The Karmann Ghia’s history is somewhat confused, with at least two separate designers claiming they were responsible for scribing out the Ghia’s evocative lines. Both Virgil Exner and Mario Boano claim to have designed the car, some aspects of the car, notably it’s “hips” bore a remarkable resemblance to the Chrysler D’Elegance concept, which had been designed Exner but built by Boano’s Carozzeria Ghia in 1953, however other styling cues from Boano cars which predate the D’Elegance are also present, suggesting that it’s more likely the work of Boano.
The Ghia had come into existence when Luigi Segre (Ghia’s commercial director) had been asked by Karmann to design an “image car” for Volkswagen. Following Europe’s recovery from the effects of WW2, VW had a reputation for building reliable, small and efficient cars, however they wanted to break into new markets and for this they needed a car that would captivate the general public in the same way as the Ford Thunderbird, or the Chevrolet Corvette.
Karmann approached Serge in 1953 with the brief to design VW’s image car. Luigi Boano who had acquired the Carozzeria Ghia styling house in 1944 had been producing “concept” cars for Chrysler since the 1930’s, including the D’Elegance mentioned previously, and it has been suggested that the Ghia wasn’t a completely new design, but more a “re-work” of an original but unused design for Chrysler, thus provoking the debate as to the origins of the design.
Others suggest that Boano had originally sketched the car out in 1950, unbeknown to VW or Karmann, but VW had refused to sell him a car to base a prototype on. Whatever the truth, the new body shell was mounted upon a lengthened and widened Beetle floor pan.
Boano’s son Gian had got hold of a Beetle from Paris VW Importer Charles Ladouche’s Societe France Motors, (who also happened to be an importer of Chryslers, and had commissioned Ghia to make 400 D’Elegance style GS-1’s) By te Autumn of 1953, Gian had a prototype ready to show to Dr. Karmann, taking just 5 months to go from concept to working prototype (again this backs up the theory that the Ghia may not have been an entirely fresh idea).
The new prototype was delivered in secret to Karmann’s plant in Osnabruck, and in November of 1953 Karmann proudly unveiled the svelte coupe to Dr. Feuereisen, then VW vice-president and Heinz Nordhoff, the man who appointed by Major Ivan Hirst as his replacement as MD of VW. Feuereisen’s reaction was that of excitement, swiftly followed by a bout of typically German sensibility from Nordhoff.
Feuereisen exclaiming “Now that [the Ghia], has class!” backed up with a slightly more considered “A very beautiful car, but much too expensive” from Nordhoff, Karmann countered this by question “How can you say that? I have not even told you what it costs.”
Karmann put forward a proposal and the project was given the go-ahead, Karmann would build the cars, and VW would sell them. Development continued, and somewhere along the line the new coupe gained the two distinctive “nostril” grilles that would become part of the cars identity. In 1955 the first Type 14 rolled off the production line, complete aside from one small point, the new car didn’t have a name.
July 1955 saw the new Coupe revealed to the press, still as yet un-named, various Italian names were considered, but in the end Dr Karmann decided on Karmann-Ghia.
September 1955 the Karmann Ghia appeared at the Frankfurt Motor Show, to a rapturous reception. Autocar magazine cited it as having “a purity of line and perfection of proportion that almost takes ones breath away.”
The Ghia was to continue to receive such accolades for the foreseeable future, American Industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague referred to it in his list of the world’s most beautifully designed products.
The North American market got their first taster of the new car when it was featured in Science & Mechanics magazine in October 1956, and Australia’s “Wheels” magazine managed to get the name wrong when they first tested the car in April of 1957 as part of their comparative feature “Ghia-Karmann vs. Volkswagen”, they went on to say “Ghia looks better, handles better and outshines the Volkswagen [Beetle] on the road”.
Though America’s “Road & Track” magazine were less complimentary; “the overall performance improvement, we feel, is negligible. For nearly $1000 more than the sedan, then, the customer is acquiring a very pretty body.”
That very pretty body was undoubtedly the biggest factor in the Ghia’s appeal, after all the running gear was more or less that of the comparable Beetle of the era, so performance wasn’t what you’d refer to as electrifying.
However it wasn’t going to make life easy for Karmann, whose small factory couldn’t even provide enough storage for the amount of cars required for the press launch, leading to the launch having to be brought forward a few months. The car was massively complex to build in comparison to the Beetle, with the entire nose sections being hand shaped, and each panel meticulously butt welded together with over 140 inches of weld on the outer skin alone, then painstakingly lead filled using English Pewter as opposed to the Beetles simple bolt together body shell, every single piece of glass on the car was curved.
The paint process was only embarked upon after the entire body had been checked for any imperfections, whereupon the body was dipped in a tank of zinc phosphate primer, before being wet sanded, then the first coat of paint was laid down, followed by more colour sanding, this process was repeated 4 times. Karmann was one of the first coach builders to employ an anti dust system within their paint booths using a water curtain to trap dust. The Ghia was still a true hand-built car in the most traditional sense of the phrase.
Whilst the Ghia was having no trouble in attracting new customers, in fact within the first two years of its production VW had to double production numbers to keep up with demand (from 10,000 to 18,000), it still didn’t really fit into any particular pigeon hole, it was neither a family sedan nor a sports car, not a Grand Tourer or a Luxury Saloon.
The Ghia came about at a time where the Bauhaus movement was still very much in effect in Germany, and the Ghia was a perfect automotive example of the theory “form follows function”, in true VW style they’d created a car that offered good looks and well thought out aesthetics whilst based on solid, reliable, and well proven underpinnings in a time when the US was producing cars that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the set of a Buck Rogers Film.
VW shunned any brash publicity stunts and unnecessary fanfare for the launch of the Ghia, instead letting the pretty new model speak for itself, it slipped into the showrooms more or less unannounced, not however unnoticed. Throughout the 50’s demand for the Ghia far exceeded production.
In 1957 VW released a convertible version of the Ghia, under the code Type 141, the car was now strictly a two-seater, with one of Karmann's trademarked 4 layer insulated hoods which had made the Beetle Cabrio so popular.
1959 signaled the end of production for the first generation Ghia, now known as the “Lowlight” due to the position of the headlamps and turn signals, and a new look Ghia was on the market, in reality the new Ghia was not much more than a facelift, with the new rear lights which flowed into the rear wings, and a slightly redesigned front end which had new nostrils, and the position of the headlights and turn signals had been raised around 2”.
The engine had gained another 4bhp, not a lot but over a 10% increase on the preceding model. August 1960, so the 1961 model year, the Ghia got another power increase, this time up to 40bhp, in part due to the new carburetor, now fitted with an electronic choke. The fuel tank was made slightly flatter to increase luggage capacity.
The following year small changes were made, with a new steering box improving the feel of the steering, the reserve fuel lever had gone, and there was now a provision to fit seatbelts. In 1962 VW increased Karmann Ghia production with the advent of new techniques of production meaning less of the car had to be hand formed, this had the knock on effect of lowering prices on the Ghia making it an even more appealing proposition.
The next big change for the Ghia was in 1965 when the 1192cc motor was finally replaced with a slightly more powerful 1300cc utilizing a Solex 30 PICT carburetor. The front suspension was updated with the fitment of a ball-joint front axle, and the wheels were changed from the previous smooth design to vented type with a flat hubcap. The swan neck mirrors were moved from the wings and replaced with door mounted items.
1966 Saw the engine increased in size again, this time to the 1500cc unit similar to that from the Type 3, often considered as one of the best VW engines ever produced. Discs replaced drums on the front brakes as well as the brakes being upgraded to a twin circuit set up, the wheels changed from 5x205 fitment, to 4x130 fitment, improved gear ratios, leading to more relaxed cruising.
The electrics were now 12v rather than the previous 6v system. A redesigned dashboard features new instrument displays, a faux wood dash cover with a smaller version of the insignia featured on the deck lid, the heater controls are now housed on the dash as opposed to the floor as previous models.
The 1967 model year didn’t really see any major changes, but 1968 brought along a completely new Independent Rear Suspension (IRS) setup. The hardtop model received an electrically heated rear window, and the convertible model had a glass rear screen fitted. In the interests of security, the Ghia now had a locking steering column. 1969 Brought new rear lights with reversing lights built in, and a 1600cc single port motor.
In 1970 the single port 1600 was replaced by a 1600cc twin port, a few other detail changes were made including a thermostatically operated inlet pre-heater.
In 1971 VW introduced the chunkier blade bumpers, and the 4 spoke collapsible steering wheel. The rest of the interior was brought up to date with dashboard and door cappings finished in a black textured plastic, the new dashboard necessitated a redesigned instrument binnacle featuring two hooded dials displaying time, speed and fuel. The heater controls were moved, new inertia seatbelts were installed and the rear lights were changed to Type 3 units.
The 1972 and 1973 models were largely unchanged from the ’71 model, and in 1973 VW stopped production of the Ghia for the European market, ready for the launch of the Karmann designed and built Golf based Scirocco. US specification Ghias continued to be produced for another year.
Whilst the Ghia’s distinctive looks may have shouted “sports car”, the somewhat lacklustre 30bhp produced by the 1192cc flat four engine had other ideas. A point picked up by VW’s marketing and advertising during the ‘60’s, whilst the early adverts had been in the more traditional artistic illustrated style the new style of ad’s took a slightly different take on it.
Doyle, Dane and Bernbach had created a whole new style of advertising, rather than glamorizing the product which they were advertising, they took more of an objective look at the product, usually making a statement that could be seen as cynical, then backing it up with an explanation, this form of “soft-sell” was to set the standard of VW advertising up to the current day.
In one such advert, the Ghia was decked out in Racing stripes, similar to that of the AC Cobra, and Shelby Mustangs, with the cut-line “You’d Lose” this statement was then quantified beneath with “But it might comfort you to know you’ll be driving the best made loser on the block”, another, this time a crib of a Shell fuels TV ad suggesting “The Karmann Ghia is the most economical sports car you can buy…It’s just not the most powerful.” After the car is seen hitting a paper barrier, and being bounced backwards by it.
The “other” Ghias
The Type 13 Ghia was produced in Brazil from 1962 until 1975, specifications were for the most part comparable to the European and USDM models, save for the total absence of any heating in the Brazilian versions, this leading to the fact that Euro or US spec Ghia carpet doesn’t fit properly.
Razor Edge Ghia/Type 34
In 1961 VW introduced the Type 34 Ghia, initially drafted to replace the Type 14 Ghia. Like the Type 14 Ghia, the Razor Edge was designed by the Italian Ghia studio, though it shared little with the previous model. The chassis and engine were based on that of the Type 3. The car proved too expensive however and was very short-lived, with production of the original Ghia way out stripping it.