Volkswagen, in the early 1950's, was facing the prospect of selling a small line of "ugly" cars (the Beetle and the Bus) to a more demanding car buying public. VW executives felt it was necessary to introduce an "image" car to reach this new market. Several other car companies were in the same situation, most notably, Chrysler. Chrysler contracted with the Italian styling and coach building firm of Ghia to build a series of "dream" cars. While Chrysler produced some of these dream cars, one car they did not produce would eventually become, you guessed it, the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.
While Chrysler worked with Ghia, Volkswagen contracted with the German coach builder, Karmann to build their "image" car. Karmann, in need of a design, approached Ghia and somehow the old Chrysler design surfaced and was modified to fit the Beetle floorpan. The VW executives liked what they saw and by August of 1955, the first Volkswagen Karmann Ghias rolled off assembly line in Osnabruck, German as 1956 models.
Logo, located on the top right side of the rear engine lid.
The 1963 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia. Slower, but Prettier Than Any Porsche.
Controversy still swirls around just how much German coachbuilder Karmann actually contributed to the design of Volkswagen's eternally lovely Karmann-Ghia. But then one might expect many claims to such a conspicuous success.
Karmann had built lavish custom auto bodies at least since 1905, four years after Wilhelm Karmann Sr. purchased the factory of coachbuilder Christian Klages in Osnabruck. In 1946, while repairing staff cars for the occupying British, Wilhelm Jr. designed a cabriolet for Volkswagen; by 1952 he was building 25 per day. Sensing still more opportunity in this relationship, Wilhelm next proposed a deluxe coupe for the Beetle chassis. Naturally Karmann's designers had ideas of their own, but Wilhelm agreed to a collaboration with Ghia?at the same time the Italian studio was building a series of idea cars created by Chrysler Advanced Design under Virgil M. Exner Sr.
The resemblance of the production Karmann-Ghia to Exner's 1953 Chrysler deElegance is undeniable. "Ex" always maintained Ghia adapted the design with his blessings, and Chrysler's. According to Virgil M. Exner Jr., it was the versatile Ghia engineer Giovanni Savonuzzi who accomplished the deft 8/10 downscaling of the full-sized deElegance, while artfully replacing the Chrysler's egg-crate grille with a gentle, boat-like prow.
The resulting Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia debuted as a genuine surprise at Frankfurt in July 1955. The shortage of city gas that slowed production that winter only made the sexy new coupe so much more desirable. A cabriolet version followed in 1957.
The Karmann-Ghia's improved aerodynamics added about 8 mph to the Beetle's 68-mph top speed, while 120 to 200 extra pounds (again, sources vary) weighed down on the VW's already limp acceleration. But then Volkswagen never promoted the Ghia as a sports car so much as a blend of exclusive style and VW economy. That the Ghia was very nearly identical to the Beetle mechanically was cited as an advantage.
So what's most surprising about driving a Karmann-Ghia is how much nicer it is than a Beetle. The soft bucket seats are farther apart, for more elbow room; and the seating position is lower and farther back in the same 94.5-inch wheelbase. (Wider platforms for the Karmann-Ghia were fabricated by Karmann, welded to Beetle backbones in Wolfsburg, then returned to Osnabruck for final assembly.)
Simple as the interior is, the richness of the materials suggests a medium-priced GT car. Instead of an open bin behind the rear seat, there are 6.2 cubic feet of enclosed luggage space. There's more insulation in a Ghia, too, separating the passengers from the eager, air-cooled purr of the 1192-cc flat-four in the rear.
The clutch is extremely smooth, and your feelings about the wiggly four-speed shifter will depend on your expectations. Drag racers will be disappointed. But take some extra time to savor the complexly nonlinear experience, and every gear change is a sensual pleasure. Wound to redline, the 40-hp Karmann-Ghia will crawl up to 60 mph just fast enough (about 28 seconds) to safely merge into traffic.
A front antiroll bar (which the Beetle lacked) keeps the Karmann flat in corners. Its ride is smooth and stable, steering response is tight, and feedback is good, though you'll never wonder where the weight is.
A total of 365,912 Karmann-Ghia coupes and 79,325 cabriolets were assembled before production ended in 1974.
(By John K. Katz, AutoWeek)
1955 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.
The award-winning Karmann-Ghia in this photo above was purchased new in June 1963 for just $1,801 through Volkswagen.
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