Tuesday, April 21, 2015

History of the Karmann Ghia

60th Anniversary of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. The story of how the iconic little VW roadster came into existence is shrouded in myth and mystery and unfortunately, as the principles in the story are no longer with us, we will never be able to define ‘the truth’ of the tale.

The story as we know it begins in 1933 when Adolf Hitler opened the Berlin Motor Show with a call to develop a cheap, modern car affordable for the German worker. Several companies attempted to design a ‘People’s Car’ (or volks-wagen) but it ultimately was Dr Ferdinand Porsche’s design that received the nod of approval. The German government funded the construction of the largest automobile plant in Europe and planned to produce 1 million cars a year by 1940. If these plans had come to fruition, Germany would have become Europe’s number one automobile manufacturer, but the Second World War put paid to that idea.

Despite being bombed repeatedly during the war, the Volkswagen factory was quickly cleaned up and Volkswagen sedans began to trickle off the production line as early as 1946. The original beetle had been proposed in three body styles – a standard hard-top sedan, a rag-top sunroof sedan, and a soft-top cabriolet. The VW factory manufactured the hard and rag-top models but due to shortages of steel and capacity issues production of the soft-top was outsourced to the specialist body builder Karmann. Karmann had been bodying cars since 1902 and had specialised in convertibles for a range of German car companies during the pre-war period, such as Opel and Adler.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, VW was virtually the only German car company able to maintain volume production. This led a number of smaller coachworks, such as Denzel, Hebmuller and Rometsch, to fit custom sportster bodies over VW chassis. These rare and highly prized vehicles showed that the beetle design could be made into a sportster, but the cost to do so was often prohibitive.

Denzel built sporty roadsters on VW running gear. Denzel may have served as the inspiration for the Porsche 356.

Rometsch were a luxury bodybuilder who attempted to turn the humble VW into a luxury cabriolet and coupe. Rometschs' efforts earned them the ire of VW managing director Heinz Nordhoff, who deliberately blocked them from purchasing VW chassis and engines. This forced them to buy whole cars from local dealerships. Nordhoff then instructed the dealers to refuse Rometsch's custom, so Romestsch had to send their employees out to buy cars in their own names. This process was unsustainable and Romestsch were quickly forced out of business. Romestsch cars are highly sought after today.

Drews of Wuppertal began building their attractive aluminum bodied sportster in 1947. 150 cars were built before the company folded.

Over at Karmann, the new managing director, Wilhelm Karmann Junior, was concerned about the future of the company. Although the VW cabriolet contract was turning out approximately 10,000 cars a year, Karmann’s other major contract with DKW was looking shaky as that company began to wind back sales of its cabriolet and coupe model. Looking for a new project to fill the gap left by DKW, Karmann pitched a proposal for a sleek coupe design to VW. VW general manager, Heinz Nordhoff, dismissed the idea as he did not believe that a VW sportster could be built for an economical price. Karmann persisted and began working on a wooden mock up. VW still rejected the idea.

In 1952 Karmann met Luigi Segre, stylist for the Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin, Italy at the Turin Motor Show and the two discussed Karmann’s ideas for a sporty Volkswagen. Nothing formal had been agreed but Segre had an idea. Ghia had been working on a sportster design for the US Chrysler company, but the project had been abandoned. Segre saw an opportunity to reuse the Chrysler design and, without advising Karmann, secretly bought a second-hand beetle and fitted it with the Chrysler bodywork. Ghia unveiled the car at the 1953 Paris Motor Show, where it drew considerable attention. Ghia however did not have a contract with VW to build any cars so enlisted Karmann’s support with the notoriously difficult Nordhoff.

From the front (above), the Chrysler K310 Elegance looks nothing like a Karmann Ghia, but from the side and rear, it's an exact match. The hump around the rear wheel arch is a distinctive giveaway.

Karmann was impressed with Ghia’s styling and agreed to present the car to Nordhoff. Nordhoff conceded that the car was stunning but remained dubious that the car could be built for an acceptable price - but he did not say no. Karmann had to really pare back the design to meet VW’s price requirements, but by 1954 the car was officially revealed to the public. A three way partnership was agreed where Karmann built and fitted the bodywork to what was essentially a modified VW beetle chassis and engine. Ghia received a commission for their design but weren’t involved in the actual production.

The VW Karmann Ghia 1953 prototype differs in a number of respects from the production version. Most obviously there are no 'nostrils' in the front.

The tail lights and engine deck-lid vents are different too.

Wilhelm Karmann and Luigi Segre beside their creation

The VW Karmann Ghia (Type 14) went on sale in August 1955 and was an immediate success. The Karmann Ghia catered to customers who wanted a cheap and reliable but sporty looking car. Given that its VW underpinnings were the same as a standard beetle’s, the car really didn’t deliver sports car performance! Large numbers were exported to the United States, where they helped Volkswagen break into the US car market.

Ghia marketing was pitched at female drivers.

The classic, curvaceous Type 14 Karmann Ghia remained in production from 1954 to 1974. Small changes to styling and fittings were made year on year and the Karmann Ghia received periodic engine upgrades, starting out with the standard 1200cc in 1955 and ending with the 1600cc in 1963. Over 445,000 were made, which is an extraordinary volume for what was essentially a hand-built car.

Producing the body's complex curves required a substantial amount of hand welding, which limited the number of cars the factory could produce.

A train load of Karmann Ghias on their way to market

In 1961 VW introduced the new 1500 notchback sedan. Ghia of Turin was again engaged as stylists for a new generation of Karmann Ghia based on the 1500. The new Type 35 Karmann Ghia carried forward the square styling of the notchback and was nicknamed the ‘razor’s edge’ due its sharply edged bonnet. The ’razor’ was a completely different car from its Type 14 predecessor, being much roomier inside and with a better engine. However, its styling proved less than appealing and sales of the new model were sluggish. The Type 34 was withdrawn from sale in July 1974 with sales of only 42,505.

The new Type 34 styling was more in keeping with the squarer look of the times.

Karmann turned out both the Type 14 and Type 34 for several years. As is evident in the brochure, the Type 34 was a much larger car than its predecessor, with more headroom, more modern features and a better engine, but customers never really warmed to the car and the Type 14 continued to outsell it by a significant margin.

Ghia continued to style new model Karmann Ghia’s on Volkswagen's behalf right through the late 60s and early 70s. A new model was planned for release in 1975 but declining sales of their rear engine range led Volkswagen to make a radical decision and move into front engined, front wheel drive cars, based on the Audi platform. The 1975 Karmann Ghia model was shelved, except in Brasil, where it was released as the Karmann Ghia TC.

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