The Karmann Ghia, the most glamorous of Volkswagens, is an automotive drag queen: a rugged and humble economy-car chassis dressed up in the finest haute couture. It is also a car of many nations: engineered and built in Germany, designed in Italy … and styled in Detroit? Read on…
THINKING BEYOND THE BEETLEFor 20 years, Volkswagen managing director Heinz Nordhoff clung stubbornly to the Beetle. Although both in-house designers and outside consultants like Porsche proposed literally dozens of redesigns or replacements for the familiar Bug, Nordhoff rejected almost all of them. Instead, he opted for a steady, conservative evolution of VW’s basic Type 1 sedan (the Beetle) and Type 2 Transporter (a.k.a. Microbus), improving their functionality and build quality without altering their basic design. Like Henry Ford before him, Nordhoff preferred to perfect a fundamentally archaic automobile rather than risk anything new.
Conservative and autocratic as he was, Nordhoff was not oblivious to the value of new products, so long as they required little investment on the part of Volkswagen itself. The Beetle convertible, for example, was the product of the independent coachbuilder Karmann, not VW’s own Wolfsburg factory. As early as 1951, Nordhoff and Wilhelm Karmann had discussed the possibility of a stylish coupe based on the Type 1 chassis. Nordhoff was not satisfied with Karmann’s styling studies, however, and nothing had come of it.
AN ITALIAN OFFERAround the same time, Mario Boano, styling director of the Turin-base Carrozzeria Ghia, was looking for new customers. After the war, Italy’s coachbuilders had an abundance of talent, but a distinct shortage of business; they scraped by with consulting work and a handful of custom-bodied or semi-custom cars.
In 1950, Ghia was approached by C.B. Thomas, president of Chrysler’s Export division, and commissioned to do a one-off on a stock Plymouth chassis as a demonstration of what Ghia could do. The result was the XX-500, a four-door sedan based on an Alfa Romeo design Boano had done a year or so earlier.
Unlike GM, where styling chief Harley Earl reigned supreme, Chrysler in those days was dominated by engineers, not designers. Chairman K.T. Keller had recently hired Virgil Exner — formerly at Studebaker, and before that, an employee of Raymond Loewy — to head the tiny Advanced Style Center, although as yet Exner had no control over production car design. Both Exner and Keller impressed by the quality of Ghia’s craftsmanship, and even more impressed by the Italian studio’s low costs. Keller soon negotiated a deal for Ghia to build concept cars for Chrysler, based on designs created by Exner’s advanced styling studio.
During the same period, Segre began discussions with Karmann about the possibility of a Volkswagen-based coupe. Karmann had yet to produce a design that satisfied Nordhoff, but Karmann’s firm still needed the work. He was willing to collaborate if Ghia could develop a suitable design for Karmann to build. Mario Boano’s studios created several styling studies for a VW-based coupe, but none of their early efforts met with Karmann’s approval. Boano went back to the drawing board.
AN ELEGANT CONNECTIONAround the same time, Virgil Exner commissioned Ghia to build a sleek fastback show car called the Chrylser D’Elegance. Although it had a decidedly Italianate flair, it was entirely the work of Exner’s studio, principally former Kaiser-Frazer designer Cliff Voss. Exner’s team created a 3/8th-scale fiberglass model of the D’Elegance, which was shipped to Turin as a guide for Ghia’s artisans in creating the full-sized car. (Ghia also produced roughly 18 copies of the similar Thomas Special, some of which were sold through Chrysler’s French distributor, although contrary to some reports, there were not multiple copies of the D’Elegance.)
A few months later, in the fall of 1953, Luigi Segre presented Karmann with a new coupe prototype to Karmann. Although it rode a commercially purchased Volkswagen chassis, it bore a pronounced resemblance to Exner’s Chrysler D’Elegance design. The prototype was significantly smaller than the D’Elegance, but Virgil Exner thought it was a precisely scaled-down version of his design.
Years later, automotive writer Jan Norbye interviewed Ghia’s surviving designers, who insisted steadfastly that the design concepts for the Volkswagen coupe were Boano’s, not Exner’s. To defend that claim, some historians have gone so far as to attribute the D’Elegance design — and even Chrysler’s other Ghia-built specials — to Ghia’s designers in Turin. Exner’s son, Virgil Exner, Jr., who was close with Segre, said that Ghia made no secret of the resemblance between the two designs. In 1975, Exner, Jr. told author Richard Langworth that during a visit to the Ghia studios in May 1955, the Ghia stylists actually asked Exner if he thought it bore too strong a resemblance the D’Elegance; Exner replied that it looked exactly like it.
Although the VW coupe was already in progress when Ghia’s designers saw the D’Elegance, we suspect that the latter’s design provided several elements that Boano utilized for the Volkswagen project. It was not an outright copy — the VW coupe and the Chrysler were certainly not identical, least of all in size, and simply adapting such a design to a much smaller platform was itself no small feat. Nonetheless, we don’t believe the similarities were coincidental. It is certainly evident that the collaboration between Exner and Ghia produced a common design language — if they hadn’t, it’s unlikely that the D’Elegance would have provided any usable themes for Boano to use — but if we had to assign principal authorship for the design that became the Karmann Ghia, it would be to Exner, not Boano. (We’re inclined to dismiss as national chauvinism the idea that Ghia, not Exner, designed the D’Elegance; there is far too much evidence to the contrary.)
THE VOLKSWAGEN KARMANN GHIAWhatever its origins, the new design was favorably received by Wilhelm Karmann. He and Segre presented it to Heinz Nordhoff and Volkswagen vice president Karl Feurereisen in November 1953. Feuereisen was immediately enthusiastic, but the eternally conservative Nordhoff declared that it was too expensive before even asking what it would cost. Karmann retorted by quoting a highly attractive price. Nordhoff, who was neither blind nor lacking in taste (in his private life, he was a wine connoisseur and collected Renoirs), gave in. Contracts were swiftly signed and the new coupe got the green light for production.
Nordhoff was not wrong about the new coupe’s high production costs. Its sleek curves were too intricate and complex for simple stampings, and many of its panels had to be painstakingly hand-formed. Each body required a great deal of hand labor, which accounted for its high eventual prices, more than 50% higher than a Beetle sedan. The complexity of the body also posed serious production challenges, and it took 21 months for Karmann’s engineers to ready the approved design for mass production. The payoff for all this effort was a beautifully clean, elegant shape, one of the most attractive and tasteful of its era.
Underneath, the coupe rode a more-or-less ordinary Beetle chassis. Given the price and weight — the coupes were around 150 pounds (68 kg) heavier than the sedan — a more powerful engine than the Beetle’s 1,192 cc (73 cu. in.) four might have been appropriate, but Nordhoff was adamant that the coupe not be presented as a sports car. Volkswagen had a complex relationship with Porsche to preserve; VW paid licensing fees to Porsche for the Beetle (which had been designed by Ferdinand Porsche), while Porsche provided VW with engineering consulting services. Nordhoff had no desire to alienate Ferry Porsche by competing with the Porsche 356, which was in many respects a sleek, high-performance version of the Beetle. Since Karmann also did extensive business with Porsche, positioning the new VW coupe as a potential Porsche 356 rival would not have been a politic move for them, either.
In the end, the coupe’s only substantive mark of mechanical distinction was a front anti-roll bar, which helped to reduce the sedan’s tendency to oversteer. (Beetles did not get this addition until 1960.)
With the same engine as the sedan and more weight, the coupe’s performance was little better than that of the Beetle. The 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) sprint took more than 30 seconds, although thanks to its smaller frontal area and lower drag coefficient, the coupe had a higher top speed than the sedan, around 72 mph (116 km/h). It had the same unburstable nature, however, the same familiar engine note, and the same excellent fuel economy.
The coupe made its press debut in July 1955, about a month before it went into production. At that point, it still didn’t have a name. Wilhelm Karmann finally suggested “Karmann Ghia,” which was simple enough, and had an appropriately mellifluous ring. The Karmann Ghia coupe went on sale in September 1955, with a starting price of 7,500 DM ex works ($1,875 at contemporary exchange rates), compared with 4,700 DM for an export-spec Beetle. In the U.S., prices started at $2,395, which was as much as a full-size Ford Fairlane 500.
A cabriolet was added to the line in November 1957, priced at 8,250 DM in Germany. In the U.S., it cost about $350 more than the coupe, putting it in the same price territory as a Chevrolet Impala convertible — definitely not an economy-car price tag.
THE UN-SPORTS CARWhile the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was expensive, it found a unique niche. It was not fast, but it was as attractive as some cars costing two or three times as much and few of those pricier rivals could match VW’s reliability or low running costs. Despite the high prices, 10,000 Karmann Ghia coupes were sold in the first year, and a substantial waiting list soon developed.
Initial production was slow, and as a result, Karmann Ghias were in short supply in the U.S. market until the early 1960s and Volkswagen didn’t begin advertising them until 1961. VW’s U.S. ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, approached the Karmann Ghia campaign with the same cheek and irreverence as their justly famous Beetle ads, freely admitting the car’s lackluster performance, but trumpeting its reliability, build quality, and Italian style. (Naturally, no mention was made of Virgil Exner.)
Since the Karmann Ghia was based on the Beetle, it evolved as the Beetle did. Engine size and power grew steadily, to 1,285 cc (79 cu. in.) in 1965, 1,493 cc (91 cu. in.) in 1966, and 1,585 cc (97 cu. in.) in 1970, the latter offering a whopping 60 gross horsepower (45 kW). The later Beetle’s MacPherson strut front suspension didn’t fit under the Karmann Ghia’s fenders, but in 1969, the Karmann Ghia acquired the Beetle’s improved “double-jointed” rear suspension. Karmann Ghias also got front disc brakes from 1967, which U.S.-market Beetles never received.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of significant changes, the Karmann Ghia’s popularity continued to increase throughout the sixties. By 1970, annual sales were over 38,000, despite starting prices over $3,000.
Its little-altered styling was timeless, but by the early seventies, there were similarly priced rivals with far better performance. A Datsun 240Z, for example, cost little more, but offered three times the horsepower, not to mention a more modern suspension. Karmann Ghia production finally ended in the summer of 1974; a total of 485,983 coupes and convertibles had been built in Germany and Brazil. Its replacement was the Golf-based Volkswagen Scirocco coupe, which bowed in early 1974. Like the Karmann Ghia, the Scirocco was also built by Karmann and styled in Italy (by ItalDesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro).
TYPE 34The original, Exner/Boano-styled Volkswagen Karmann Ghia (known to VW as the Type 143) was the first Karmann Ghia, but it was not the only one. In September 1961, Volkswagen introduced a coupe version of its new, cautiously modernized Type 3 sedan, known internally as Type 34, and nicknamed “Der Große Ghia.” Like the Type 143, it was designed by Ghia and built by Karmann. In a curious irony, its styling was at least partly the work of Virgil Exner, Jr., who worked as a consultant for Ghia from 1958 to 1961.
The Type 34 Karmann Ghia was never officially imported to the U.S. and sales were disappointing.
Production ended in June 1969, replaced by the Porsche 914. A total of 42,505 Type 34 Karmann Ghias were built, all coupes — there were prototypes of a convertible version, but it never went into production.
There was also a third Karmann Ghia, also based on the Type 3, but produced only in Volkswagen’s Brazilian factory in São Paolo. Dubbed Type 145, it was marketed as the Karmann Ghia TC. The TC was never sold in either Europe or America, although 18,119 were sold in South America between 1970 and 1976.
KEEP YOUNG AND BEAUTIFULBy the time the original Volkswagen Karmann Ghia reached the end of its life, Heinz Nordhoff was gone. After announcing his imminent retirement, he died in April 1968, leaving his successor, Kurt Lotz, with a very troubled company. Nordhoff’s reactionary attitude towards the development of an adequate replacement for the Beetle had done considerable damage to VW’s European market position. In the U.S., the Beetle was a popular icon, but in Europe, it had fallen well behind the times. Lotz’s efforts to set a new direction led to chaos and political strife, and he was forced out in 1971. Volkswagen did not find its way until new chairman Rudolf Leiding introduced the Volkswagen Golf in the summer of 1974.
Mario Boano left Ghia at the end of 1953, shortly after proposing a joint venture with Stilo Bertone to produce a coupe version of Alfa Romeo’s new Giulietta. He and his son, Gian Paolo, opened their own styling studio, Carrozzeria Boano, in 1954. Three years later, he passed control of the firm to his son-in-law, Ezio Ellena, and became head of styling for Fiat.
Virgil Exner became director of styling at Chrysler in 1953 and a vice president in 1957, a position he held until he was unceremoniously fired in November 1961. In 1962, he and his son started their own design firm, Virgil M. Exner, Inc., designing, among other things, the abortive Duesenberg revival of 1966 and the Pontiac Grand Prix-based Stutz Blackhawk, which went into limited production in 1971. Exner died in 1973, but his son went on to become a leading stylist at Ford Motor Company.
Luigi Segre died in 1963 and Carrozzeria Ghia eventually fell into the hands of Argentine businessman Alejandro de Tomaso, who sold it to Ford in 1970. It survives today, more or less, as Ford’s Italian design arm, and the name has been widely used as a model designation in Ford’s European operations.
The original Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, however, remains immortal. They’re prone to rust — a problem with various vintage Karmann products, exacerbated by the complex welding for the body’s compound curves. With close to 500,000 built, though, Karmann Ghias are common enough to be affordable, but not so ubiquitous as to be dull. As long as they don’t rot or suffer a severe shunt, they’re as cheap and easy to run as a Beetle. There are many faster cars, but few as pretty.