Vintage Snapshots & History: 1959 Karmann Ghia Imperial D’Elegance Concept — VW Gets The Exner Treatment!

For today, another CC exclusive thanks to this unexpected snapshot featuring VW’s 1959 Karmann Ghia Imperial D’Elegance concept. A rather remarkable image that appears to be the sole record of the presumably destroyed concept. Admittedly, little is known about the vehicle, as VW is quite adept at shrouding its embarrassing episodes in secret.

Regardless, that won’t impede us here at CC to tell the car’s backstory. Be warned, I’m piecing this together from a few historical facts and much speculation on my part. You may find the approach questionable, even unethical. But should I let strict methodology stop my bullshit theories from becoming VW lore?

In any case, it’s well known that even by the late ’50s VW was in dire need of additional models. Indeed, work had already started mid-decade with much involvement from Porsche on a model to slot above the humble Beetle. This resulted in the butting of heads that VW-Porsche collaborations usually turn into. By 1958, Porsche delivered their Type 726 prototypes, which Stuttgart felt were very modern and competent designs. VW’s management thought otherwise and sent Porsche back to the drawing board, forced to revise their proposal with the help of VW and Ghia. All this would eventually result in the Type 3, as it appeared in 1961.

It’s believed that at some point in this period, in a visit from a young Ferdinand Piëch to Karmann’s coachworks, he expressed his doubts about VW’s plans. In his mind, what Wolfsburg really needed was a true flagship to impress the automotive world. With Karmann’s management well aware of the turmoil behind VW’s new model, an opportunity was seen.

So, what if Karmann was to offer VW such a flagship?

From all available rumors records, the eventual work was done by Ghia. That Karmann looked to Ghia for guidance, is no surprise, considering the long-standing relationship between the two enterprises. What’s murkier is who’s hand is truly behind the Karmann Ghia Imperial D’Elegance proposal. Was it a design created solely by Ghia? Or was it once again a Ghia-Exner collaboration?

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Ghia had reached for Exner’s expertise. After all, the inspiration behind the original Karmann Ghia had been the 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance (above). One of many Chrysler show cars built between Ghia and Exner during the 1950s. With that precedent in place, one can see why Ghia looked at Chrysler’s luxury cars to serve as inspiration for VW’s new upscale proposal.

If I’m to make a guess, I’m pretty sure Exner himself was not involved with the final concept car. After all, the man’s son took credit on behalf of his father for anything that barely carried the old man’s coffee stains. And there’s not one mention of the Ghia Imperial D’Elegance anywhere in Exner’s extensive documentation.

But well, Ghia’s draftsmen were as talented as they came and they knew the man. Want some Exner? You got it! So the little concept arrived with dramatic fins, lots of bling, some aeronautical cues, and Exner’s favored gunsight taillights. For those who know Mr. X’s work and wonder about the missing ‘toilet seat’, its use was nixed after some overheating issues (that rear engine placement…).

In any case, thanks to these rare snapshots the result of Ghia’s work is here for all to see, parked near the Hanni & Girero repair shop at SF’s Van Ness Ave. in August of ’61.

Let’s feature that rearview shot again –which deserves a repeat– highlighting the Ghia’s Imperialist fins. There’s no record, nor any idea, of how the little concept found itself in private hands across the ocean. What we can safely assume is that VW’s management didn’t fall for the little contraption, skillful hands at play or not. After all, they were already having enough trouble accepting the idea of VW’s new Type 3 models.

The last that was heard of the Ghia Imperial D’Elegance was that it reached ABC’s TV studios in late 1965, at the time in search of a car to feature in their upcoming Batman TV show. Glancing at the little car, Adam West is quoted as saying “Not a #%&# Volkswagen as the Batmobile! Give me a =#$% Lincoln at least!” And thus, history was made, with the little Ghia Imperial D’Elegance missing its chance for immortal fame.

At least, that’s as far as I could trace the car’s trail. There are rumors of the car making its way to Turkey and being featured as the Batmobile in that nation’s rendition of the show. But those stories are just too far-fetched… even for me.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1970 Karmann Ghia — The Fairiest Volkswagen Of Them All

Last Night’s Dream: 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance