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Karmann Ghia

VW Karmann Ghia

The Karmann Ghia was the sports car that wasn’t really a sports car, a triumph of Italian design married to the rugged reliability of the VW Beetle.

As the car celebrates its 65th birthday this year, we look at how three companies came together to create a masterpiece.

Although it was launched in 1955, the Karmann Ghia story begins two decades earlier when, in 1934, Adolf Hitler demanded a cheap, modern car for the workers.

Karmann Ghia Type 14

Dr Ferdinand Porsche stepped forward to design the ‘People’s Car’ (volks-wagen), but the war put paid to volume production of the vehicle that went on to become the VW Beetle, or Type 1.

Only in 1946, thanks to British army officer Major Ivan Hirst, who had taken charge of the bombed out factory, did the Beetle start to trickle off the production line.

Hirst knew that the Germans needed jobs, and the British military needed vehicles, so 20,000 Type 1s were ordered, in army khaki.

As far the Beetle is concerned, the rest is history, with more than 21million sold worldwide over the next six decades.

But despite the world’s apparent love affair with the humble Bug, there were those who considered it a little, well, ugly – especially the Americans it seems, an increasingly fertile market for Volkswagen.

Couldn’t something a little more sexy be produced using the Beetle’s underpinnings?

The long road to the Karmann Ghia

The short answer is, yes, very much so.

But the route to the Karmann Ghia was a somewhat tortuous one, full of forks in the road that mostly led to dead ends.

Post-war, VW was pretty much the only German car company able to maintain volume production, and many smaller coachworks took to using the Beetle’s underpinnings to create low-volume little sports cars of their own.

They included the Denzel, which bears a resemblance to an early Porsche 356, Hebmuller and Rometsch Beeskow, which counted Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn among its owners.

The Denzel roadster

Meanwhile, Karmann had been busy assembling the Beetle cabriolet, but the new managing director Wilhelm Karmann Junior had some concerns over the company’s future.

Its contract with VW was secure, but its other main source of income was less so, with DKW beginning to scale back its sales of Karmann-produced coupe and cabriolets.

A gap needed to be filled, and Karmann approached VW general manager Heinz Nordhoff with a proposal for a coupe design to be built on the Beetle underpinnings.

Nordhoff rebuffed the idea on cost grounds, and continued to do so even when Karmann presented a wooden mock-up.

Linking up with Ghia

Driven either by unshakeable belief, or simply a critical business need, Karmann refused to give up on the idea of a sporty coupe, and held informal talks with Ghia designer Luigi Segre at the Turin Motor Show in 1952.

At the time, Ghia was working closely with Chrysler of the US on a series of “dream cars” – not all of which reached production – and Segre had an idea.

He secretly bought a second-hand Beetle and clothed it with one of the concept shells that had been abandoned by the American company, modified to fit the VW’s underpinnings.

As well as Segre, the design integrated work undertaken by Mario Boano, Sergio Coggiola and Giovanni Savonuzzi, the final version drawing heavily on the Chrysler d’Elegance and K310, designed by American Virgil Exner.

Chrysler D'Elegance
The Chrysler D’Elegance

Segre and Exner ultimately became close friends, the Chrysler man later describing the Karmann Ghia as the ultimate form of flattery.

In turn, the Italian sent Exner the first production Karmann Ghia imported into the state of Michigan as a thank you.

Twelve months after their initial discussions, Serge presented the Beetle / Chrysler mash-up to Karmann at the Societé France Motors factories in Paris.

Suitably impressed, Karmann again approached the hard-to-please Nordhoff, who was finally won over by the car’s stunning looks, and the three-way collaboration was off and running.

From “ugly” Beetle to sleek beauty

Officially called the Type 14, the Karmann Ghia was unveiled to the public as a Ghia styling concept at the 1953 Paris Motor Show, the first production car leaving the Osnabrück plant in August 1955.

Karmann Ghia 1959

The car used a Beetle chassis with a wider floorpan, and its four-cylinder, 1192cc air-cooled engine, rear-mounted of course, with a purpose-built interior.

Unlike the machine-welded Beetle, with its bolt-on panels, the Karmann Ghia’s panels were butt-welded, hand-shaped and smoothed more in line with high-end manufacturers.

As a result, it cost several hundred pounds more than a Beetle, with little appreciable difference in performance but a whole lot of difference in style and build quality.

Despite its sports car looks, the car was never marketed as such, aimed at those who loved the reliability and simplicity of the Beetle but wanted something more easy on the eye.

An instant hit with motorists, the Karmann Ghia sold more than 10,000 in its first year, and became the car most imported into the US.

The Beetle had given VW a strong foothold in America, with demand for the Bug constantly outstripping supply and ranking 7th in overall sales in California.

Like our illustration of the VW Karmann Ghia at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

Early impressions and road tests

As Road & Track reported in April, 1956, there were “a fussy few who quibble about the looks of the present Wolfsburg product”.

It seems it was more than a fussy few, with Auto Age describing the Beetle as “so ugly”.

“Even when one comes to love it, it’s with the same sort of resigned affection one has for a particularly ungainly but endearing family mutt,” it wrote.

VW Beetle
The VW Beetle: ugly?

Sports Cars Illustrated added: “It’s a great car, if you don’t mind the way it looks.”

The Karmann Ghia was the cure for these perceived ills in a pre-Herbie era, which themselves sound crazy these days given the longevity of the original Beetle and the love it engenders.

Road & Track (R&T) said the new car “has an almost universal appeal to the eye”.

“It is, as the French would say, une poupée vivante (a living doll),” the magazine went on. “The car’s Italian lines are low, beautifully balanced and ornament-free.”

Effectively, customers were being asked to pay about £360 more than the cost of a Beetle for almost the same car in a much prettier body.

Almost half of production was destined for the US, with R&T noting that “the backlog of orders is already such that most dealers are quoting two to four years for delivery. Some body!”

VW Karmann Ghia

Auto Age claimed that Beetle owners fed up with disparaging comments about their sturdy little car had “been deluging the heavens with prayers for a miracle which would give an appropriately beautiful body to properly display the lovable soul within”.

“Finally their prayers have been answered,” it added. “The gods, personified by Ghia, designed a new shell for the VW, and the German firm of Karmann undertook to produce the transformation in quantity.”

The Karmann Ghia was, it said “one of the most attractive little automobiles it’s possible to imagine”.

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“The Karmann-Volkswagen is the sort of car that you want to just walk around, touch, look into and admire for the first 10 minutes you see it,” it gushed. “The over-all lines are sleek, trim, clean and very appropriate for the size and design of the car.”

On the road, the car had a “very sports-car-type sounds”, a gearbox that “is like soft butter” and a ride comparable to an Austin-Healey or an MG.

The improved ride over the stock Beetle was attributable to not only its lower profile, but also two important modifications made to the suspension.

A sway bar was added between the two torsion bars in the front, and the camber of the rear wheels was reduced one or two degrees by slightly loosening the rear torsion bars.

VW Karmann Ghia

These changes helped to significantly reduce body roll on cornering and soaked up a decent amount of road shock.

Despite its sluggish 0-60 time in excess of 30 seconds, and its 36hp engine, the Karmann drove like a sports car, and looked like one.

As Sports Cars Illustrated said in April, 1956, the “Karmann Ghia coupe is designed to beautify an economical concept, and not to walk off with Class G trophies”.

Ongoing developments

A cabriolet version was introduced in 1957, helping sales jump to 18,000 per year, while engine upgrades, ultimately to a 1584cc unit, and other improvements tended to follow those made to the Beetle.

Karmann Ghia Cabriolet

Externally, a wider and finned front grille was introduced in 1961, along with taller and more rounded rear lights, the headlights moved to a higher position.

The taillights were enlarged again in the 1970s, with larger, square-section bumpers replacing the smoother round originals in 1972.

Karmann Ghia Cabriolet 1974
Karmann Ghia Cabriolet 1974

Despite the increase in engine size, producing 50bhp more than the original, the Karmann was only marginally quicker through the gears on its way to a top speed of 86mph.

That glorious, under-stressed engine could, however, cruise along all day.

The Karmann Ghia 1500

Given the success of the curvy Karmann, it was hardly surprising that when the 1500cc VW Type 3 was unveiled at Frankfurt in 1961, Wolfsburg again turned to the coachbuilder.

Ghia was once more tasked with designing a coupe version of the notchback 1500 sedan, and the Type 34 Karmann Ghia was born.

It was an entirely different styling proposition to the Type 14, less curvy and nicknamed the “razor edge” because of its sharply edged bonnet.

Karmann Ghia 1500

Mechanically identical to the Type 3, the Type 34 utilized the donor car’s 1500cc pancake engine, a more advanced unit than that of the Beetle and original Karmann Ghia.

Unlike its sister car, opinions on its looks were far from unanimous.

Reviewing the car in 1963, Road & Track said: “The first point to discuss might be the question of beauty. Some people like the newcomer very much, whereas others have not a single kind word for it – the rear end is accepted by most, but the front end with its distinctive cat’s whiskers framing a narrow-gauge pair of fog lamps has been the object of much controversy.”

Karmann Ghia 1500 coupe

The magazine described the car as “fun to drive, highly manoeuverable, and always manages to convey an impression of agility and speed superior to the cold figures of the stopwatch”.

Sales were sluggish compared to the prettier, earlier car which it was sold alongside, and it was effectively replaced by the VW-Porsche 914 in 1969.

The Brazilian Karmann Ghia

In Brazil, Volkswagen took an alternative route to the Type 34, looking instead to Ghia for a reworked version of the Type 14.

The resulting Karmann Ghia TC (Touring Coupe) was designed by Giorgetti Giugiaro, and entered production in 1972.

The Variant platform was used for the 2+2 coupe, along with the 1584cc engine from the Type 3.

Karmann Ghia Brazil

Between 1972 and 1975, 18,119 TCs were produced, offered for sale only in South America, the Brazilians also producing a four-door TC Wagon variant with a tailgate.

A poor man’s Porsche speedster?

In 1972, Car and Driver magazine asked the question of the Type 14, by then in production for nearly 20 years: was the latest Karmann Ghia Cabriolet effectively the last Speedster built?

The final 356 Speedster had rolled off the production line 13 years earlier, and the car’s similar sized engines (both 1600cc) prompted the magazine to pit them against each other.

Of course, the Porsche was built as an out-and-out sports car, with a purpose-built engine created around the Beetle’s casing, while the Karmann was merely a rebodied standard Beetle.

According to Car and Driver, “no Speedster owner ever looked on a Karmann Ghia but with utter disdain”.

Karmann Ghia Cabriolet 1974

“Not just because what it was – which was a standard Beetle trying to pass itself off as a sports car – but because of what too many people thought it was – which was a Speedster being sold by VW,” it wrote.

“It was very much an emotional hatred, because in general, the Speedster had an uncomfortable similarity to the VW. After all, it was rear-engined, it had that small light, quick steering feel. It certainly was no Porsche, but it was undeniably closer than anything else on the road.”

The Type 14 Karmann Ghia was nearing the end of its production run, so had it finally caught up with the legendary Speedster from the 1950s? The magazine thought so.

“The 1972 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia is the Speedster re-incarnate,” it said. “It does nearly everything the original did just as well – and many things it does better.”

The VW was only a second slow over the quarter mile, and “devastated” the Speedster in the handling test.

“The Karmann Ghia is the closest thing to the genuine article that you can find – only if you lust after what the Speedster represented, rather than what it did, will you be uneasy,” it concluded.

“You just have to accept the fact that the last Speedster built is a Karmann Ghia.”


Like our illustration of the VW Karmann Ghia at the beginning of the article?

Download a free high-quality poster version here.

End of the road

While the Beetle soldiered on in the face of fierce competition from more modern cars until 1978 in Europe, and 2003 in Mexico, the Karmann Ghia’s life was cut short in 1974.

Volkswagen was changing, the air-cooled, rear-engined cars were to be phased out in favour of a new breed of modern front-engined, water-cooled vehicles.

It was a decision born of necessity, with VW deep in financial trouble as sales of the air-cooled cars plummeted, motorists opting for up-to-date vehicles like the Honda Civic, Renault 5, Ford Escort and Fiat 127.

The Karmann Ghia fell victim to this inexorable march of progress, replaced by the Golf-based VW Scirocco, itself a huge success.

In all, more than 445,000 were made, an extraordinary volume for what was essentially a hand-built car.

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