Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia


With a sleek body over a humble VW Beetle chassis, the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia furnished a dash of sports-car spirit at a Volkswagen price.
With a sleek body over a humble VW Beetle chassis, the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia furnished a dash of sports-car spirit at a Volkswagen price.
© Thomas Glatch

The Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, a sporty coupe and convertible produced between 1955 and 1974, was a most unexpected vehicle from a company that had built its reputation on the purely functional Volkswagen Beetle. The Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia was an automobile in which style and driving fun took precedence.

Indeed, it seemed to make little obvious marketing sense when the German company sprung on the world the sinuously shaped Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia coupe in 1955. By 1974, however, when the last Volkswagen Karmann-Ghias were delivered to the U.S., 387,975 had been built, a fine number for a specialty car from an automaker not known at the time for driving excitement.

Not that the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia was in Porsche's league. After all, Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia used the same chassis as the Beetle, the same economy-car mechanicals, even had the same air-cooled-engine thrum. But the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia had something no VW up to that time had ever had: style.

The car's name summarizes a very complicated pedigree. VW in the early 1950s was a rapidly growing West German carmaker. Karmann was a long-established West German coachbuilder and already was building Beetle convertibles. Ghia was a top Italian styling house.

Added to this alliance was an American connection -- one that some Europeans are reluctant to admit even today -- and the result was an unlikely recipe for success.

The Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia story starts with Mario Boano and Luigi Segre of Carrozzeria Ghia. The Turin coachbuilders had done some confidential work for VW, suggesting refinements in Beetle styling that VW mostly ignored. Neither did VW seem to like any of the various Beetle proposals put forth in Germany by Dr. Wilhelm Karmann. An increasingly discouraged Karmann approached Ghia for inspiration.

Gian Paolo Boano, Mario Boano's son, had recently bought a Beetle in Paris and driven it to Turin. The Ghia craftsmen removed the conventional two-door Beetle body, and within five months had replaced it with a newly fashioned coupe body shell.

The prototype was transported to Karmann's factory in Osnabruck where, on November 16, 1953, it was examined by VW executives, including top man Heinz Nordhoff. The VW people were intrigued, and wanted to know more, especially about the styling. They'd be surprised to know its geniuses.

The sporty VW took its name from Karmann, the German firm that built the body, and Ghia, the Italian design house that came up with the styling. The sporty VW took its name from Karmann, the German firm that built the body, and Ghia, the Italian design house that came up with the styling.
The sporty VW took its name from Karmann, the German firm that built the body, and Ghia, the Italian design house that came up with the styling.
© Vince Manocchi

Go to the next page to learn more about the origins of the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia.

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Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia Styling

Mystery blankets the origins of Karmann-Ghia styling. Compare this 1958 Karmann-Ghia with the Chrysler concept car pictured below.
Mystery blankets the origins of Karmann-Ghia styling. Compare this 1958 Karmann-Ghia with the Chrysler concept car pictured below.
© Thomas Glatch

Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia styling had a mixed parentage. Ghia was happy to take credit for the shape, and while the true details of the origins Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia styling are lost to history, it seems there was much of American designer Virgil Exner in it.

Exner had established a distinguished track record as a stylist with Pontiac and at the Raymond Loewy Studio, where he headed the Studebaker account. In 1950, Exner came to Chrysler, first working in the advanced design studio, and then in 1953, taking over as the automaker's styling director.

Shortly after arriving at Chrysler, Exner had approached Ghia about producing prototypes, concept cars, and design studies to spice up the image of Detroit's third-largest automaker. Ghia agreed, and went on to build several show cars and prototypes in Italy under Exner's direction.

The first of these was the Chrysler K-310 concept car of 1952. (K was for Chrysler President Kaufmann T. Keller, the number for a theoretical 310 horsepower V-8).

Some insist the styling of the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia was a downsized version of the 1953 Chrysler-Ghia D'Elegance concept car, shown. Some insist the styling of the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia was a downsized version of the 1953 Chrysler-Ghia D'Elegance concept car, shown.
Some insist the styling of the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia was a downsized version of the 1953 Chrysler-Ghia D'Elegance concept car, shown.
© Chrysler LLC

The K-310 begat the Chrysler/Ghia D'Elegance concept car of 1953. Built on a 115-inch wheelbase, the sleek D'Elegance had a graceful rear-roof pillar treatment and a prominent lower-body line that swept into a rear-fender bulge. The Ghia De Soto Adventurer, which Exner himself used as a road car for three years, was a development on the same theme.

Although Chrysler commissioned a run of 40 D'Elegance coupes, the effects of the Korean War pared this back to 25 cars, which left Ghia with unused capacity and its designers with time to think. The result was that coupe prototype on the VW Beetle platform that VW executives scrutinized in November 1953.

It looked a lot like the D'Elegance scaled down to fit the Beetle's wheelbase and track. Whether it was a copy of Exner's D'Elegance concept car is less certain. Some automotive historians believe Ghia was simply applying similar themes to two different projects.

Nonetheless, the cars had obvious similarities, particularly the general proportions of the greenhouse, the lower-body line and rear fender bulge, and the character of the C-pillars. Ghia added two front "nostril" grilles for effect. Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia styling was now complete.

Recognizing the pretty little Ghia coupe as a way to expand the VW line without much effort, Nordhoff gave the project thumbs-up and turned the job of production over to Karmann.

Complete Beetle platforms were shipped from Wolfsburg to Osnabruck, where Karmann made the bodies, and painted, trimmed, and completed the cars before feeding them into Volkswagen's normal distribution system.

The Karmann-Ghia used the chassis and engine of the VW Beetle, but had a shapelier body. The Karmann-Ghia used the chassis and engine of the VW Beetle, but had a shapelier body.
The Karmann-Ghia used the chassis and engine of the VW Beetle, but had a shapelier body.
© Thomas Glatch

Find out on the next page how the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia differed from the VW Beetle.

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Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia Engine and Body

The Karmann-Ghia used the air-cooled horizontally opposed VW Beetle 4-cylinder engine. Horsepower ranged from 36 in 1955 to 60 by 1971.
The Karmann-Ghia used the air-cooled horizontally opposed VW Beetle 4-cylinder engine. Horsepower ranged from 36 in 1955 to 60 by 1971.
© Thomas Glatch

When it came to the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia engine and body, supply lines diverged. The engine was pure VW Beetle. The body was something else entirely.

Changes from the Beetle's powertrain and chassis were minimal. The chassis side rails were widened to accommodate the body, which at 64.2 inches, was four inches wider than the Bug's, and a front anti-sway bar was added to the suspension. The angle of the steering column was changed, there were different springs and dampers, and the gearshift lever was shortened.

Under the rear engine cover was the standard VW air-cooled four-cylinder boxer engine. It was rated at the same 36 horsepower as in the Beetle, though minor relocation of components in the engine bay was necessary to get it to fit under the coupe's lower bodywork.

With the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia engine and body finalized, it came time to name the car. Suggestions included San Remo, Corona, and Ascona. But VW finally called it the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, making a selling point of those responsible for the manufacture and styling.

Launched in 1955 in Europe and the following year in the U.S., this clearly was a different type of VW, and it soon generated its own clientele. The bodywork of course was the big draw. The coupe was three inches longer than the Beetle, but nearly seven inches lower.

Design-house style touches included curved glass all around in a day when that was rare, frameless one-piece door glass, and tastefully applied chrome trim.

Was it a beautiful car? Was it even a pretty one? Some pundits damned it with faint praise, describing it as "ideal for the ladies." At the extreme, a few asked if it was the most attractive car in the world.

With a curb weight of around 1,750 pounds, the Karmann-Ghia coupe was about 150 pounds heavier than a Beetle sedan. Part of the additional weight came from the added width of the Karmann's body, which gave it nearly six more inches of front hip room than the Beetle.

Despite the lower roofline, front headroom was more than adequate for tall people. The front seats were wide and well padded, but being a true 2+2, the Karmann-Ghia had to make do with a nominal two-place rear seat--really not much more than a padded cushion just 41 inches across. It did fold down into a cargo platform and, combined with a seven-cubic-foot forward luggage bay, gave the coupe more carrying capacity than the contemporary Beetle sedan.

The Karmann-Ghia dashboard used Beetle switches, but more stylish. The Karmann-Ghia lacked vent windows, so cabin ventilation did match that of the Bug. The Karmann-Ghia dashboard used Beetle switches, but more stylish. The Karmann-Ghia lacked vent windows, so cabin ventilation did match that of the Bug.
The Karmann-Ghia dashboard used Beetle switches, but more stylish. The Karmann-Ghia lacked vent windows, so cabin ventilation did match that of the Bug.
© Thomas Glatch

The dashboard used Beetle switchgear, but was more stylish and mounted a huge clock next to the speedometer (a fuel gauge wasn't added until 1958). A floor lever controlled the heater, which didn't warm the car on cold days any better than did its sister system in the Beetle. Fresh-air ventilation was inferior to that of the Bug because the coupe lacked vent windows.

Some Karmann-Ghia fans argued that build quality was even better than that of the Beetle because Karmann didn't have to churn out the cars as quickly as VW had to pump out Beetles. Suffice it to say that neither was matched by anything else in the price class, though Karmann-Ghias did rust more quickly than Beetles.

This was because Karmann lacked the equipment to stamp out large body panels and instead fashioned certain areas of the body with lots of smaller panels and the resulting joints and seams were susceptible to corrosion.

Go to the next page to find out how the Karmann-Ghia felt from behind the wheel, and the impact a new one would have on your bank account.

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Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia Performance and Price

VW insisted performance of the Karmann-Ghia match that of the contemporary Beatle model, though the low-slung coupe had a higher top speed. The Karmann-Ghia convertible bowed in 1957.
VW insisted performance of the Karmann-Ghia match that of the contemporary Beatle model, though the low-slung coupe had a higher top speed. The Karmann-Ghia convertible bowed in 1957.
© Vince Manocchi

Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia performance and price reflected the values VW placed in its cornerstone product, the Beetle.

VW insisted the Karmann-Ghia's performance mirror that of the humble Bug; some sources say the company didn't want to be goaded into comparisons with genuine sports cars.

Indeed, one Karmann-Ghia ad pictured a coupe adorned with stripes and numbers on the doors, as if poised to race. "You'd lose." said the tag line. "The racy-looking car in the picture would have trouble beating a Volkswagen. Because it is a Volkswagen."

Nonetheless, the Karmann-Ghia had a much smaller frontal area than the Beetle, and the originals could hit a top speed of around 72 mph, maybe 10 mph higher than the sedan. Acceleration was no faster: Both cars could consume up to 36 seconds reaching 60 mph from a stop, and the transmission shifted with same rubberiness through the gears. But both had great straight-line traction in muddy or icy conditions.

Drivers with little exposure to genuine performance automobiles might have felt that the Karmann-Ghia's light steering and low-slung stance gave it sports-car moves. But despite the presence of the front anti-roll bar and a recommended rear-tire pressure three-pounds-per-square-inch above that of the Beetle, the Karmann really wasn't any faster on a twisty road than a well-driven Bug.

And it could be just as perilous in wet weather or when cornered too hard, no surprise in a car that shared the Beetle's heavy rearward weight bias and swing-axle rear suspension.

So while performance of the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia was measured by the Bug's, the car's price was a calculated measure above.

The Karmann-Ghia always cost more than the equivalent Beetle. A 1956 Karmann-Ghia coupe, for example, listed for $2,395, $900 more than a Beetle sedan. And the little coupe was more expensive to repair if the bodywork was damaged in an accident.

But the public liked what it saw, thought the value good, and made haste to place orders. Production took time to build up, but the 10,000th car was on the road by the autumn of 1956.

Karmann-Ghia coupe prices ran about $900 more than a Beetle sedan, convertible prices were some $400 above a Bug ragtop. This 1958 Karmann-Ghia convertible cost $2,725. Karmann-Ghia coupe prices ran about $900 more than a Beetle sedan, convertible prices were some $400 above a Bug ragtop. This 1958 Karmann-Ghia convertible cost $2,725.
Karmann-Ghia coupe prices ran about $900 more than a Beetle sedan, convertible prices were some $400 above a Bug ragtop. This 1958 Karmann-Ghia convertible cost $2,725.
© Vince Manocchi

U.S. dealers were plagued by early supply problems, though VW didn't really promote the Karmann-Ghia in America until 1961. Those who wanted one in these years sometimes had to wait two years to take delivery.

A two-seat convertible version was introduced in Europe in 1957 and came to the U.S. for 1958. It looked exactly the same as the coupe below waist level. The double-layer soft top was constructed with the same attention Karmann lavished on the Beetle cabriolets, and prices ran about $300-$400 more than contemporary Karmann-Ghia coupes.

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Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia Year-By-Year Changes

Karmann-Ghia styling changes were subtle, in the VW tradition. By the time this 1971 coupe was built, the car had wrap-around side marker lights.
Karmann-Ghia styling changes were subtle, in the VW tradition. By the time this 1971 coupe was built, the car had wrap-around side marker lights.
© Thomas Glatch

Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia year-by-year changes hued to the VW tradition of slow evolution, and in some years, no change at all.

Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia year-by-year changes were particularly languid when it came to the styling, packaging, and marketing of the cars, though both the coupe and convertible had their fender lines and headlamp height raised slightly in 1959.

Thereafter, most every successive change made to the Beetle was also made to the Karmann-Ghia. An exception was the Super Beetle's MacPherson-strut front suspension, which would not fit under the Karmann-Ghia's bodywork. However, the front anti-roll bar first seen on the Karmann-Ghia was adapted for 1960-model Beetles.

That same year, Karmanns got a new steering wheel that was dished for safety, and a hydraulic steering damper to quell kickback. A vacuum-operated clutch was also introduced as an option, though sources differ as to whether availability was confined to European-market cars.

For 1961, horsepower jumped to 40 at 4900 rpm and the final-drive ratio changed from 4.43:1 to 4.37:1 to slow engine speed, through the ratios of first and fourth gears were tightened in an effort to preserve "acceleration."

Engine size increased to 1.3 liters for 1966 and horsepower rose to 50 at 4600 rpm. There was another bump to 1.5 liters and 53 horsepower for 1967, and a step to 1.6 liters and 57 horsepower for 1970, and finally, to 60 horsepower in 1971.

The 1972 Karmann-Ghias got heftier bumpers and gained larger taillights. This was the last styling change before the car was discontinued in 1974. The 1972 Karmann-Ghias got heftier bumpers and gained larger taillights. This was the last styling change before the car was discontinued in 1974.
The 1972 Karmann-Ghias got heftier bumpers and gained larger taillights. This was the last styling change before the car was discontinued in 1974.
© Volkswagen of America, Inc.

The 1600s were the quickest Karmann-Ghias, capable of 0-60 mph in about 21 seconds and a top speed of around 82 mph. A switch in final drive for manual-transmission models in 1972 increased top speed to 90 mph. The 1600s also had better stopping power, thanks to their standard front disc brakes. When VW revamped its power ratings for 1973, switching from gross to net figures, the Karmann-Ghia was rerated to 46 horsepower.

Safety came to the fore in 1968 when, per new U.S. regulations, Karmann-Ghias adopted round side marker lights on the rear fenders, as well as an energy-absorbing steering wheel and steering column, and front seats with integral headrests. An external gas filler door appeared on the upper front bodywork.

VW's semi-automatic transmission was offered

as an option starting in 1968, and as on the Beetle, cars ordered with it got the new double-jointed rear suspension.

Demand was still relatively healthy into the early 1970s, but the Karmann-Ghia's days were numbered. Karmann needed all the space it could find to build the brand new VW Scirocco sports coupe, and ceased production of the Beetle-based cars in 1974.

It had built 283,501 coupes and 80,897 convertibles. An additional 23,577 coupes had been built at VW's plant in Brazil. Sales in the U.S. had peaked in 1970 at 38,825, of which 5,873 were convertibles.

Concurrent with its production of the Ghia-styled, Beetle-based cars, Karmann also built a four-passenger coupe based on the Type 3 1500-series sedan introduced in 1961. This coupe was called the Type 34 and shared the wheelbase and air-cooled, rear-engine running gear of the sedan upon which it was based.

The Type 34, however, lacked the visual charm of the Karmann-Ghia models and it sold slowly. Buyers were cool to the styling, which had nice proportions and an airy greenhouse, but was awkward around the front where two large outboard headlamps and two smaller driving lamps flanked a metal Roman nose.

In the spirit of the Karmann-Ghia, Ghia built 42,500 Type 34 coupes using In the spirit of the Karmann-Ghia, Ghia built 42,500 Type 34 coupes using
In the spirit of the Karmann-Ghia, Ghia built 42,500 Type 34 coupes using
©Mirco DeCet

The Type 34 debuted in 1961 and was sold primarily in Europe. Ghia built a two-seat convertible version of the Type 34, but it did not go into production. With demand never very strong, production of the Type 34 coupe was halted in June 1969, after just fewer than 42,500 had been built.

It is the original Karmann-Ghias that introduced the world to the idea of a sporty Volkswagen. If the Beetle was the people's car and the Volkswagen bus was the people's van, then it might be acceptable to characterize the Karmann-Ghia as the "people's Porsche." Don't try to race a Porsche with one, however. You'd lose.

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