These days, many major automotive brands endeavor to produce a particular class of vehicle to appeal to the more sporting man on a budget - the poor man's sports car, if you will. You can find a wide variety of these vehicles from out and out sports cars like the Mazda Miata and Toyota 86, out-and-out bruisers like the BMW 1M coupe and Audi TTRS, to stylish cruisers like the Peugeot RCZ and Mercedes-Benz SLK. There are even sporty cars with hybrid propulsion systems like the Honda CR-Z.
Automotive fanatics widely credit the Mazda Miata for popularizing the niche. Truthfully, it started further back with Porsche's 356. Early models of the 356 were heavily based on the Volkswagen Beetle’s platform, with the body and minor engine, transmission and suspension tweaks differentiating them.
Meanwhile, over in VW, top executives were beginning to notice an increase in post-war standards of living of consumers. They began to look into the 'halo car' theory to draw potential buyers into VW showrooms and to add some luxury flair to the conservative image and line-up of the brand.
Spurred on by Porsche's success with the 356, VW contracted a German coachbuilder, Karmann, based in Osnabrück, Germany, renowned for producing stunning convertibles out of sedans (Porsche 356 Cabriolet and VW Beetle Cabriolet). The plan was to design a stylish coupe derivative to be mounted on the Beetle's already proven Type 1 platform. VW certainly couldn't compete with the power and performance of competing vehicles from Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Instead, they opted to spare no expense on design on top of VW’s unquestionable reliability. Karmann, in turn, contracted the Italian firm Ghia, who adapted styling themes previously explored for Chrysler and Studebaker to a Beetle floorpan widened by 12 inches (300 mm).
The Type 14
The result was the Type 14, combining the chassis and mechanicals of the Type 1 (Beetle) with styling by Luigi Segre of the Italian carrozzeria Ghia (famous for the alfa Romeo 6C 15000 and Volvo P1800) and hand-built bodywork by the German coach-builder Karmann. The Type 14 debuted at the October 1953 Paris Auto Show as a styling concept created for Ghia by Luigi Segre.
The design and prototype were well received by Volkswagen executives, and in August 1955, the first Type 14 was manufactured in Osnabrück, Germany. It was named the Karmann Ghia to brag of the vehicles pedigree coachbuilder and designer, respectively. Public reaction to the car exceeded expectations, and more than 10,000 were sold in the first year.
The Karmann Ghia employed a very high standard of body construction at the time, as opposed to the Beetle's machine welded-body with bolt-on fenders. The Type 14 was built with fenders that were butt-welded to form a monocoque shell, hand-shaped and smoothed with English pewter. It was a time-consuming process, typically employed by higher-end manufacturers. It may have raised the Karmann Ghia's sticker price, but still kept it well under those of its competition.With Karmann as its coachbuilder, it wasn’t long until a convertible version of the Karmann Ghia was unveiled in 1957.
Its Italian designer Sergio Sartorelli oversaw the various restylings of Type 14, ranging from larger wrap around signal lamps and tail lamps to conform to US safety regulations and the thicker bumper for better crash protection.
Karmann Ghias built up to 1959 are the most prized of all. They’re typically called ‘Lowlights’ or ‘Lowlighters’ owing to the lower headlight placement compared to later Karmann Ghias. The lowlighters also had a unique two slat grille as opposed to the later 3-slat grilles. The original engine was a simple 34 hp, 1.1 liter flat four, derived from the Beetle. Its top speed was a paltry 116 km/h.
Owing to the Karmann Ghia’s heavy body and poor performance (very much like the much maligned Chevrolet Corvair), it never saw action in motorsports, save for amateur car club races. For quite some time, several sports car clubs around the world even refused membership to owners of Karmann Ghia, citing it as a 2+2 or sporty coupe rather than a bona-fide sports car. These days, many rules have been relaxed regarding its categorization. And while its stock parts were no different from a Beetle, numerous aftermarket performance parts can make a Karmann Ghia very competitive on the track. German tuners, Bader-Racing, even offer to modify your Karmann Ghia with a 996 Porsche 911 GT3 powertrain and underpinnings to make it the king of sleepers, all for the very ridiculous price of US$275,000 and a waiting time of 2 years.
Nevertheless, much like the humorous ad campaigns of the Beetle that poked fun at itself, VW capitalized on the Karmann’s affordability and high end style. Car ads for the Karmann Ghia called it the ‘pussycat’ as opposed to big predatory cats like its contemporaries. It also remarked that the Karmann Ghia would blend seamlessly into a parking lot of exotic sports cars driven by Italian playboys, even though its driver was simply a ‘druggist from Toledo.’
The clever advertising certainly helped the car gain the attention of TV executives, making the 1967 Type 14 Karmann Ghia convertible the choice car for CONTROL Agent 86 Maxwell Smart in the opening credits of the third and fourth seasons of ‘Get Smart’. Like the Sunbeam Tiger before it, (which remained the car driven by Smart in the episodes themselves), the character would be seen in the opening credits screeching to a halt outside of his headquarters.
The Karmann Ghia can also be seen in more recent films as the favored cars of protagonists in, ‘Pretty in Pink,’ ‘So I Married an Axe Murderer,’ ‘Sneakers’ and ‘Kill Bill Vol. 2.’
By September of 1961, Volkswagen introduced the VW 1500 Karmann Ghia or Type 34, based on its new Type 3 platform (Fastback, Notchback, Squareback), featuring Volkswagen's new flat 1500cc engine design, and still styled by Sergio Sartorelli. At the time, the Type 14 was also sold with a 1500cc (1.5 liter engine). To avoid confusion, the Type 34 was frequently called Der Große Karmann’ (‘the big Karmann’) in Germany, ‘Razor Edge Ghia’ in the United Kingdom, or ‘European Ghia’ (or ‘Type 3 Ghia’ among enthusiasts) in the United States. The Type 34 was the second automobile model in the world to have an electrically operated sliding steel sunroof as an option in 1962 and an electric clock. The styling offered more interior and cargo room than the original Karmann Ghia, with three luggage spaces, built-in fog lights, round tail lights, upper and lower dash pads, door pads, and long padded armrests. It was the fastest, most expensive and most luxurious passenger car VW manufactured, until it was replaced by the VW-Porsche 914.
Brazil had other plans for the Karmann Ghia, looking to Ghia in Turin for a reworked version of the Type 14 at the end of the 1960s. Under Ghia, Giorgetto Giugiaro (known for the Ferrari 250 Berlinetta Bertone, Maserati Ghibli and BMW M1) worked on the new Brazilian Karmann Ghia. This roomy 2+2 coupe featured a modern and comfortable interior, built upon the platform of the Volkswagen Variant and used the 65 hp 1.6 liter flat-four air-cooled boxer unit from the Type 3. Internally, it was called the Type 145, and named the Karmann Ghia TC (Touring Coupé). The TC was only offered in South America, with only 18,119 units built.
Over its 19 year lifespan, from 1955-1974, more than 445,000 Karmann Ghias were produced, not including the Type 34s and Type 145s. The car’s role as VW’s halo car was inevitably passed on to the Porsche 914 and the Golf- based Scirocco in 1974.
When the concept for the New Beetle, penned by Peter Schreyer (now Hyundai and Kia’s presidentand CEO), came out, interest was renewed in recreating the Karmann Ghia. In 1990, Karmann introduced a Karmann Ghia-inspired concept car - The Karmann Coupe - at the Frankfurt Motor Show and in April 2013, Karmann Ghia do Brasil launched a competition for Brazilian students to design a modern interpretation of the classic Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia Coupé, possibly leading to the development of a prototype. While numerous designs surfaced, the project never got the green light. There’s also the issue of the name itself. Volkswagen had acquired long time partner Karmann in 2009. Carozzeria Ghia, however, was sold to the Ford Motor Company in 1970. There’s still optimism that we might see a Karmann Ghia in the future, though it’s unlikely it will retain the same old name.