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12 American Cars With European Designs You Probably Didn’t Know

Vukasin HerbezNovember 11, 2018

Design is one of the main features of any automobile that catches your eye at first glance. However, the design is much more than just flowing lines or nice shapes. It could be the signature style that makes a car instantly recognizable, even by non-car people. For the better part of the 20th century, the American car industry had distinctive design features. Along with the big dimensions and chrome, you could tell an American from a foreign car from a mile away.

However, there were several American car companies that didn’t want their cars to have the same classic American styling. They wanted to dress their models in fancy foreign suits, mostly Italian. They wanted to present something that would look different and have a European flair. The goal was to make cars look more desirable or expensive. The combination of powerful, well-engineered American drivetrains with elegant, prestigious European bodies worked well.

So, here are the 12 best American models with European bodies or designs. Here you will find everything from Le Mans-winning race cars to luxurious coupes, and even a few rare GT coupes. This exquisite combination of cars will captivate your attention with their sensual lines and interesting stories.

1. Cadillac Allante

The ‘80s weren’t a successful period for Cadillac. Through most of the decade, Cadillac tried to reinvent itself and introduce cars to fight their European competitors. But in most cases, those ‘80s Cadillac models weren’t especially interesting. In fact, almost all are forgotten. However, there is one that will be a future collectible, and that is the elegant Allante Cadillac introduced in 1987.

They envisioned the Allante as a competitor to the Mercedes SL convertible. It was a two-seater luxury convertible with Italian styling by Pininfarina. And it came with a Northstar V8 engine and front-wheel drive. It was an unusual combination, but the car looked and performed well. Even the production process was specific.

They did the fabrication in Italy in the Pininfarina factory. And then they shipped them to the U.S. by jet, which affected the final cost. The Allante stayed in production until 1993 and they made just over 21,000 of them. Sadly, the car was too expensive to produce so the factory allegedly lost money on every example they made.

2. Hudson Italia

Today just a small percentage of car enthusiasts know about the Hudson car company. In fact, it was one of the dominant forces in the economy car class during the ‘50s. Hudson was one of the companies that formed AMC in the late ‘50s. However, before the merger, Hudson offered a luxury car in the form of the Italia to American buyers.

The famous Carrozzeria Touring designed and manufactured it in Milan, Italy. The Hudson Italia was a luxury coupe they built on a standard Hudson Hornet platform featuring the same suspension and drivetrain. But Carrozzeria Touring gave it a specific look with their signature “Superleggera” construction technique. And it made the car lighter and nimbler than the Hornet.

Unfortunately, the finished product was expensive at over $4,000. That was more than the Cadillac Coupe DeVille. They built it in limited production with a long waiting period since they needed to ship the car from Italy. Also, Hudson lacked a reputation in the luxury car market, which sealed its fate. The company only made 26 Italias and the production lasted from 1953 to 1954.

3. Ford GT40

The story of the Ford GT40 is a saga of enormous efforts and incredible support. In fact, several talented people all gathered in one place at one moment in time to create history. After a failed attempt to buy Ferrari in the early ‘60s, Ford was angry at Enzo for his childish behavior. They decided to beat him on the race track and prove who the real boss was.

But at the time, Ford didn’t have a racing program or even someone to manage it. So, the company looked for outsourcers who could make things happen. They found the basis for the Ferrari-beating race car in England in the form of the Lola Mk6. Ford re-engineered and redesigned the car. They even gave it a new racing 289 V8 engine, turning it into the first Ford GT40 in 1964.

The car didn’t look promising at the beginning. But Ford invested meticulous work and money, transforming the GT40 into a world-conquering machine in months. Today, the GT40`s recognizable design is as American as apple pie. But, to be honest, they designed the car in England and it came to America already fully shaped.

To make a long story short, Ferrari was humiliated four times between 1966 and 1969 when the GT40 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times in a row. It was an amazing success and an incredible achievement by a company that never appeared on the Le Mans before the mid-60s. The GT40 became a legend and a symbol of American race cars that dominated the European racing scene.

4. Momo Mirage

The ‘60s marked a big change in the global car industry. There was a bigger influx of European cars, mostly sports coupes and compacts, to the American market. As a result, several American car manufacturers decided to produce models that combined European style with dependable American technology. And one of the most interesting, but unfortunately, doomed attempts was the fantastic Momo Mirage.

The Momo Mirage was the brainchild of New York`s Peter Kalikow and his friend Albert Momo. Kalikow was a wealthy car enthusiast and Momo was a Jaguar dealer, so the two developed a close friendship around cars. In the late ‘70s, they wanted to build their own car company. The plan was to produce exclusive coupes with Italian styling and bodies, but with Chevrolet`s V8 engines. It is a hybrid of Ferrari and Rolls-Royce with a Chevy V8 engine.

They contacted the famous Italian designer, Pietro Frua, who agreed to design and build the Momo Mirage. Unfortunately, the Momo car company started in the early ‘70s just before the economic recession, which affected the car market. They never completed their plan to build 25 Mirages per year. Frua only completed five cars, three of which are still in the possession of Peter Kalikow.

5. Nash Healey

The story of the Nash Healey is an interesting one. Some people call this car the original American sports car because it debuted two years before the Corvette in 1951. The project started when the head of the Nash Car Company met with Donald Healey, British engineer and constructor, on a cruise ship. They decided to make a proper sports car that America didn’t have at the moment.

The idea was to take the Nash Ambassador platform and add a six-cylinder engine. They wanted to cover it with an elegant roadster or coupe body of aluminum for a lower weight. They introduced the first cars in 1951. Despite getting just 125 to 140 HP from the 3.2-liter straight six engine, the Nash Healey delivered a respectable performance.

They presented the redesign by the Italian design house Pininfarina in 1952 and in 1953 when they offered a closed coupe. The Nash Healey was an accomplished car and even had several highly-publicized racing wins. However, the high price and lack of brand recognition killed the project in 1954 after they made only 506 of them.

6. Scaglietti Corvette

If you think that the name, “Scaglietti,” sounds familiar, it’s because this Italian coachbuilder was responsible for some of the finest Ferraris in the `50s and `60s. They were an integral part of the Ferrari legend, so they named their four-seater coupe the 612 Scaglietti. However, it is less known that Scaglietti produced three Corvettes in 1959 for Gary Laughlin, a Texas millionaire and car enthusiast.

The story behind the Scaglietti Corvette is an interesting one. Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby, both notable racing drivers and constructors from Texas saw the potential in the 1959 Corvette with its engine and power. Although the Corvette had a light fiberglass body, they wanted better aerodynamics, a longer nose and more luxurious appointments.

So, they contacted Scaglietti to design and produce a bespoke body on the ‘59 Vette chassis. Scaglietti delivered three cars in different colors with an exquisite design that looked more like a Ferrari than a Corvette. There were plans for regular production, but after careful consideration and cost projection, they abandoned their plans.

7. AMC AMX/3

Everybody knows about the heroic Javelin and two-seater AMX muscle cars they introduced in 1968. In those days, AMC was an economy car brand with inexpensive models lacking any special features or thrills. So, when a pair of hot muscle cars hit the streets in the late ‘60s, everybody paid attention. Also, the AMC executives noticed a significant bump in sales.

Encouraged by the success of the Javelin and AMX, AMC management wanted to attack the sports car market. They had the funds to do so, but they didn`t have a starting point. So, AMC hired the famous sports car creator and ex-Ferrari engineer, Giotto Bizzarrini. They asked him to build a modern sports car with a rear engine, transaxle gearbox and sleek body.

Bizzarrini did what they did and even more. The AMX/3 prototype was capable of 170 mph and had world-class handling and sexy Italian styling. The power was provided by AMC`s 390 V8 engine with 340 HP. Despite the promising start, AMC realized the finished product would cost somewhere around $12,000.

That was significantly more than the similarly-designed De Tomaso Pantera and almost double the price of the Corvette. Unfortunately, but understandably, they decided to kill the fantastic AMX/3 after building just six preproduction cars in 1970.

8. 1951 to 1955 Chrysler Ghia Specials

The story of those Chrysler Specials the Italian coachbuilding company Ghia built is unique in automotive history. In the early `50s, the American car industry had just started promoting wild concept cars. They were busy turning those new jet-influenced shapes into production models. Chrysler, on the other hand, presented several elegant concepts, all of which drew much attention from the crowds.

Interestingly, those Chryslers were all fully-operational prototypes, they built on standard car chassis and drivetrains. However, Chrysler’s top managers realized the potential for a limited production of prestigious coupes. They wanted to build them in cooperation with Ghia, which had already designed and produced several concept cars. So, in 1951 they offered the first Chrysler Special they called the K-301 for sale. And they continued with several other models until 1955.

From this perspective, the Chrysler Specials from the early ‘50s weren’t production models because Ghia produced and assembled them at the request of wealthy owners. Chrysler basically sold its concept cars with regular technology to people mesmerized by the sensual lines. So, in four years, they built just 18 cars, highly customizing them according to their customer’s wishes.

9. Shelby Cobra 289

The story of the Shelby Cobra 289 is widely known. In 1962, the retired American race driver, Carroll Shelby, heard that AC Cars from England was shutting down the production of their Ace sports roadster since Bristol engines weren’t available anymore. In just a couple of days, he managed to get several engineless bodies on the transport ship to his Venice Beach shop. And he installed Ford’s 260 V8 engines in the new bodies.

The small but powerful American V8 in a light and nimble body proved to be a match made in heaven. Soon, Shelby installed the 289 V8 with 271 HP, which brought some serious performance to this little roadster. However, Shelby’s main goal was racing, so it was obvious the Cobra was a race track terror. However, it dominated domestic championships, beating Corvettes, Ferraris and Jaguars.

But Shelby wanted to go to Europe to prove his concept. So in 1963/64, with immense help from Ford, Shelby campaigned Cobras all over Europe’s finest racing tracks, repeating the success. The small V8 roadster proved extremely capable and dominated the GT class. Ford`s V8 was a durable, reliable unit and Shelby’s racing know-how was crucial in setting the car right for different tracks.

Also, Shelby sold his factory-prepared “Competition” Cobras to private teams and numerous amateur racers who enjoyed much success. Although the Cobra promoted Ford and American performance, it was a small roadster they designed in Britain and “hot-rodded” in America.

10. Chevrolet Corvette Rondine

Back in 1963, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray stunned the global automotive audience with its fantastic design, sharp edges, split window feature and brutal performance. It was the epitome of an American sports car at its finest. However, in Turin, Italy, the talented designers at Pininfarina thought they could do better. So, in cooperation with Chevrolet, they got the chance to prove themselves.

The result was the Corvette Rondine, a fully operational and usable concept car from 1963 that debuted at the Paris Motor Show. Since Chevy commissioned the car, it graced the General Motors stand. They equipped it with a 327/360 V8 engine, four-speed manual and disc brakes. Despite the pleas for production, this gorgeous car remained one of the most beautiful American concept cars with an Italian design.

11. Cunningham C-3 Vignale

Briggs Cunningham was a world-known entrepreneur, racer and constructor who introduced American cars to the European sports car scene in the 1950s. His dream was to build a racing car that would dominate both sides of the ocean. And he wanted to win the Le Mans with an all-American machine, drivers and crew. So, from 1952 to 1955, Cunningham entered the Le Mans race with several cars of his own design.

However, in the same period, he produced a road-going sports car in form of the beautiful Cunningham C-3. The C-3 was a two-door coupe or convertible Cunningham produced in his West Palm Beach facility. It used the Cunningham C-2 R racing chassis they converted for street use. Vignale in Italy designed and produced the body. Under the hood was Chrysler`s 331 Hemi engine, which they tuned to produce 300 HP.

The C-3 was a luxury sports car that could easily rival any Ferrari or Maserati. However, it was also expensive with prices close to the Rolls-Royce of the day. That is why Cunningham produced only 25 cars, 20 coupes and five convertibles, all of which still exist today.

12. Apollo 3500 GT

This car falls under several names, including the Vetta Ventura and Griffith GT. But the project started as the Apollo 3500. It was the brainchild of the Californian engineer, Milt Brown. He wanted to build a proper sports car to rival those European exotics. With the help of the Italian company, Intermeccanica, the Apollo project took shape in the form of a handsome coupe with a 3.5-liter Buick V8.

They later moved the production to Texas and renamed the Vetta Ventura, but the car stayed basically the same. The bodies were shaped in Italy and then sent to America. However, it got an upgraded engine in the form of the 4.9-liter Buick V8. Production started in 1962 and lasted until 1965. However, some reports say they completed the last examples in the early `70s. In the end, they only built 90 cars.

Although the Apollo 3500 was a proper sports car with 240 HP from its V8 engine and a lightweight, it was a capable coupe with great perspective. But, the production problems, high price and the unknown company became too big of a problem to overcome.

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