60 years of the Karmann Ghia

This is one of the articles in MoneywebDrive, Moneyweb’s new digital motoring magazine. Read the free magazine in Joomag format here. 

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The Frankfurt International Motor Show opens its doors to the public on the 17 September 2015 with a special tribute paid at the Volkswagen stand to one of the most eye-catching cars ever conceived by the Wolfsburg concern. The show marked 60 years of the Karmann Ghia.
At the 1955 show, the beautiful, sensuous, Karmann Ghia made its public debut at the Messe in downtown Frankfurt, and it was undoubtedly a show-stopper. Yet few people viewing the car for the first time would have realised that beneath that sensational shape – styled by Luigi Segre of the Italian Carrozzeria Ghia, and hand-crafted by one of the oldest coach-builders in the world at that time – Karmann of Osnabruck – beat the heart of a humble Volkswagen Beetle.

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The original Karmann Ghia coupe was powered by a 1 192 cc air-cooled four-cylinder motor identical to the original Type One Volkswagen – in those days, the term Beetle was not used officially for the Volkswagen sedan. The rest of the mechanical ancillaries were Beetle too, although the floor-pan was widened slightly to accept the two-plus-two body, which was built and mated to the otherwise Beetle-like chassis at the Karmann factory located east of Hanover.
But what VW had created was “Beetle in a party dress” and in fact this was the forerunner of many similar cars marketed today, where the accent is on style as much as performance. Think Scirocco for the VW brand and some of the Korean coupes too.

The fact that the Karmann Ghia’s frontal area was much smaller than a Beetle meant that it was marginally quicker on top speed, with contemporary road tests of the period reporting a speed of around 118 km/h, whereas the cooking Beetle was good for about 115 km/h.
But that early power deficit, mattered not a hoot to the people that bought the car, and indeed, many thousands of people wanted just such a steed, as even then the Beetle had built a reputation for reliability that was arguably unmatched on the planet.

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Two years after the coupe’s debut, the equally stunning convertible was launched, also called a cabriolet in certain markets. Initially the Karmann was built only in left-hand-drive form, and this was the case until the 1960 model, when the first right-hand-drive Ghias were built.

In South Africa, the Karmann Ghia made its first impact in 1958, when a relaxation of import tariffs on special models saw an influx of all sorts of cars previously unobtainable here. Thus we had all sorts of special builds arriving here in that year, ranging from tiny microcars to thundering great Cadillacs and Thunderbirds. Ghias’s are becoming rarer and rarer seen in SA and are seen, along with the 1959 model, as the most desirable Ghias in terms of collectability.
The reason is these early models have the so-called low-light styling. From 1960 onwards a big design revision saw the headlights raised up slightly, the tail lights grow bigger, and the wheel arch cut outs on the front fenders re-angled. The most noticeable change was that the front end fresh air vent “nostrils” were made larger in 1960.
Some of these improvements included marginally more powerful 1 192 cc engine for the 1960s, power increased from 30 to 34 horse- power, and in 1966, power increased further to 40 bhp with the introduction of the new 1 300 model.
This model was unique in that it had ball-joint front suspension and the car’s hubcaps were now flat-faced, rather than the old dome-shaped Beetle items.
In 1967 power increased further to 44 bhp with the introduction of the 1500 cc model, and this car is currently very desirable in the Ghia club as it was the first to feature disc brakes, so the car now actually stopped without the “gloink-gloink-gloink” syndrome of front brake drums worn oval.

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In 1971 the car was available with a 1 600 cc engine, and it went so well that the American magazine Car & Driver actually compared a 1600 Ghia Cabriolet to a 1955 Porsche Speedster, and the Ghia ran out the winner!  

The Lowlight 1st generation Ghias are extremely rare today and only a handful exist in South Africa – maybe numbering as few as 20 in total, whereas a few hundred Type 1 Ghias survive, out of a total of some 500 or so that were imported here by VWSA.

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In the 1970s the final Type 1 Ghias (which continued in production, just like the Beetle) grew bigger rear tail lights, flat ugly blade bumpers and other oddities that somewhat detracted from the original. But nevertheless the car continued to sell right until production ceased, 18 years after its launch!
It was a hugely successful sporty-type model for VW, and in total some 365 912 coupes and 79 326 cabriolets were produced, with the Type 3 Ghia numbering 45 000.
Values have increased TWO FOLD over the years, My advice is, if you like the car, go for the best one you can rather than attempting a restoration job. They remain a highly usable classic that can actually double as a daily driver, although, given that bumpers and the like are almost impossible to source now even from Germany, best to treat it as a Sunday driver.
As for mechanical spares, any good spares shop should keep your Ghia running just as sweetly as any common-and-parking-lot Beetle.