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Petrolicious: Rita Hayworth's Cadillac Ghia is Quintessential Los Angeles

Bruce Nunnally

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The story of this 1953 Cadillac couldn't possibly be a more quintessentially Los Angeles story than it already is. In the early 1950s, international playboy and south-Asian royalty Aly Khan purchased this Ghia-bodied Cadillac in an attempt to recapture actress Rita Hayworth's attention. They had been married for a few years, but their relationship was ending and according to legend, this was his last gasp attempt to save their love.

It didn't work, they split up permanently, but Hayworth did keep the car. Based on the documentation it seems that Ghia built this car, the second of two similar bodies, on spec. But it seems to have been intended for an American buyer from the beginning due to the use of a Cadillac chassis. Ghia knew that this car could be easily, inexpensively serviced most anywhere in the US, and using a large Caddy as the base also gave Ghia the freedom to build it as they saw fit, without limitations.

The car now belongs to the Petersen Automotive Museum and was originally purchased by museum founder and publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen, following a series of collector owners. And while its original color is unknown, the earliest known photo shows the car in an appliance white. Since the original color seems lost to the ages, the Petersen decided to spray the Cadillac Ghia in a darker, richer color to show off its beautiful brightwork and elegant form. It certainly shines brighter than most anything else, tough to accomplish in Los Angeles.

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This is an interesting, beautiful car and nearly unique. But the engine needs work, possibly as little as an oil change and some top-end cleaner (anyone remember Rislone?). It visibly smokes and the closing footage reveals a bad miss.

The Cadillac 331 is a conservatively designed and simple engine, as simple as an OHV V8 can be (short of a [shudder] single-plane crankshaft). On a car like that, a total disassemble-and-clean-out is not a big deal; you could lean over the radiator with the hood up and see the ground around the engine. Replacing seals, gaskets, and, if necessary, honing the cylinder bores would make this engine like-new with no change in parts that would challenge its originality. Worst case is new cam, lifters, pistons, bearing inserts, pushrods, and valve stems.

Due to a fire in the Hydra-Matic plant in 1953, some Cadillacs were sold with "twin turbine" transmissions, which were actually Buick Dynaflo transmissions adapted to Cadillac specifications. If this car is so equipped, a transmission bands-and-seals rebuild should be almost as easy as renewing a Hydra-Matic. With either transmission, the torque converter could be rebuilt if necessary and an exact replacement isn't available.

These guys could use some advice from Jay Leno. But we owe them thanks for keeping this magnificent car on the road.

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