1956-74 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia

The Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia is a stylish, affordable collector's car that's inexpensive to buy, run and maintain.

The combination of almost voluptuous Italian styling, solid construction and durable components from the rear-engine Volkswagen Beetle gave the Karmann-Ghia a winning combination.
The first Karmann-Ghia was introduced in Europe in 1955 and arrived in America as a coupe in 1956. The convertible soon followed in 1958. It cost $300 to $400 more than the coupe, but was sportier to convertible-loving Americans, for whom it initially was built.

The slick little car was sold through 1974. Sales totaled an impressive 387,975 cars. And it could have lasted at least several years longer, except that the Karmann coachworks of West Germany needed more space to build Volkswagen's new Scirocco coupe, which lacked the Karmann-Ghia's flair.

Many Karmann-Ghias have survived, mostly in Sun Belt areas with no rust-producing salted winter roads.

As of August, 2009, a 1956-74 Karmann-Ghia coupe in really good shape is valued  from $4,225 to $5,875, while one in excellent shape costs $9,700 to $12,925, says the Collectible Vehicle Value Guide. The pricier convertible costs from $7,425 to $8,650 in very good condition and from $15,575 to $18,150 in excellent shape.

Those figures are basically chump change for a desirable collectible car in today's market.

The first Karmannn-Ghia enhanced Volkswagen's image when the Beetle was fairly new to America in the mid-1950s. Each one built reminded Beetle buyers that Volkswagen could make a dashing, solidly built car with the Beetle's storied quality and reliability.

It couldn't be any other way. because the Karmann-Ghia was a Beetle under its sleek body, with the same rear-mounted, rugged, air-cooled engine, chassis and other mechanical components.

Even the nicely padded convertible top with its glass (not plastic) rear window was easy to use, especially when compared to troublesome soft tops of popular British sports cars sold here in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Karmann-Ghia had a sportier dashboard than the Beetle's, besides wide, highly padded adjustable front seats that made Beetle seats look cheap. But, after all, the Karmann-Ghia initially cost $2,245, or $900 more than the Beetle and was expensive by Volkswagen's 1950s standards.

The most desirable Karmann-Ghia is arguably  the 1967 model with its 1.5-liter engine. That's because it was the last one unaffected by U.S. safety and emissions regulations.  

This special Volkswagen  was easy to buy and service, unlike most foreign sports cars, because many areas of the country had a conveniently located VW dealer.  Many Karmann-Ghias have survived, mostly in Sun Belt areas with no rust-producing salted roads.

Volkswagen never called the Karmann-Ghis a sports car, although its tight fold-down back seat essentially made it a two-seater.

One clever VW advertisement pictured it with racing stripes that made it look ready for the track. "You'd lose," said the advertisement's tag line.

At first, the Karmann-Ghia just had the first Beetle's fuel-stingy 1.2-liter, 36-horsepower four-cylinder engine. But acceleration was acceptable because the car only weighed approximately 1,750 pounds, or about 150 pounds more than the Beetle.

The Karmann-Ghia was three inches longer than the Beetle and nearly seven inches lower, although front head room was decent. Its low-slung body helped it handle better and made it more resistant to crosswinds than the oddly shaped Beetle, although it had the Beetle's excellent traction.

The Karmann-Ghia's aerodynamic body let it reach almost 80 mph, which was acceptable because many high-speed interstate highways weren't in existence during much of its life.      

The Karmann-Ghia's styling was from Italy's famous Ghia studios, which worked on exotic Italian sports cars. It's unclear who did the Karmann-Ghias'a actual styling work. But strong styling influences were from American Virgil Exner, who created Chrysler's sensational 1955 "Forward Look" styling, and Italian Mario Boano. Ghia styling director Luigi Segre, who helped promote the Karmann-Ghia project, combined their ideas with the work of other Ghia personnel.

The Karmann-Ghia had a specially crafted body from the respected Karmann coachworks, which was making solid Beetle convertibles in the early 1950s. It saw a car such as the Karmann-Ghis as a way to make more money.

Chassis side rails were widened to handle the four-inch-wider Karmann-Ghia body. A front anti-sway bar was added for better handling, and there were different springs and shock absorbers.

Beetles without bodies were shipped from Volkswagen's main plan to Karmann's facilities, where Karmann-Ghia bodies were made, painted, trimmed and put in Volkswagen's distribution system.

That process wasn't easy. The complex Karmann-Ghia body called for many internal pressings to be welded together and to the main panels. Almost hand-construction methods were required. They included filling, filing and sanding all seams before painting. All that helped make the car look great, but led to expensive repairs if a body panel needed replacement.

Beetle sales were climbing so rapidly that Volkswagen did little to promote the Karmann-Ghia until 1961, when it got 40 horsepower. After that, the car just kept getting better in small ways because it received the mechanical changes that improved the Beetle.

The Karmann-Ghia was one of those cars with virtually perfect original styling, so only subtle styling changes were made as the years passed. For example, larger parking lights, taillights, turn signals and hazard-warning lights followed new U.S. safety regulations and industry trends.

Front disc brakes were added in 1965, and a semi-automatic transmission was made available for 1968.

Horsepower climbed to 53 in 1967,and the car could hit 90 mph by 1972 with its larger 1.6-liter, 60-horsepower four-cylinder.

The Karmannn-Ghia's main attractions, though, were its sporty appearance and quality, not its performance. Still, it was fun to drive and could keep up with traffic.

Just as Chevrolet's rear-engine Corvair is becoming a desirable, affordable collector car, the Karmann-Ghia is finally getting its day in the sun.

About time, too.