Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

The Karmann Ghia brought sports-car styling to the masses. Andrew Roberts on a perennial beauty
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Indy Lifestyle Online

What precisely constitutes a sports car? The Morris Marina 1.8 TC Coup may have had go-faster stripes aplenty and the very same engine as the MGB, but ownership of one was a guarantee of social death. The Ford Capri 1300 may have had a top speed that regularly saw it overtaken by Fiesta 1100s, but at least it looked impressive. From a distance. In the fog. At night. By contrast, few VW fans ever considered the Karmann Ghia to be a sports car, but, as a tourer, it had few peers. The Ghia coachwork was some of the purest of the decade; it also offered comfort for two and the reliability of the Beetle. During its 18-year production run, nearly half a million buyers considered these to be more important attributes than out-and-out performance.

In 1949, the year that Volkswagen was free of British military control, the Beetle was made available as a Karmann-built convertible. Two years later, Wilhelm Karmann Jnr approached the firm with a proposal for a new Beetle-derived touring car. The idea was initially rejected but, undefeated, Karmann approached Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin, who built the first prototype in 1953. At the time, there were rumours that Ghia had simply scaled down Virgil Exner's design for the Chrysler d'Elegance, but such was the new car's potential that in November of that year Heinz Nordhoff, the head of Volkswagen, finally gave approval for it to bear the VW badge. The new car would be largely built at Karmann's Osnabrck plant; wider platforms were fabricated by Karmann, welded to Beetle backbones in Wolfsburg, and then returned to Osnabrck for final assembly.

On 14 July, 1955, the vehicle was unveiled, and such was the impact of its appearance that few would have guessed at its humble origins. The timing was perfect; the GNP of West Germany had increased by 57 per cent in the previous five years, and a new generation of motorists was keen to leave austerity and bubble cars behind it. The KG was the car of the moment, for no other European car maker offered a coup (two front seats and a rear bench for the young, agile and uncomplaining) styled with an elegance that could justifiably rival the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider Veloce and, unlike its Italian rival, probably not rust to pieces within six months. The K-G cost 1,000DM more than the more practical Ford Taunus saloon, but in the first year of production some 10,000 buyers evidently believed this to be 1,000DM well-spent.

The Karmann Ghia's improved aerodynamics managed to increase the Beetle's 68mph top speed by 8mph the sheer weight of the KG body style added more than 120lb, which did little for acceleration. The KG's bucket seats were far more comfortable than the standard saloon, and adding a front anti-roll bar improved the handling. But Volkswagen's real masterstroke was never to promote the Karmann Ghia as an out-and-out sports car for the all-important US market. There, the KG appealed to three very different groups: those who wanted a European tourer that was more durable than a Lancia; those who wanted Porsche appeal on a VW budget; and those who merely approved of white steering wheels per se. What's more, VW emphasised the fact that it was mechanically identical to the Beetle and, combined with that stunning coachwork considering that in the late Fifties one rival was the Nash/Austin Metropolitan the 1958 Karmann Ghia Convertible only increased VW's presence in the US market.

Throughout the model's run, the KG was sold with wit and verve by the Doyle, Dane & Bern Bach agency: "Will John ever get a chance to be alone with Eveline? Will Eveline ever find out if she really loves John? Will Eveline's mother ever find out three's are crowd? The Volkswagen people give them the chance to find the answers!" Naturally, the answers took the form of a Type One Karmann Ghia "It has a economical, dependable Volkswagen engine in a racy, romantic and finished body!" but throughout the Sixties, the KG's lack of performance was never ignored. This was most notable in the television commercial where a Karmann Ghia races towards a huge sheet of paper, only to bounce off it. In print advertising, potential buyers were informed that although the KG was slower than a Maserati or Lamborghini, it was certainly cheaper, or, best of all: "The 1963 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. Slower, but Prettier Than Any Porsche!"

As with all good Volkswagens, the KG was updated over the course of its long run, gaining the 1.3 engine for 1965, the 1.5 for 1967 and, for the final three years of production, 1600cc of power and a blistering top speed of 94mph. Right-hand drive was available from 1957, but import duties conspired to make the KG an exotic sight on British roads.

By 1961, the basic Type One was augmented by the Type 34 Karmann Ghia Coup based on the Type 3 1500 saloon but too few buyers approved of its sharply distinctive styling, and when it was replaced in 1969 by the VW-Porsche 914, a mere 42,000 models had been sold. While the Type 1 KG was a pleasing alternative to the Renault Caravelle and its ilk, but the price of the Type 34 took it perilously near to the likes of the entry-level Porsche 356 and the subsequent 912.

When the Karmann Ghia was finally replaced by the VW Sirocco on 31 July, 1974, Karmann workers decorated the last example with a sign that read: "Du liefst so gut, Du warst so sch*, Doch leider musst du von uns gehn." (You ran so well, you were so beautiful, but alas, you must leave us now.)

Throughout its run, the KG had suffered gibes from those of the string-back glove/hair shirt school of motoring, but these were insults that VW enthusiasts found easy to ignore. The Karmann Ghia may have experienced some difficulty in even approaching the ton, but, unlike some of its British and Italian contemporaries, it was actually more likely to start in the first place an opinion clearly shared by 445,000 KG owners.

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