COAL: My Karmann-Ghia Obsession, Part 1

Let’s get on with the story. I had now been driving my trusty 1966 Type 1 (Beetle) for around two years. The mileage was climbing past 80,000 (remember, this was back in the day of five digit odometers, when most of us considered 100,000 to be the effective service limit for the average car). I was now 21, had gone from a college student to a full time employee of Ozark Air Lines and was looking to move on to something less utilitarian. Not that I had not enjoyed my first VW experience. As you shall see, it greatly influenced my next choices.

As I seem to have endlessly repeated, I seem to have been born obsessed with cars. I also seem to have been born with a very strong nonconformist streak. While everyone else in high school was listening to Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Grand Funk Railroad I was listening to Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. The biggest concert event of my senior year was seeing Frank Sinatra. This being the early-to-mid-seventies, muscle cars were the hot ticket. But honestly, they never had much appeal to me. Yes, they were fast in a straight line, but otherwise too big, too noisy and after logging a lot of time in my bug, just too damn clumsy. I really wanted a convertible, and while the sun was setting on the classic era of British sports cars there were still a few out there that could be purchased new, but most of the “sports” had gone out of them due to the requirements of the U.S. emission standards. There were a lot on the used market, but it seemed most had been treated like disposable lighters.

Now, I had always been aware of Volkswagen’s “sports car,” the Karmann-Ghia, and while they were not a ubiquitous presence, they weren’t at all rare. I had always thought they looked “neat,” but the more I looked (and by this time beginning to become more of a connoisseur of mid-century auto styling and architecture) I began to recognize the K-G as an affordable and practical example of classic, 1950s Italian Design. As you might know, prior to the Karmann-Ghia, Chrysler (also the purveyors of cars known for their practicality and durability, but looking something more eye catching) invested in a few early 1950s prototypes which as you can see, had the same rear fender “kick up” that was also present in the K-G. (ED: Chrysler design VP Virgil Exner claimed full credit for designing the Chrysler Ghia D’Elegance, but he was also clearly influenced by Italian design at the time, and most likely got an assist from Ghia designer Mario Boano.)

We had a family friend who had spent his life in the auto business (and will be the topic of a future article) who seemed to be able to find anything, and he had a line on a very nice 1971 Karmann-Ghia coupe for sale. I took a look and a drive, and it was, indeed, an excellent car. It was a one-owner car (a man in his sixties) who was replacing it with a Pinto wagon (he had recently become interested in the then very new hobby of radio controlled airplane models and needed the space). And yet . . . I really wanted a convertible.

I had also driven a 1974 blue coupe offered at the used car lot of what was a particularly sleazy VW dealer. (I had read “Small Wonder” years ago, and was impressed by the description of Volkswagen’s strict policies regarding their dealer network, but this had obviously not carried forward into the seventies, at least not here.) The car was okay, but in my opinion the bumpers and the extra large DOT taillights essentially ruined the appearance.

However, the salesman had kept my contact info, and not long afterwards called to say he knew of a convertible for sale. I got the info and checked it out. It was a bright yellow 1971, which still had the bumper overrides and taillights that while larger than the second generation (which had the longest run and are the most recognizable) were ones I could live with. The car itself was, honestly, in just okay shape. Normal wear and tear for the mileage (which I remember as being slightly under 50,000) and the paint looked as it had never been waxed, but the top was in good shape. Of course, as was common in the Midwest, the rocker panels were beginning to rust through. (I often still describe K-Gs and some other cars with a line I stole from an auto magazine article by saying that, “When it was really quiet, you could actually hear them rust.”

Much worse than mine, but the rocker panels are close.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle was that it was equipped with the dreaded “Automatic Stick Shift” (A.K.A. “Autostick”). If you’ve never driven one, consider yourself fortunate. It was basically a three-speed, manual transmission that contained both a vacuum operated clutch system as well as a torque converter that allowed the car to stay in gear at a stoplight. Once you got used to the rather sudden gear shifts (and remembered to not touch the shifter until you were ready to shift – the slightest touch would disengage the transmission) it wasn’t bad, but it accelerated as if the torque converter was filled with oatmeal. From a dead stop in first gear, pressing on the accelerator produced:

  1. Amplified engine noise
  2. A deep vibration
  3. A slow increase in kinetic energy that eventually resulted in movement.

Really, it made the car seem to resemble an ocean liner just as it is released from the dock, with lots of churning of the screws, but very little velocity.

However, what were these technicalities when confronted with the optimism of youth? I wanted a Karmann-Ghia convertible and (remember this was during the stone-age period of classified ads) they were few and far between. I made the deal for around $1,200 and with my skeptical dad following me, I took it home.

Our aforementioned family friend had once been a part owner in a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership and across the street was an independent body shop. The same guy who charged me $15 to paint my Beetle fender charged me $500 to replace the rocker panels, fix the assorted minor dings and dents, and completely repaint the car.

Now, from the looks of the place, you might have questioned the outcome. But even now, having over forty more years of looking at cars under my belt, this guy and his crew did an outstanding job. All the trim had been removed, there was no over spray on the rubber (I’m constantly shocked at how often I see poor paint jobs on some fairly expensive “restorations” these days) and a finish with a reflection you could use to shave.

I now had a very nice looking example of the genius of Carrozzeria Ghia SpA, powered by one of the most reliable drive trains to ever exist (with the possible exception of the Autostick). By the time the car was completed summer had arrived, and, well, there is something about your first convertible that changes the way you look at the world. I soon discovered that driving during a summer’s day, with black “Leatherette™” interior could sometimes be a challenge, but oh, those summer nights.

Bright and shiny as a new penny.

By this time, I had owned the car for almost six months. I had sold my Beetle to my youngest sister for the same $500 I had paid for it. I had gotten the interior cleaned up and was looking at replacing the radio with a stereo. Also, I think it was around this time that shoulder restraints became mandatory. I’m not sure if it was because there was no anchor point in a convertible above door height, but Volkswagen simply placed another belt anchored behind and slightly below the occupant’s shoulder that went across your body and into a latch next to the seat belt. Like your seat belt, it had to be adjusted, and unlike the modern three-point system we have today, there was no inertia reel that allowed any give. Once engaged, you were basically pinned to the seat until you unlatched. While I have always been a proponent of using restraints, this got to be a bit much and I fell into the habit of simply using the lap belt.

Now you may think that being a flight attendant is easy work, and as someone who has held many, many jobs in my life, both before and after my airline career, I would agree. Although I left the cabin crew job after 11 years and moved into emergency procedures, had I had the choice, I would have retired from the airline business. That July of 1978 I was in my sixth month of reserve, and as the airline was growing faster than we could hire employees, I was busy. I had just worked six days in a row and was quite beat when I returned on Friday, but some of my friends were going out to a local bar (I think it was called Ziggy’s) so I decided to join them for a while. I had a few beers, played a bit of Foosball (never was good at that) and left to drive the three miles home. My route took me past the 270 Drive-In and the movie had recently ended. The driver of an early 70s Buick made a left turn and pulled in front of me, with plenty of room to spare. Then, as traffic was flowing normally he abruptly stopped. His car had stalled. I’m sure fatigue and alcohol had reduced my ability to react in time and I rear-ended his car. Fortunately for those occupants, no one was injured and damage was minimal.

Now, as I said earlier, I never drove without wearing my seat belt, but I rarely if ever used the non-retracting shoulder restraint. My face hit the steering wheel just under my nose (fortunately leaving me with my teeth but also a scar I carry as a reminder of my lapse in judgment to this day) and my head hit the windshield hard enough to crack it, but as my lap belt was engaged I remained in the car. (Afterwards, seated in the wreck and leaning over as far as possible, I could only place my head about four inches from the windshield. As I realized then and became well schooled on later in life at the Civil Aeromedical Institution, the kinetic energy generated by deceleration can be very, very powerful.)

Since I was paying the insurance for two cars, I had only gotten liability on the Ghia for the first six months, planning on adding collision and comprehensive after the restoration. I had a little under $2,000 invested (close to $7,000 today). I sold it to a salvage yard for $150 and bought my Beetle back from my sister. But the desire for a Karmann-Ghia was still there.

To be continued.



CC 1970 Karmann-Ghia: The Fairest Volkswagen Of Them All   PN