Curbside Classic: 1970 Karmann Ghia – The Fairest Volkswagen Of Them All

The desire to distinguish ourselves from the masses with a bit of fashion, flair and style is irrepressible, one that automotive custom coach builders long exploited. Their peak years were the twenties and thirties, as WW2 largely turned that business on its head, nowhere more so than in Germany. In the immediate post war years, automobile production was largely limited by the Allies to the most utilitarian models, like the Volkswagen. But not everyone wanted to be – or drive – a faceless Volk, and a raft of coach builders quickly embraced the versatile VW chassis as their salvation. The Porsche and the Karman Ghia became the lone survivors of those fertile and tumultuous years. Why?

The German coach builders had very few options after the war, and the VW was a boon, in more ways than one. Not only was it affordable and robust, having proven itself in the war, but its backbone-platform chassis was a coachbuilder’s dream. Unibody cars were becoming increasingly common after the war, but the VW platform (in the most literal sense of the word), was to some extent self-supporting, and the body was removed ever so easily.

Who was the first to give the Beetle body the heave-ho? Hard to say exactly, without lots of painstaking research. Denzel, based in Vienna, started building a very Porsche-like roadster in 1948. Originally heavily VW based, the Denzel was continually developed, and became a competitive sports car, winning the 1954 Alpine Rally. Some 350 were built through 1959, and later models used Porsche as well as proprietary components.

Dannhauser & Stauss built a handsome and what was obviously a very Porsche 365-inspired sports-cabrio on the VW platform, although it was taller and still had the vestigial rear fenders. Sort of a hybrid between the VW cabrios and the 356. Some 80 – 135 may have been hand-built, all the way through 1957.

In a similar vein, Drews built a Sport-Cabriolet, making a point to note in this ad that it sits on a “Normal VW Chassis”. Output was similarly low, some 150 over its lifespan.

There were some others too, but lets focus on Rometsch, because they were likely the largest, and there is some detailed history available that helps explain the demise of Rometsch and the other coach builders and the emergence of the Karmann Ghia. The full story is here, at rometschregistyr.org, but I’ll condense it. Rometsch was a coachbuilding firm going back to 1924, and after the war was left with very little to build.

Designer Johannes Beeskow approached Rometsch with his sketches for a VW-based coupe and cabriolet. By 1950, Rometsch found customers, and was turning out a fair number of the Beeskow coupes and cabrios, as well as a lengthened four-door Beetle for taxi cab use.

The Rometsch Beeskow was a handsome car, and won a number of design awards and Conours events. And sales picked up. From the linked article:

At first Rometsch was able to buy the chassis and running gear directly from the VW dealer network but after a time VW cut off supply. Heintz Nordhoff, the CEO of VW, was closely following the production of various coachbuilders and realized that there was sufficient enthusiasm for a small sportier VW and decided VW should build it’s own model. From then on he prohibited the direct sale of chassis to Rometsch.

Rometsch, unable to get new chassis anymore, was forced to buy complete cars from dealers. At first they would just send a company employee to a friendly Berlin VW dealer and buy a brand new Beetle. But after a while Nordhoff even prohibited the dealers from selling cars to Rometsch. So Rometsch was forced to give cash to his employees so they could buy the cars in their names and bring them back to the Rometsch facility. Another tactic was to have the customer supply a new or used car to Rometsch as a base car.

Rometsch hung in there, for some years yet, but undoubtedly the lack of ready access hindered their success, especially in terms of their cost structure.

The coachbuilding firms Karmann and Hebmüller also hitched their fortunes to VW. They were both given contracts to build “official VW” cabrios; Karmann the familiar four passenger version that ended up being built until the mid seventies, and Hebmüller a 2+2 sportier version (above).  A fire at Hebmüller’s facility in 1949 put a crimp on production, and eventually led to its demise. A total of 696 “Hebs” were produced, and are highly sought after today.

Seeing the developing market for VW based sporty cabrios, Karmann also approached VW with proposals for one, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, the Italian design house Ghia approached Karman with some concepts of their own. But it wasn’t until 1953 that everything came together, thanks to Ghia’s latest design proposal, and probably VW’s growing desire to have their own halo car/sporty car, instead of leaving it all to the independent coach builders.

Not surprisingly, this is where the historical sparks start to fly, as success always has many fathers (or designers). We covered it before once before here, but the issue is to what extent did Ghia’s Karman Ghia proposal crib from the Chrysler D’Elegance (top) that Ghia built the same year? It largely boils down to whether the D’Elegance and other Ghia specials of this period were designed strictly by Exner, or not. Of course, Exner claimed the D’Elegance was 100% his creation, and his son still claims that the KG was a total rip-off.

Ghia claimed the KG was just reflecting the styling themes of the time, and it’s a fairly strong defense, given how much the D’Elegance (and so many other cars of that era) owes to Pininfarina’s seminal Cisitalia 202 of 1946 (top). Anyway, nobody’s going to want to challenge Exner on his trademark frills: the toilet seat on the deck, the stand-up taillights, and the gaping maw of a grille. Even Exner admitted that the D’Elegance, and the K310 before it were homages to the Italian school.  You can be your own judge.

Anyway, there’s no doubt that the two cars sprang from the same design house at roughly the same time, so some “borrowing” shouldn’t be totally unexpected. Pininfarina recycled his designs endlessly.

Ghia’s Mario Boano oversaw the design of the KG proposal, and Sergio Coggiola is credited with the primary hands-on work. Ultimately, the pissing match over who gets credit is moot: the two cars are so different in overall conception, size and proportion, that the effort  involved in making certain features of the D’Elegance work so masterfully in the Karmann Ghia was a superb accomplishment in its own right. And certainly more timeless.

And it was recognized as such almost universally, from the day VW’s Heinz Nordhoff first laid eyes on it, to the day I ran into this fine yellow example. Almost sixty years separate the two. The KG will go down in history as one of the finest and most enduring designs of its kind. It’s almost ironic that VW would end up with a fashionable halo car that would go on to live almost as long as the Beetle. But then Coco Chanel’s jersey dresses can still be worn today.

Adapting the wider KG body to the VW chassis did involve a bit of work, including extensions on the sides of the floorpan. And building the KG body at the production levels it came to sell at was a bit of a challenge, since it it involved a large number of small stampings. A considerable amount of handwork was always involved, including filling seams with pewter. All of that meant that the Ghia body ended up weighing quite a bit more than the Beetle, a bit ironic for a sporty variation.

The Ghia may have been sporty in looks, but not actual performance. It would have been easy to throw a two-carb intake or some other measures to improve the modest performance that was the hallmark of all Ghias. That was what the other coach builders were doing with their VW-based cars, at least as an option. But undoubtedly, VW did not want to step on Porsche’s toes with what could be construed as a genuine sports car, inasmuch as Porsche had agreed not to build economy cars, as part of their broad-reaching 1948 agreement.

That agreement gave Porsche unfettered access to VW parts and its distribution network, both critical to launching the Porsche 356. That was hardly assured just a year earlier. In perhaps the definitive Porsche history “Excellence Was Expected” author Karl Ludvigson asserts that the original Porsche 356-1 (above) was actually a design study submitted to VW in 1947. Porsche had always been an engineering firm, not a builder. They were really in a similar position as the other VW based coach builders, but lacking the facilities. How they overcame that is another story.

The production Karmann Ghia was presented in 1955, and sales were unexpectedly brisk, with some 10k sales in its first year. Never underestimate the power of a designer suit. Or dress, since the KG seemed to have a decidedly strong feminine appeal. Or was it just my first exposure to one?

Damensportwagen! – The word burned in my ear. My father spoke it only moments after the first time I laid eyes on a Karmann Ghia. I was maybe five or six, and it was also the first time I’d ever heard the expression. In that instant, the Ghia and that word united to form an indelible image, especially because of how he said it. I was crestfallen, because in the brief interval from the time I first laid eyes on the Ghia’s seductive lines to when he said it, I had fallen utterly in love with it. I somehow felt ashamed, as if I’d just been caught doing something dirty, like rummaging through a woman’s underwear drawer.  Karmann Ghia; the automotive equivalent of frilly underpants or a lacy bra (not that I’d have found those in my mother’s drawers)?

I may have felt a bit confused, but I wasn’t far off the mark. Who else but a woman would pay 50% more to drive a Beetle wearing an Italian designer dress?

They certainly dominated the pictures in the early sales brochures. And that money would have gone a long way towards tuning a Beetle to perform like a real sports car.

And then when my third grade teacher in Iowa City turned out to be a Ghia driver, the image was only deepened. I have to credit the VW-crazy Californians for turning me around on the Ghia. When I arrived there in 1976, the VW-tuner cult was in full bloom, and that most certainly included Ghias.

The Ghia sold quite well in the states, despite the fact that VW of America did zero advertising for it during its first six years. That made it a bit of a mystery car; some thought it was a way for VW to test the styling for its future sedans. Others just relished its innate beauty, and the lack of awareness only added to its cachet. Sales stayed surprisingly strong, right up to near the end of its run, typically about 30k per year. Considering that a Datsun 240Z with three times the horsepower only cost a small amount more amounted to quite a validation of the Ghia’s powers of seduction.

My ultimate conversion came a year or two later, when a co-worker’s moderately-modified white Ghia caught my eye, big time. It was pretty much along the lines of this one, with a nice set of spoked alloy wheels, a healthy twin-port 1600 engine, and a few other goodies. The combination of Italian lines, German build quality and California aftermarket parts gave me a serious…longing. And one that’s never quite gone away.

If anything, the fact that Porsche 356s are now too expensive and precious for my taste only increase the Ghia’s appeal. There are infinite possibilities for updating engine and other parts of the running gear, and the design only looks more timeless and handsome that ever.

This one was obviously visiting from California, presumably a student’s dad or uncle, since I shot it on graduation day at the UO last June. As he got in and fired up the lusty engine and roared off, all thoughts of the Damensportwagen were left in its brisk wake.