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The Magnificent Karmann Ghia

One of the prettiest of classic coupes

Words by Michael Knowling, Pix by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in 2006.

The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia is one of the most collectable sports cars around the world. Sure, it lacks the performance to match comparable models from Porsche and other high-performance companies, but this is a vehicle that combines stunning looks with traditional Volkswagen reliability and character.

It’s no wonder they are amongst the most sought after classic cars on the market.

The Karmann Ghia was born in mid 1955 at a time when Volkswagen was keen to enhance its image. The worldwide market had largely recovered from World War II and buyers were interested in something more than a simple and practical conveyance.

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Volkswagen approached established German coach builder, Karmann, to provide an attractive design. Karmann had already established a relationship with Volkswagen and was responsible for cabriolet versions of the Beetle. At this point, Karmann contacted an Italian design company, Carrozzeria Ghia, and it just happened they had the perfect design waiting to go. It is reputed that the design had already been rejected by Chrysler... Big mistake!

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The Ghia-designed low-profile body was adapted to fit the contemporary Beetle floorpan and retained use of its 1200cc flat-four, air-cooled engine (making 37kW). Top speed is around 115 km/h and Beetle-spec four-wheel drum brakes are used to slow the 820kg kerb mass.

In August ’55, the first examples – dubbed Type 14 - rolled off the German production line. The Karmann Ghia badge was a no-brainer. From its first public appearance, the two-seater Karmann Ghia was received with open arms and quickly became known as ‘the beautiful Beetle’. It’s no surprise the same body design continued largely unchanged for nearly 20 years... Sales exceeded 10,000 units in the first year and in 1957 Volkswagen added a cabriolet version which sold well despite its considerable price.

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A mild facelift was performed in 1959; Volkswagen was aware that wholesale styling changes to the body could spell disaster. Look closely at a ’59 model and you’ll notice the elongated front nostrils, the headlights are mounted higher, the windscreen and doors are revised and slimmer taillights are used. Beneath the finned engine cover, the 1300cc engine’s carburettor was also revised to help achieve 40kW and a 5 km/h increase in top speed. But the Karmann Ghia was never regarded as a true performance machine; how could it with Beetle underpinnings?

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Interestingly, a new-look Type 34 Karmann Ghia was introduced alongside the Type 14 during 1962. The Type 34, which is built on the Volkswagen Type III chassis, is larger, roomier and better equipped. And, thanks to a 1500cc engine, it’s considerably faster - top speed is 132 km/h. Suspension and brakes are shared with the Type III. The Type 34 is easily identified by its round taillights and four headlight nose with inswept style lines (often referred to as ‘whiskers’).

The appearance of the Type 34 caused controversy and, to make sales even more difficult, it was also the most expensive Volkswagen in the line-up. Interestingly, Volkswagen announced release of a Type 34 Karmann Ghia cabriolet but that was withdrawn at the last minute due to excessive cost. An optional sliding steel sunroof was offered instead. An engine update in 1964 brought dual down-draught carburettors and high compression pistons. This created the Type 34 ‘1500 S’ model. In 1966, an all-new 1600cc engine was fitted.

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Through the late ‘60s, the original Type 14 Karmann Ghia was upgraded largely to improve safety. In ’67, front disc brakes were adopted, there were numerous under-body changes and the fuel filler was relocated. The engine was also upgraded to 39kW 1500cc (similar to that used in the early Type 34) and the electrical system was changed from 6 to 12 volt. Sales of the Karmann Ghia peaked at around 33,000 annually following the introduction of the 1500cc engine.

Nineteen sixty-nine brought wrap-around front indicators, much larger taillights and the cabriolet received a glass rear window instead of a synthetic item. Production of the larger Type 34 Karmann Ghia was also axed during this year – less than 43,000 examples were built over the model’s seven year life.

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The early ‘70s brought a very different look for the Karmann Ghia. For the 1971 model year, the body was updated to incorporate even bigger taillights and stronger, square section bumper bars. In the next year, still-larger taillights were installed to improve brakelight visibility from various viewing angles. Unfortunately, the well proportioned look of the original Karmann Ghia had been lost – and buyers were moving towards other, new-generation vehicles.

Facing dwindling sales and difficulties meeting safety standards (the Ghia’s pillars are extremely thin!), production of the Type 14 ended in 1974. Fewer than 450,000 examples were built in its 19 year run. In some markets, the Karmann Ghia was replaced by the Scirocco which was nowhere near as popular.

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Today, the timeless styling of the Karmann Ghia ensures it is in high demand amongst car enthusiasts. Even the less popular Type 34 has gained a following. Early Type 14s (pre 1960) generally fetch more money than later examples – the cleaner styling of the earlier cars more than offsets the technical improvements in the later cars.

The example seen in this article is a 1600cc 1973 model provided by Volkspower in Melbourne. Interestingly, this vehicle is a grey import from Japan (the Karmann Ghia was sold in many counties throughout the world) and is factory right-hand drive. After receiving some recent body work, a respray and interior rejuvenation, the car presents well and is offered for sale at AUD$20,000 – AUD$25,000. Be aware that Karmann Ghias tend to rust more than other Volkswagen models – be sure to check the condition of the body before handing over any cash.

If you’re prepared to do some routine body maintenance and you’re not fussed about performance, the Karmann Ghia is one of the most attractive classic cars on the market.


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