People’s Coupé

The Beetle’s comelier cousin.

1961 VW Karmann Ghia Coupé and Convertible. Image: motorauthority.com

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.

1953 Karmann-Ghia Prototyp. Hemmings Motor News

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).

1960 VW Karmann Ghia interior. Image: info-vw.blogspot.com

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.

1968 VW 1500 Karmann Ghia Coupé. Image: sportscarmarket.com

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.

1972 VW Karmann Ghia TC. Image: lartdelautomobile.com.br

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’.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

28 thoughts on “People’s Coupé”

  1. The picture at the top of the article perfectly sums up Germany’s attitude towards life in the Fifties and early Sixties. An open top Karmann Ghia on its way to Shangri-La – Italy.
    The Type 14 was the first car I remember having marketing specifically targeting female customers. The well heeled dentist or lawyer had a fintail Benz or Opel Kapitän and his wife got a Karmann Ghia, preferably the open top version.

    1. I’m certain Dave will confirm that in Germany, Ghia shall forever remain best-known for the Karmann-Djeeuh (like Lamborjeenie for the Cowntatch), rather than any Ford trim line.

    2. I do hope that is the case, Christopher. It’s a car more fitting memorial. In similar vein, what would be the definitive Vignale? (Clue: it’s not the Mondeo!)

    3. I’d like to nominate this as the definitive Vignale design, because it’s so ‘out there’ and unlike anything else, thanks to the car’s unique(?) mechanical layout:

      I know I can secure Mr Herriott’s vote simply by showing a photo of the rear seat accommodation:

      Just look at that armrest!

    4. How could one not like a car with an air cooled quad cam V8 in the back ?

    5. I like that 613 a lot, Daniel, but I have an even bigger soft spot for the Coupé version that never made it to production.

    6. Thanks for posting that armrest. I suspect it might hold a world record for the widest rear-centre arm-rest ever made. The rear legroom challenges the Citroen CX Prestige, I am sure. Thanks also for posting the coupé. If I was Elon Musk rich I´d have someone make one up for me and have it powered by batteries. That said, the inherent dangerousness of the RWD, rear-engine layout must be one of the USPs of the Tatra.

    7. Richard: the 1948-54 Hudson could be a candidate for widest rear armrest too- it is 16 inches wide:

    8. But Richard, for all the legroom there doesn’t appear to be anywhere to tuck one’s feet.

  2. Good morning Daniel. Thank you for featuring such a selection of beautifully designed cars.

  3. An aunt had a Type 14 from the early series in cream white.
    Unfortunately, I did not make it clear enough to her that I would like to take over the vehicle if she let it go.
    Missed opportunity.

    Around 1980 then I had a Type 34 in green with a white roof.

    After seeing a photo of Bryan Ferry with his first car, a Studebaker, I made the decision that I should also own a stylish vehicle. Since there were few (or no) Studebakers in Baden-Würtemberg at the time and my wallet was not as big as Mr. Ferry’s, it became (only) a Karman-Ghia in reasonably good condition.
    Just the right vehicle for a poser with a small purse like me.

    Since the Type 34 was essentially a collection of rust nests by design and the rust precautions on the part of Karman were actually non-existent, the vehicle was a dazzler. At first glance it looked quite passable, at second glance it was a disaster and the vehicle really needed a frame-off restoration.
    Since my wallet was not equipped for that, I gave the vehicle into better hands after a year.

    But it was a good time and I have good memories of the trips.

  4. Despite being underpowered as with other Karmann Ghias, rather like the Karmann Ghia TC in a 912 sort of way and like the latter would have benefited from featuring other elements of the latter.

  5. In the mid- to late-60s, my mother started work as an office manager for a newly-minted doctor in New York — who parked his baby blue Karmann-Ghia right outside the downstairs office. It was his own car (his wife had another car, now unremembered), the one he’d use for business errands and house calls (!). It was the only Karmann-Ghia I’d seen at that point and likely the only one for some distance around our suburban outpost (though there was a Volkswagen dealer in the next town).

    Alas, the arrival of some years and a couple of babies made another vehicle necessary and the VW was relegated to weekend duty only. When I returned home from college one holiday the VW was gone, replaced by a … 1970 Chrysler Imperial. I wish I’d asked what happened to that attractive baby blue ride. And the doctor who enjoyed the Karmann-Ghia for so many years.

    1. The similarities of the Type 14 with Exner’s Chrysler d’Elegance concept were no coincidence, considering that the latter was built by Ghia.

  6. While the original Karmann Ghia is a lovely thing, the Giugiaro Karmann Ghia TC is also worthy of attention as a nice update on the original concept:

  7. At one point I had the dubious pleasure of driving a very ratty Karmann-Ghia in Los Angeles. The door had to be held closed when I cornered. The gearchange was like a switch – the most remarkably precise and tiny action was needed. It felt like the gear lever was moving a metal pin around a gate no larger than a postage stamp (unseen under the cowl).

    1. I recall that my VW Beetle’s gear change, which was shared with the Karmann Ghia, was pretty good. It had a precise, positive mechanical action and was pretty foolproof.

    2. The Type 1 gearchange was very precise but the clutch wasn’t very user friendly. You had to let it out for about ninety percent of its travel without anything happening and on the last ten percent the action happened. Many VW first timers had their difficulties with that.

  8. Perhaps I started taking an interest in such things – the late ‘60s – at a bad time for the Karmann-Ghia, but I’ve ever since dismissed it as an absurd and hugely overpriced anachronism, hanging on well past its best, surely only of interest to eccentrics and VW fanatics.

    Checking prices in Motor of 29 June 1970, the Karmann-Ghia coupe is listed at £1360, the convertible at £1556. The closest Beetle base vehicle, the VW1500 cost £812.

    At that time I probably knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, but it wouldn’t have escaped my notice that a Capri 3000GT, with close to three times the power, could be had for £19 less than the fixed head 1500cc Karmann-Ghia.

    Other points of comparison:

    MGB Roadster: £1153
    Triumph TR6PI: £1401
    Peugeot 204 Coupe: £1327
    Alfa Romeo Giulia 1300GT: £1848
    Lancia Fulvia Rallye S: £1871

    Of course, in these pre-Common Market days anything Continental (EFTA Swedes excepted) came at an import tax-imposed premium. The Italian coupes’ prices are eye-watering, but their designs were over a decade newer than the Karmann-Ghia, and despite smaller capacity engines, they were uncompromisingly engineered for performance and driving pleasure.

    VW didn’t seem to try hard enough with the Karmann-Ghia[1]. During its long lifespan, most improvements were made only to keep it on the right side of the law, or to accommodate upgraded Beetle componentry. Power outputs were always woeful; could there have been a pact with Porsche not to challenge them on the performance matter?

    I’d be failing DTW’s readership if I didn’t mention the Karmann-Ghia’s influence on the Borgward Isabella Coupe. Borgward mythology claims that Frau Borgward wanted a Karmann-Ghia, and rather than have her drive a VW, CFWB used the funds intended for the four door Isabella limousine to develop and produce the Bremer thinking-person’s equivalent. It’s not that simple – nothing at Sebaldsbrück was – but the Isabella Coupe introduced in 1957 featured the most powerful 1.5 litre engine [2] in series production, which should have been a wake-up call to Wolfsburg.

    [1] The same criticism can be levelled at BMC/BLMC as regards their stewardship of the MGB.
    [2] Borgwarders will no doubt remind me that the Coupe carried a significant weight penalty over the limousine, as a result of its hand-built coachwork, and the TS saloons and wagons were consistently quicker.

  9. The Karmann Ghia is a lovely thing. I have a Volkswagen catalogue from 1957 where there’s a small section about the Ghia. My dad gave it to me, together with the original manual and a manual by Piet Olyslager, kind of the Dutch version of the Haynes manual. His first car was a 1957 Volkswagen and he kept these after he traded his beetle in for a 2CV.

    Back in 2007 I had an interim job and one of the older colleagues had one. I said I liked his car a lot, but he somehow seemed insulted. He claimed that his Karmann Ghia could out-accelerate almost every modern car on the road. I had a 318i E46 at the time and I invited him to an acceleration duel. He still hasn’t showed up. In the mean time I had several other jobs, my E46 was traded in for an 325i E92 and I lost sight of my colleague and his Karmann Ghia. I wonder what has become of both him and the car.

    1. The brochure Freerk is referring to is likely from the series with the beautiful illustrations by Reuters; one I have is from around 1960- here is a sample:

    2. Those brochure images are just lovely! Thanks for posting, Bruno.

  10. According to Wikipedia, Ghia still exists as a design studio and nothing else. Ford discontinued using the badge in 2010 and switched to “Titanium” as the highest trim level along with using Vignale. This is a link to a Ghia website but not the Ghia website: https://drinkghia.com/
    And here is some ancient history:
    https://www.cardesignnews.com/news/ford-announces-restructuring-of-ghia-design-studio/29974.article
    A firm like Ghia amounts to the collective skill of the staff walking in and out of the office every day. I wonder if there is anyone walking into and out of Ghia´s offices at all.

    1. Quite a lot of people believe Ford to have been a poor steward of Jaguar. I rather disagree with that view: they poured money into the place and, I think, genuinely tried to find a way to position the products to be worthy of the badge while benefiting from Ford’s scale. They just couldn’t make it work in the end.
      But I find it harder to forgive the way they hollowed out Ghia and Vignale and gradually reduced the names to trim levels.

  11. I am not certain about Type 34 and Type 145, but Type 14 has only shut lines, no cut lines whatsoever. The wings are not even removable. I guess many of us knew that? I was quite surprised when it was pointed out to me.

    1. Hi gooddog. I guess that’s a function of the bodies being designed by a traditional coachbuilder that was happy so expend time lead-loading joints to make them invisible. It must have made repair after a bump a tricky and expensive business though.

    2. This is also true for the Type 34.
      Which is why I pretty soon came to the realisation that my wallet at that time did not match the effort of a restoration (unfortunately).

    3. The most challenging car in this respect wast the 356 with not a single straight line in its bodywork and everything brazed to a single piece.
      A Fiat barchetta is similar – the front wings are bolt-on but made from three pieces and the whole front and rear are brazed together to a single piece.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: