Ghia relied more on image than go-power

March 21, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

The Karmann Ghia, a delicate blend of old-world German craftsmanship and Italian soul, proved that sports cars were as much about style and grace as they were about performance.

And, of course, they were all about how they make their owners feel. It might not have been the most rapid ride around, but the Karmann Ghia could put a smile on anyone's face.

At some point, nearly every auto manufacturer conceives a vehicle that will serve as a beacon for its image. Usually, it's some purpose-built model that, although lacking in universal use, has enough appeal to generate sufficient showroom traffic to justify its existence. The Karmann Ghia, that most quixotic of all Volkswagens, not only excelled in wooing prospects, but became a steady seller, pumping plenty of currency into VW coffers.

The Karmann Ghia concept was conceived more than 50 years ago as a collaboration between then Volkswagen boss Heinrich Nordhall, and Wilhelm Karmann, proprietor of the Osnabrck, Germany manufacturing company that bears his name.


The eventual creation of the Type 143, the Karmann Ghia's original designation, actually required the combined talents of three companies. The car's sensuous styling was handled by Luigi Segre, who worked for the Ghia design studio in Turin, Italy. Segre drew his inspiration from the d'Elegance concept car penned by famed Chrysler auto artiste Virgil Exner. After the final design had been cast and VW's engineers had completed their work, Karmann took over the final assembly process, including the attachment of the Karmann and Ghia logos onto the rear deck lid.

Although technically a 2+2, the limited passenger space behind the Karmann Ghia's front bucket seats was best used as a parcel storage area that also doubled (doubled-over would be more accurate) as a torture device for anyone taller than three feet. Those in front, though, enjoyed the relative roominess equal to the original Beetle, although Karmann Ghia passengers were posteriored much lower to the ground.

If there was one key area of disappointment, it was with the car's anemic 34-horsepower 1,192-c.c. air-cooled engine, a direct copy of the Beetle's with no attempt to dial in even a minimal horsepower increase.

The four-cylinder was connected to a floor-mounted shifter with the same novocaine-induced numbness that has plagued every four-speed Vee Dub since the very beginning.

In terms of performance, the Karmann Ghia had its good and bad points. On the plus side, the car's aerodynamic bodywork allowed it to attain a top velocity of 77 mph, nine more than the Beetle. The coupe's slippery shape also gave it a little more security on highways, especially in crosswind situations. On the down side, the low and slow Karmann Ghia outweighed the Beetle by some 500 pounds, resulting in the embarrassment of accelerating more sedately than its less sporty cousin.

The first Karmann Ghia rolled off the Osnabrck assembly line in 1955, shortly before its September Frankfurt Auto Show debut. A year later, 10,000 sportsters had reached dealers throughout Europe and North America. Volkswagen had another certified hit on its hands.

The Karmann Ghia coupe was followed by the release of a convertible model in November, 1957. Its multi-layered fabric top, featuring a glass rear window, was hand-stitched using the same methods employed making the Beetle convertible (also constructed by Karmann).

As the Karmann Ghia's popularity grew, Volkswagen added a Brazilian production facility in 1960 to supply the South American market.

Buoyed by the continued sales growth of the original, Volkswagen launched a second Karmann Ghia, called the Type 3, in the fall of 1961. This version was based on the newly-developed lineup of larger two-door sedans, wagons and fastbacks that offered more interior space and more power than the Beetle. However, the Ghia-designed exterior lacked the intrinsic beauty of the original, and the Type 3 was cancelled in 1969 after 42,500 had been sold.

Meanwhile, sales of the original Karmann Ghia continued to flourish despite only minor physical and mechanical updates. Beginning in 1966, however, engine displacement and output began to expand, reaching 1,583 cc and 60 horsepower by 1970. By this time, increasingly stringent North American emissions and safety regulations, the bane of import vehicles everywhere, were beginning to take their toll, and the Karmann Ghia could not escape.

On July 31, 1974, after a lifespan lasting almost 20 years, Volkswagen halted production of the Karmann Ghia. The final tally: 443,478 produced and marketed worldwide, making it one of the all-time best-selling sports cars.

Although the Karmann Ghia has been consigned to classic-car events and Ebay auctions, Volkswagen has historically maintained its relationship with Wilhelm Karmann. All body panels and trim pieces for the last-generation Golf Cabrio (1995-'02) were manufactured by the company, then shipped to Mexico for final assembly. Karmann also assembles some Mercedes-Benz products as well as other European makes.

But, it's that cute Beetle-derived sports car that people remember most fondly, and the vehicle that brought both Karmann and the Ghia design studio their greatest notice.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

The Herald-Mail Articles