that Fiat. Words I never thought I would write…

You don’t see ‘50s classics every day in these parts, especially not something this rare, but there are a few hi-so (high society) Thais with both money and taste. This Fiat was last on the road six years ago, but I don’t know how long it’s been in the country. There is one big car museum outside Bangkok. I’ll go there someday and report back, but meantime, this little Italian gem will have to do.


Related post:

Car Show Classics: Indigestion Part 1 – The Fiats of Como Park, by Don Andreina