Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

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Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

1955 - 1974
Flat 4.
1192 / 1584cc
30 / 50bhp
4 spd. man
Top Speed:
87 mph / 139 km/h
Number Built:
361,401 (Coupe)
80,899 (Cabriolet)
4 star
Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4


Wilhelm Karmann was a man of great ambition, much like Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. His company, Karmann, began talks of a joint VW/Karmann project with Volkswagen in the early 1950's. The idea was to produce a sporty vehicle based on the Beetle's mechanical underpinnings. Karmann turned to the Ghia styling studio in 1954 to design the body. The result was a gorgeous two-seat body in a coupe and cabriolet version.

Finally, in 1955, Herr Nordhoff agreed to produce this car and the result was the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia. Many enthusiasts find it the epitome of its genre in cars, it being styled in Italy and engineered in Germany. In fact the only real drawback to the drop dead gorgeous looks of the Karmann-Ghia was the "Beetle" power at the rear.

But over the years people have learn't to appreciate the reliability and cost of repairs the little beetle motor has provided. Besides, the stunning good looks of the Karmann Ghia far outweigh any negativity. Using a slightly wider beetle platform, such were the good looks of the vehicle that it would sell for 19 years, similar to another German convertible, the Mercedes 107 platform that started with the 350SL.

Most noteable of the improvements made during the life of the vehicle was the upgrading of the engine capacity to 1500cc in 1961 by using the motor from the Type 3 VW. The Karmann-Ghia was produced until 1974, with 361,401 coupes and 80,899 cabriolets were produced. An unusual, poorly recieved version of the Karmann-Ghia, the Type 3 Karmann Ghia, or Type 34 Ghia, to which it is sometimes referred, was introduced in the 1962 and never made it out of that decade. It was based on the Type 3 Volkswagen as opposed to the original Karmann Ghia being based on the Type 1 (Beetle).

Though the factory produced 31 (2 are known to survive today) prototype convertible versions, the convertible's never made it to production. Unlike the Type 1 Ghia, a sunroof could be ordered for the cars. From the back it looked very similar to a BMW 2002, otherwise, the car somewhat resembled a Chevy Corvair, the styling being more US oriented. For that reason, many find it an incredible mystery as to why Volkswagen didn't officially market the car in America. A little over 42,000 were manufactured, however less than 2,000 are believed to survive today. And just like the original Karmann-Ghia, they are very collectable.

The Karmann Ghia in Australia

When the Karmann Ghia launched in Australia in May 1960 it had an asking price of A£1598 including tax. In 1961 the initial version was replaced by an updated model, which boasted 40 brake horsepower instead of 36, and in many ways was a completely new car on performance. All of the former model's vices have been lost with the extra surge of power. In fact the new model Karmann Ghia, which along with the VW policy of only very, very minor changes, could not be picked from outside, seemed a gear better all round.

The changes were not just to the power output either. VW added a stabiliser bar which certainly helped handling. But it was those four horses that undeniably made things even better, assisted of course by the low centre of gravity of the KG, with added weight, width and length, which was more than compensated for by its aerodynamic design. If you were in the market for an honest but not outstanding performer (not forgetting it had an engine capacity of only 1192 cc) to attract attention, then the Karmann Ghia was the solution.

Now as then, the Karmann Ghia was an uncommon sight on Australian roads, such that the average person in the street would probably not recognise it. Once people found out the shared some Beetle running gear, their first question was usually: "Does it go any better than the ordinary VW?" The answer was 10mph when you really had it wound up. Though quieter than early VW models, the Karmann Ghia still gave a lusty air-cooled sound as you revved up in the lower gears. Changes were easy and the synchromesh on the first gear exceedingly handy. The only interior change for 1961 was the shifting of the bonnet catch button from the passenger's side to next to the steering wheel.

Behind the Wheel

The Hella headlights with European style cut-off for low beam were good on the open highway although of course we are judging against other cars from the era, and not what we would expect from a modern day car. A thermostat gave a range of instrument lighting to suit individual tastes. The most prominent dial, right in front of the driver, was the speedo, which strangely lacked the red marks on the normal VW Beetle as a guide when to change gears up or down. Just as large on the left was a clock, an electric one which would keep perfect time. But what a waste - most road testers lamented that Volkswagen did not instead opt to include a tacho which would have added sports car effect.

In the centre of these two dials was a fuel gauge, divided into quarters for the 8.8 gallons tank, which included 1.1 gallons operated off a reserve switch. This gauge was accurate, but badly marked. The reserve was at the end of the last quarter, instead of halfway through it, giving the driver the false impression that you were not likely to reach the last ounce for some time. But a loss of power would soon give you the message and you then could switch to reserve. Some owners claimed they had to pull over to be able to "turn the tap" which would have been a bit of an inconvenience.

Also fitted was a push button radio, cigarette lighter in the dashboard and a small glove box. The headlights were on a pull out button with two stages, while another button switched on the wipers when you turned it round, or squirted water on to the screen each time you pulled it out. With switches to give fresh air ventilation to either driver or passenger, plus a good working heater, the Karmann Ghia had many safety features lacking in the real sports cars. The backrest of the seats could be adjusted to five positions to ease fatigue. Each door had a wide pocket to accommodate maps and other extras. The self cancelling turn indicator switch was on the left of the steering wheel. Pushing it in and out flicked the headlights.

On the Inside

Room inside the Karmann Ghia was not extravagant, though sufficient. With the seat pushed fully back you could not quite use the straight arm technique unless you were reasonably short. The back casual seat was definitely not for adults, but for two children (under 12 years). This seat was comfortably made of foam rubber, but leg room was missing and tall persons were inclined to bump their heads when going over bad roads. The pedal placement was good but not great - once mastered there was no problem, however some road-testers from the era complained that their right foot was inclined to stamp on both the accelerator and brake pedals at the one time. Obviously this was due to the close spacing of the pedals, which was the same in all VW's from the era.

Both the exterior and interior were well put together, however the chrome air vents in the nose were prone to coming loose easily and could be made to rattle when handled. The number plate position, resting on the front bumper, made it vulnerable to traffic scratches. The overriders were perfectly placed to ward off blows, except by a vehicle with a pointed back which could intrude between them. The tyres were German Dunlop which did not squeal, even under tortuous cornering. Pressures were always interesting with rear engine vehicles, due to their greater weight on the back wheels. In the Karmann Ghia handbook owners were advised to have 16 lb front and 20 lb back for one or two passengers, or for high speeds or fully loaded, 17/23. But inside the glove box a sticker advised 17/24 at all times. Confusing for some owners - but a very small criticism.

Most owners quickly figured out that the Karmann Ghia would handle better with a little extra air than that recommended by VW. Admittedly the ride was harder over bumps and not so likely to sell cars. But handling on the highways at fast speed was assisted.
Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

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