BUYER’S GUIDE: 1958 VOLKSWAGEN KARMANN GHIA You might’ve heard this one before: In Europe, heaven is a place where the British are the policemen, the French are the cooks, the Germans are the engineers, the Italians are the lovers, and the Swiss run the place. And hell? Hell is when the British are cooks, the French are engineers, the Germans are the policemen, the Swiss are the lovers, and the Italians are in charge. In this model of heaven, surely, the Germans build the cars and the Italians design them. That was exactly the case with the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, one of the most distinctive cars ever made, a rightful design classic, and a landmark in Volkswagenhistory. European fusion rarely looks better than this.In 1952, German coachbuilder Wilhelm Karmann went to Volkswagen with an idea: Build a halo car around the existing Beetle to attract the burgeoning postwar middle class. The West Germans were doing pretty well for themselves, snapping up new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes, and there was a hint that the American market was going to be the next big thing. Karmann was smitten with the idea of an elegant coupe he could build alongside the Beetle convertibles his Osnabrueck factory was producing. It wasn’t surprising, then, that the convertible was proposed to Wolfsburg and chief engineer Heinz Nordhoff, who made the Beetle an international phenomenon.Nordhoff and the executives were initially wary of the idea. Submit some drawings, they said to Karmann, and we’ll consider it. Karmann went to Luigi Segre for the idea. Segre, commercial director for Carrozzeria Ghia, had already proposed designs for Studebaker and Chrysler that went nowhere. The closest Ghia had come to producing any of these designs was the ChryslerD’Elegance Paris show car, which proved so popular that a grand total of 25 were built. But Segre drew inspiration from the exclusive Chrysler when designing the Karmann Ghia. Both projects were conceived around the same time, as often happened at the busy Italian styling house, and the American car certainly inspired the smaller Karmann Ghia’s design.Karmann accepted Ghia’s proposal in secret, and unveiled the styling design to Volkswagen executives in a back room at the 1953 Paris Auto Salon. Nordhoff was instantly won over. With an engineer’s attitude, he ordered the car tucked away from the public until Volkswagen’s engineers could study the design. Karmann
set to work adapting the Beetle’s chassis to accommodate it. The chassis was far narrower than the Karmann Ghia proposal, so clever engineering was required to ensure the car’s rigidity. Despite this, the Beetle chassis proved to be an ideal platform for coachbuilt bodywork: It provided a strong backbone for the drivetrain, and the body could be removed with just 30 bolts. The Beetle’s famous air-cooled 1192cc engine and four-speed transmission were kept intact, as well as the independent suspension.Despite what a certain Mr Nader might have said about the suspension design years later, the swing-axle setup was a revolution in packaging and comfort — and the Beetle wasn’t routing enough power through it to cause trouble in the first place. What would become the Karmann Ghia made its public debut on July 14, 1955. Public response was overwhelming. Few other European cars offered this much style and panache for the masses; the Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce was a close competitor, but more expensive.Within the Volkswagen range itself, the Karmann Ghia cost $700 more than a similarly equipped Beetle, (that’s about $5800 today, like the bump from Golf to GTI). But that wasn’t a problem: In the first year of production, Volkswagen sold 10,000 Karmann Ghias, doubling production expectations. As befits a luxury product, the workmanship was exquisite. The entire front nose and fenders were one solid piece, to minimize those pesky cutlines. Body panels were welded, not bolted on. No more than five small, individual panels made up the nose, and each was hand-shaped and leaded with English pewter, much like a custom car. Doors were lightweight, but also complicated by their free-standing frameless design. The interior was “flawless and chastely classic,” as Motor Trend said in 1956. The Osnabrueck factory was small and devoid of large, fast-moving presses, which meant the construction of each car was labor-intensive.Despite this, production far exceeded Volkswagen’s expectations (and perhaps those of Karmann’s overworked employees). Originally, the factory was to produce between 300 and 400 cars per month, a blistering pace, considering the amount of handwork. In the end, the factory was churning out 1000 examples per month. Volkswagen was wise to never market the Karmann Ghia as an all-out sports car. With typical Volkswagen wit and understatement, an ad for the Karmann Ghia shows it
decked out in racing stripes and door numbers, with the simple caption “You’ll Lose.” Instead, in America, the Karmann Ghia was a chance at affordable grand touring in a distinctly European tradition, and Volkswagen’s take on a personal luxury coupe, as Motor Trend labeled it, making it a forbear of all the Thunderbirds and Landau Broughams that would follow it into the 1970s.Volkswagen prudently emphasized the Beetle’s shared drivetrain, in lieu of any performance capabilities. It certainly worked: More than 80 percent of Karmann Ghias were imported to America. In 1957, the convertible was introduced, finally coming around to Karmann’s original proposal. Wilhelm died in 1952 at the ripe age of 88 and never saw the car he so tirelessly championed. Over the course of its production, the Karmann Ghia received newer and larger engines. The 1192cc, 36-hp engine gave way to a 1300cc, 40-hp powerplant. In 1967, the car got a 1500cc engine, making 53 hp, as well as front disc brakes. The 1600cc engine came in 1970 with 60 hp; it is the peak of Karmann Ghia power and necessary to overcome the mass of the larger bumpers. Earlier engines may be outclassed by certain riding lawnmowers, but owners can be assured they can still reach 65 mph on a highway — it just requires careful planning and a dose of bravado. Karmann Ghias, especially in convertible form, are rocketing in value. Don’t be surprised to pay $60,000 for a restored convertible, and at least $15,000 for a daily driver. Why? It can’t be the rarity. Porsche built only 78,000 356s — a comparable car, in both age and purpose — in the same period; Volkswagen built more than six times that many Ghias.It can’t be the exotic underpinnings. Whatever Beetles are known for, it’s not for their handcrafted, bespoke attention to detail. And neither car is known for its performance. So what’s behind a Karmann Ghia’s value? Just look at the styling. The heart can make us forget rationality and instead open our checkbooks. The Karmann Ghia is pretty enough to capture anyone’s attention — and its reliability and aftermarket support are only icing on a gorgeous, velvety cake. It’s a heavenly combination. .