Junker or Jewel?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.