The Beetle’s comelier cousin.
Mention the name Ghia to anyone who is not a car enthusiast, and they are most likely to recall plushly trimmed Fords from the 1970s. That is rather a shame, because Carrozzeria Ghia & Gariglio, established in Turin in 1916, had a long and distinguished history, designing and building upmarket luxury and sporting cars. Ghia’s best known work is, however, a much more modest car based on humble underpinnings.
In the post-war period, many European auto manufacturers were switching to unitary construction, where the platform and bodyshell is constructed as a single unit. This typically brought benefits of lower weight and greater torsional rigidity. However, it created a problem for both independent design houses and coachbuilders, as there was no longer a separate chassis to build upon. Instead there was a body-in-white, which severely curtailed the freedom of the designers to deviate from the hard-points of the structure.
One European manufacturer who persevered with a separate chassis was Volkswagen. Its Type 1 (Beetle) was a pre-war design with a floorpan that supported all the mechanical components and could readily be driven with no body fitted. This made it perfect for coachbuilt variants.
In 1948, German coachbuilder Wilhelm Karmann acquired a Type 1 saloon and converted it to a four-seater cabriolet, restoring the rigidity lost in cutting off the roof by reinforcing the floorpan and bulkheads. Karmann presented his work to Volkswagen and the company was sufficiently impressed to commission his company to build an official Type 1 cabriolet.
Karmann was acquainted with Luigi Segre, then head of Carrozzeria Ghia, and in late 1952, both men recognised an opportunity to work together to their mutual benefit; they would use the Type 1 floorpan as the basis for a new car, designed by Ghia(1), built by Karmann and carrying both their names.
Surreptitiously, Segre acquired a new Type 1 and brought it to Turin, where work began to design a new 2+2 coupé body for the (modified) platform. The work took a year, and the new design was presented to Volkswagen by Karmann in the autumn of 1953. It received a positive reception and was publicly displayed at the Paris Salon in October. The enthusiasm with which it was greeted was enough for Volkswagen to formally approve the new model, which was assigned the code Type 14.
Series production started at the Karmann factory in Osnabrück, West Germany, in August 1955. Unlike the highly automated Volkswagen production lines at Wolfsburg, building the Karmann-Ghia body required expert coachbuilding skills and involved considerable finishing work by hand. Early models were equipped with the contemporary Type 1 engine, a 1,192cc air-cooled flat-four producing 34bhp (25kW). The engine would subsequently be enlarged to 1,295cc, 1,493cc and 1,584cc, the latter producing 42bhp (31kW).
The United States was expected to be the major export market for the Karmann Ghia. Road & Track magazine tested the new model upon its arrival on those shores and published its findings in April 1956. The list price was $2,475, a premium over the Type 1 on which it was based of almost $1,000, but still affordable for a car with “universal appeal” and “Italian Lines [that] are low, beautifully balanced and ornament-free”. The range of colours available were “quite a bit cheerier than those used on the standard sedan”. Both finish and attention to detail were excellent.
The contoured front seats were comfortable and provided a sports car-like low seating position with good fore and aft adjustment. The rear bench, however, was flat with a vertical backrest, thinly padded and without springing. Instrumentation was limited to a speedometer and matching clock, and no fuel gauge was provided. Ventilation was a notable weakness: with no opening quarter lights front or rear, the only way to let fresh air into the cabin was to wind down a window, which was noisy and draughty.
The Karmann Ghia weighed 1,760lbs (800kg) which was 120lbs (55kg) more than the Type 1, so performance was leisurely: 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took 28.8 seconds and the mean top speed was 76mph (123km/h). The car seemed to handle better than the Type 1, but this might have been simply a function of the lower centre of gravity, lower seating position and improved lateral support of the seats.
The major problem with the Karmann Ghia was availability. Even with half the production destined for the US, the backlog of orders was such that dealers were quoting anything from two to four years for delivery. Current production was 300 to 400 cars per month, but that was expected to increase to 1,000 cars per month by the autumn of 1956. A convertible version was introduced in August 1957.
Changes to the pretty body were remarkably modest over its nineteen-year lifespan. In 1961 the headlights were repositioned on new front wings, wider front grilles and larger, more rounded taillights. The latter would be enlarged again in 1970 to incorporate reversing lights, but with the reflectors still mounted separately below them. 1972 brought even larger tail lights, now incorporating the reflectors, and larger square-section bumpers similar to those fitted to the Type 1 since 1967.
A year later the bumpers on US versions were given energy-absorbing mountings to comply with new NHTSA(2) regulations. At the same time the rear seats were removed because they could not accommodate regulation seat belts. Production was discontinued in 1974 with the introduction of the Volkswagen Scirocco. A total of 364,401 coupés and 80,837 convertibles were built in West Germany, with a further 41,689 coupés and 177 convertibles built by Volkswagen do Brasil for the South American market.
This was not, however, the only Volkswagen Karmann Ghia model. In the late 1950’s Volkswagen wanted to expand its model range upwards and was developing a larger Type 3 1500 model in notchback and fastback saloon and estate form on a new, longer and wider floorpan, albeit still retaining the Type 1’s 2,400mm wheelbase. The Type 3 also had a new design compact pancake engine, which allowed for luggage space both front and rear. Volkswagen, Karmann and Ghia all saw the opportunity to use the new platform for a larger coupé and convertible(3). The new model, logically designated Type 34, was developed in tandem with the Type 3 and both were launched at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September 1961.
The new model was, somewhat confusingly, called the Volkswagen 1500(4) Karmann Ghia. Designed by Sergio Sarotelli, it shared no bodywork with the Type 14 and, with its bathtub bodysides featuring a strong horizontal waistline, was rather similar to the 1959 Chevrolet Corvair coupé. The car was better equipped and positioned upmarket of the Type 14, serving as Volkswagen’s flagship model until it was replaced by the VW-Porsche 914 in 1969. A total of 42,505 Type 34 coupés were built over seven years.
There is a further twist in the VW Karmann Ghia tale. Volkswagen do Brasil, which has always enjoyed considerable creative freedom, commissioned Ghia to produce a replacement for the Type 14(5) coupé in the early 1970’s. None other than Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the replacement, dubbed Type 145, a smart liftback that successfully combined its predecessor’s curves with a more angular glasshouse. The new model was named the VW Karmann Ghia TC(6) and was produced for the South American market between 1972 and 1975, during which period a total of 18,119 were manufactured. A prototype liftback coupé based on the Type 34 was also built, but was not approved for production.
The Karmann Ghia models were friendly and cheerful cars, without the sporting pretence or aggression of other coupés. It’s a quality that endeared them to many and today the appeal of the people’s coupé remains as strong amid classic car fraternity as ever.
(1) The Karmann Ghia was, however, heavily influenced by Virgil Exner’s 1953 Chrysler d’Elegance concept. Exner was said not to mind that his design had been repurposed in this manner.
(2) In 1973 the US National Highway Transport Safety Administration introduced regulations requiring bumpers to withstand a 5mph (8km/h) impact without damage to bumper or car.
(3) Sadly, the convertible never made series production. Only seventeen prototypes were built.
(4) That said, the original Karmann Ghia would not receive a 1,500cc engine until 1967.
(5) The replacement would actually be based on the Type 3 platform and mechanical package.
(6) For ‘Touring Coupe’.