Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

Junker or Jewel?

This 1972-1974 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was found sinking into the ground at a storage facility.

This 1972-1974 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was found sinking into the ground at a storage facility.

On my last trip to load up the final carton of LP record albums from my storage unit, I went in search of a car that my son had found and “loved the look” of. The Karmann Ghia was a car I had always been ambivalent about, because in the days of my youth, the best thing to do with a Volkswagen seemed to be to tear off the body and replace it with a lightweight fiberglass Meyers Manx dune buggy shell. Now, in hindsight, I can appreciate this model for what it represented.

This Karmann Ghia is one in spirit only, having been seriously cleaned up and rodded with a Porsche Engine. Still, all the original lines are there.

This Karmann Ghia is one in spirit only, having been seriously cleaned up and rodded with a Porsche Engine. Still, all the original lines are there.

After World War II, Germany was trying to get back on its economic feet and get some of its bombed out factories going again. Volkswagen was pumping out a few Beetles and had contracted with a couple of coach-building firms to hand-build a convertible version. Volkswagen grew a bit concerned over time, because post-war countries such as the U.S. were beginning to look toward better, more elegant products, automotively speaking. Not everyone mind you, but those who began to prosper again first.

Frankly, postwar automobile design in the U.S. was at an all-time low just at a time when people became attracted to attractive design, new features, and passing power. The 1949 Ford began a serious move away from 1930’s-derived designs, and Chevrolet and Chrysler did, too. As the 1950’s rolled in, concept cars or “dream cars” served to reveal the glamorous future ahead, and the scramble quickly began for specific low-production “flagship” models which would serve to boost the entire brand’s public image. Think T-Bird and Corvette. You’re more inclined to buy a family-friendly but unexciting sedan if you know that the same company also produces a sporty model that everyone considers to be awesome.

This pretty much represents what the earlier Karmann Ghia looked like. Svelte and aerodynamic.

This pretty much represents what the earlier (but not earliest) Karmann Ghias looked like. Svelte and aerodynamic. The rest are just little details.

What on earth does that have to do with Volkswagen, you ask? Everything. The original VW Type 1 “Beetle” was an ultra-low cost “peoples car” designed by one Dr. Ferdinand Porsche before the war. Hitler commissioned it largely for political image reasons, and its purpose was to make personal motorized all-weather transportation affordable. Think of it as Germany’s more modern version of the Ford Model T. Der Fuhrer strung Porsche along with a promise of production, and meanwhile had him design two open military versions as well as slave away on other projects. Aside from some prototypes and the Fuhrer’s public admiration of them, not much happened with the Type 1. So after the war, here’s Volkswagen trying to market bare-bones cheap 15-year-old designs to a market that is generally moving upscale.

Hard to envision this being restored into the car in the photo above, but it can be. All it takes is a briefcase full of large bills.

Hard to envision this being restored into the car in the photo above, but it can be. All it takes is a briefcase full of large bills.

All of Detroit was pushing out dream cars for massive car shows, and maneuvering to put some image-boosting flagship models into production, it was no secret that Chrysler’s dream cars were being variously designed and/or built  by Carrozzeria Ghia or Turin, Italy. (In those days, one could easily find bodymen capable of hand-forming entire cars, for peanuts.) It so happened that Wilhelm Karmann Jr, having recently (1952) taken the helm of coachbuilder Karmann GMBH of Osnabruck, Germany was good friends with the Chief Stylist of Ghia, Luigi Segre. Volkswagen management had stoutly resisted Karmann’s efforts to design a sporty car based on the Type 1’s humble chassis, and had rejected each of the styling prototypes presented. Basically, Karmann mentioned this lamentation to Segre in casual conversation at the Genf Automobile Salon in spring of 1953.

All vintage car restorations need to be approached as a labor of love, because you'll never get your money back. Want to have a good time? Go! Want to make a profit? Stop.

All vintage car restorations need to be approached as a labor of love, because you’ll never get your money back. Want to have a good time? Go! Want to make a profit? Stop.

Segre then apparently decided to do what’s called “spec work”.  Without letting anyone know, he quietly got his hands on a standard-issue Type 1 and tore it down to its flat chassis platform. He then built a design study on it within six months, and surprised Wilhelm Karmann with the prototype in a private garage in Paris. It was quickly and quietly shipped to Karmann’s headquarters, where a small team of specialists calculated development and production costs. Once done, the prototype was presented to Volkswagen CEO Heinrich Nordhoff, who at last folded like a house of cards. He liked the appearance as well as the calculations, and agreed to invest in production of the little coupe. Presented at the International Auto show in 1955, orders began to roll in at a rate above VW’s (and Karmann’s) production capacity. First year sales: 11,500. That’s a lot for a slow, hand-built coupe. In contrast, the first-year (1953) Corvette sold 300 units, and 1954 saw 3,640, but by the end of that model year nearly 1/3 remained unsold due to horrifically bad quality problems. 1955 saw 700 units produced, mainly a throttling back by GM to try to get a handle on how to make fiberglass work as a production body material, plus a heap of infighting about whether to kill the Corvette off entirely. It didn’t cross 11,500 annual units until 1961. The first-year T-Bird (1955) blew them both out of the water with 16,000 units, though it was hardly hand-built.

Once the convertible version of the Karmann Ghia came out in 1957, orders for that version began to come in from North America despite zero advertising. They’d consumed 30,000 of them before the first ad campaign began in 1961. Though half the price of the Corvette, the good looking VW coupe wasn’t particularly cheap. Instead of the usual bolt-on fenders and welting, the Karmann Ghia’s body was welded together with the seams blended by hand with pewter. This technique was the same as that used for upscale European sports cars. Its advertising appeal was based on its build quality and good styling, plus the legendary reliability of the humble Beetle. It sold well until 1974, when VW replaced it with the more modern Scirocco.

During its run, the Karmann Ghia received much praise and more awards for its design, and as an image-boosting flagship for VW, it worked. The Type 1 came to be accepted in the U.S. first as a kind of statement of rebellion against the “fins and tonnage” movement that Detroit was taking. The low cost, reliability and exceptional build quality of VW’s began to take its toll on Detroit – not so much in market share as mind share – and Detroit responded by 1960 with its own versions of economy cars. All but one resembled shrunken, stripped down big cars that never matched the Bug’s core competencies. In my view, the Karmann Ghia ceased being a flagship for VW once the Bug began to hit its stride. It was simply a pleasant and fun alternative for people who just couldn’t see themselves in an evolving 1936 sedan.

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7 thoughts on “Junker or Jewel?

  1. Here is a market for VWs. Go to http://www.thesamba.com/vw/classifieds/search.php , go down to “Categories” and highlight “Vehicles- Ghia” then click on “All” then hit the search button. 273 Ghia’s in all shapes & condition for sale.

  2. Doug, my first car was a 1968 KG that took everything I could do to it and kept running like a swiss watch. Thanks for the excellent writeup, it took me back!

    • Awesome! But the big question is, do you wish you still had it? I once owned a couple of Beetles, one with a canvas sunroof that never leaked. Never had any defrost heat, though. Both were always ailing (as 15-year-old-plus junkers) but never refused to start or actually quit on the road. They rusted out, but windows and doors never had a hint of binding up.
      And thanks for the complement! I’d usually put this post over on Thats Obsolete!, but it’s “informal”, and something I just stumbled over.

  3. My first car was a 1970 bug. I loved that car and drive it til it needed more work than I could afford. Lucky for it, I sold it to a man who fixed it up nicely for his daughter.

    Much later in life, I fell for and bought a Kharmin Chia that needed … everything to get it back on the road. Sadly I couldn’t do it so it was sold. I don’t know what happened to it. I hope it got it’s rebuild as the body was in really good shape.

    VWs are my weakness.

    • I can understand that. I’ve had two Beetles in the mid-1970s, a ’61 and a ’60, one having a sliding cloth sunroof – which still worked perfectly despite its other mechanical problems. One had no rear bumper, as road salt had corroded away the mounts and there was nothing left to attach to. I had to fake up a wood beam one to meet state law. Both of them represented The Car That Would Not Die. Illinois winter salt had taken its toll on the cheap racing-style exhaust headers that had been installed on one (with resulting no heat in winter), and sheet metal heat collectors on the second one that in theory supplied the defroster, such as one may choose to define that. But they both kept starting and running. Both were like mini-draft horses, just content to plod along, and were very undemanding to drive. Fun, even. I returned from the airport to work one time and found the “racing” headers on the ground, having rusted through enough to fall off. Sounded awesome when I circled the parking lot, for a wheezing four-banger! At that age, they both had such contrasts – tons of rust, yet body integrity was still stunning, and things like window cranks and door handle mechanisms still worked like new, which was unlikely for domestic cars of that age. The entire heating system was hopeless, and though the engine itself might sound like there was a loose chain in there somewhere, it just kept going. Kind of endearing little things, in their own way, like an uncle who wears plaid pants and suspenders, but is enthusiastic about you and has some great stories. Having finally caught on in the U.S. 25 years after its origination – and largely unchanged – it was the only affordable foreign model of that First Wave that could survive sustained Interstate speeds, and replaced modernity and sophistication with build quality and anvil-like reliability. But it wouldn’t have caught on without their ad agency to spread the word in the unconventional style it did. It would be like trying to market a 1992 model of anything today, only more so, because differentiation these days is now done in details, not contrasting concepts.

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