The real bug with any Karmann-Ghia is rust. It's claimed nearly all of the early cars, and it can appear anywhere on the body


By the mid-1950s, it appeared certain that the West German economic miracle would be sustained. Luxury models from BMW and Mercedes-Benz began to reappear. Even Volkswagen began to consider something more special than the prosaic Beetle sedan.

The Italian coachbuilder Ghia had proposed designs for Studebaker and Chrysler, though they both came to naught. Ghia then suggested a variation on its Studebaker work to Volkswagen, modifying the design to fit on a chassis twelve inches wider than a Beetle sedan. VW
accepted, and they showed the car at the 1953 Paris show.

Production began in 1955 for the 1956 model year, with Karmann building the bodies to Ghia's design. The workmanship was exquisite. Unlike the Beetle, fenders were welded, not bolted, and seams were carefully leaded. Interior fittings were done to a higher standard as well.

Unfortunately, nothing was done with the standard 1,200-cc VW Type 1 air-cooled motor. With less than 40 hp and a split-case transmission with a crash first, in spite of advertising copy, the Karmann-Ghia was no sports car. Still, it was a solid hit for VW, selling over 10,000 copies in its first year. Performance was leisurely at best, and Road & Track concluded that the Karmann-Ghia was simply "a Beetle in an Italian suit."

At least it's a lovely suit. Industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague named the Karmann-Ghia one of the 100 best-designed products in the world in 1958. Built until 1974, when it was replaced by the Rabbit-based Giugiaro-designed Scirocco, the Karmann-Ghia changed very little over its long production life.

Early cars rarest and most expensive

The earliest cars are identified by headlights mounted lower on the fender than post-1959 Ghias. A cabriolet was added in 1958. Changes were minor until 1967, when 12-volt electricals appeared, along with a 1,500-cc engine.

Thereafter, the safety police got into high gear; the handsome painted dash went away, and the taillights quadrupled in size. Impact bumpers spoiled the last two years of Karmann-Ghia production. As an aside, 1969 at least brought real independent rear suspension, and 1970 saw the introduction of the 1,600-cc motor. The vestigial rear seats were eliminated in 1973.

Early cars (especially cabriolets) are frightfully expensive to restore, with trim items and original upholstery scarce and expensive. Count on spending several thousand to replace the lined convertible top of a cabriolet.

Mechanically, however, everything is straightforward Beetle and generally cheap, with the exception of cars equipped with VW's tricky and undesirable "Automatic Stickshift." Similar to Porsche's Sportomatic, it was a clutchless, two-pedal semi-automatic transmission. Parts for it are scarce, and it's hardly worthwhile, making an already slow car even slower. A perfect, orange, autostick-equipped, 14,000-mile, 1971 cabriolet sold at Silver's Reno auction in August 2007 (SCM# 46896) for a modest $25,380, thanks to the gearbox.

You can go faster, but not fast

Speaking of slow, at least that can be remedied. Most of the early Type 1 speed equipment from EMPI and other manufacturers is still available in one form or another. Doubling the original horsepower and making significant chassis upgrades is not too difficult if that's your thing. Most of the period alloy wheels that were such nice upgrades over the steel wheel and dogdish hubcaps are also still available, along with most mechanical parts from Mid America Motorworks,

The real bug with any Karmann-Ghia, however, is rust. It's claimed nearly all of the early low-headlight cars, and it can appear nearly anywhere on the body. Floors, rockers, and fenders behind the headlights are all fair game.

And in any Karmann-Ghia, the protruding nose is particularly vulnerable. A K-G that hasn't been popped in the nose is as rare as a sunny day in January in Portland. And it doesn't help that a badly rusted or hard-hit Ghia can require a complete front clip. And you'll get that where?

In any case, a stock Karmann-Ghia is really no more than an attractive ice cream-getter. With 0-60 mph times in the 20-second-range and 80 mph flat out, a K-G has no place in modern freeway traffic. At least the ride is relatively comfortable and the styling is attractive enough to provoke backward glances when you leave it in a parking lot.

As one would expect, collectors seem to prefer the earliest cars, which are the rarest, purest, and highest quality Ghias-any pre-1967 steel-dash car is desirable. Also reasonably well liked are the 1969s, with small taillights and fully independent suspension.

Nice Karmann-Ghias (especially cabriolets) have long since risen above the ranks of credit card cars. Perhaps it's the law of substitution coming into play. As Porsche 356 prices have soared, K-Gs have become more desirable, and prices have gone up. No, they're not going to set any quarter-mile records, but K-Gs are well made, comfortable, easy to maintain, and very pretty. Sort of like a VW 190SL.

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