Obituary: Wilhelm Karmann

James Ruppert
Monday 02 November 1998 00:02 GMT

ALTHOUGH THE Karmann name has been associated with some of the most beautiful and successful motor cars produced in the last 50 years, it would be wrong to regard Wilhelm Karmann as a car designer. His skill lay in re-engineering and manufacturing low- to medium-volume convertibles and sports cars for the world's major motor companies.

Born in 1914, Karmann was always destined to join the family coachbuilding business in the town of Osnabruck in north-west Germany. His father, Wilhelm Karmann, had realised what impact the fledgling automobile industry would have, and so in 1902 had switched from traditional horse-drawn coachbuilding to car bodywork. Wilhelm Karmann junior joined his father's company when he was 19, but after a two-year training period decided to broaden his experience.

Between 1935 and 1937 he attended the Institute for Coachwork and Vehicle Construction at Bernau near Berlin. Then he spent two years as an engineer with Ambi-Budd in Berlin, a company which had pioneered all-steel body and unitary chassis-less car construction. Karmann returned to Osnabruck in 1939 with state-of-the-art knowledge of manufacturing techniques, but, instead of cars, he had to reorganise the factory to produce military equipment. He joined the German army in 1941, was taken prisoner by the Americans and returned to civilian life and the Karmann factory in 1945.

After his father's death at the age of 88 in 1952, Karmann became the majority shareholder and chairman of the company. From then on he cleverly steered the business from a localised industry to a world-wide concern with subsidiaries in Portugal and Brazil, and with more than 6,000 employees by the mid-1990s. In that time the company has developed and produced vehicles as diverse as the Ford Escort convertible, Porsche 968, Jaguar XJS convertible and a small Korean off-roader, the Kia Sportage. The bedrock of the company's success has been its long association with Volkswagen, building more than 700,000 Sciroccos and over 400,000 Golf convertibles. This link went back to 1949 and the Beetle convertible although it was the beautiful VW Karmann Ghia in 1955 which brought the company international recognition and sales of almost 500,000.

The design of the Karmann Ghia, however, has been shrouded in mystery, and everyone involved in its creation is now dead. It has been alleged that the car was actually based on a styling proposal for an American Chrysler which had been built by the Italian coachbuilders Ghia in Turin. Certainly it must have influenced the Italian stylists, who based the prototype Karmann Ghia on a Beetle floorpan for their German client. It was transported in great secrecy by armoured truck to the Karmann factory at night and then hidden. Wilhelm Karmann said this was done to protect his workers from any disappointment if the prototype was not given the go-ahead and also to reassure VW that no one outside of the two companies had seen the car.

Interviewed in the mid-1980s, Karmann recalled the impact this model had had. "It was a world sensation, but it still did not have a name. To capitalise on the Italian-styled body, we thought of names like Ascona, San Remo, Corona and other lake, mountain, or seaside resorts. But time was getting short. The car was going on sale in October . . . Finally I said, `How about calling it the Karmann Ghia?' They [the VW directors] looked at me, tried it out on their lips as if to taste it and decided they liked it. Everyone was in favour of the Karmann Ghia name."

James Ruppert

Wilhelm Karmann, car manufacturer: born Osnabruck, Germany 4 December 1914; married (one son, two daughters); died Osnabruck 25 October 1998.

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