COAL: My Karmann-Ghia Obsession, Part 2

I’ve always had a lot of interests, but likely the big three would be music, cars and film. Few people in the film business had a larger-than-life career (and life as well) as John Huston. While known primarily as a director, he was also a masterful writer as well as actor, and in addition an accomplished artist. While he helmed films as diverse as The Maltese Falcon, Moby Dick and Annie, his best work (warning; spoiler alert) centered on the theme of people willing to go to great lengths, often outside the law, to obtain that which in the end eludes them or is revealed to have no real value. Thus ended the first part of my Karmann-Ghia story.

I was back in my red Beetle, but poring over the classified ads looking for a replacement. (For you younger people, this was like your local Craigslist, but on paper.) Remember, this was 1978, when the average age of cars on the road in America was 6.3 years. (At 11.9 in 2020 this figure has nearly doubled.) The K-G’s lifespan ended with the 1974 model year, so they were getting to be, to quote Raymond Chandler, “as rare as a fat postman.” (Another metaphor that might go over the head of those who remember when your mail carrier walked from house to house.) In the Midwest, it was not unusual to see serious rust on some cars after only a few years. (My friend and future brother in law had a 1972 Datsun 510, a really neat little car, but by 1976 it had holes in the fenders above the wheel wells.) It was also pretty much expected that any car with over 50,000 miles on it would leak oil and/or some other fluids. I don’t think any store that sold auto parts at the time would have had a complete inventory without the long, wide and shallow galvanized pans that could be filled with kitty litter to absorb what dripped from your engine and running gear and keep your garage floor clean.

Remarkably, I found a 1969 Garnet Red Karmann-Ghia convertible in a nearby suburb, offered by the original owner. Along with my now even more skeptical dad, we took a look and a drive. On the plus side, the car appeared to be in decent shape, both inside and out exhibiting normal wear but little to show any signs of neglect. The exterior paint was showing some oxidization in spots, but no visible rust or dents. It also sported the second generation taillights that I preferred. They had the longest run and were the most familiar. I know, it’s a small detail, but small details count.

(A sidebar: If you remember, the available Volkswagen palette changed rather dramatically around 1970, from the rather conventional and staid hues to much brighter colors (almost as if influenced by the art of Peter Max). I was told decades ago that this also marked the change to an acrylic based enamel. I do know that the paint on the 1970 and beyond models aged very differently, becoming somewhat “chalky” with age, as my 1971 had been prior to its repaint.)

On the down side, it still had black Leatherette. And, it was another “Autostick.” (A friend said, I guess they’ve built enough to guarantee that’s all you’re going to get.) In addition, while the 1971 had a glass rear window complete with a defroster, this had what was likely the original top with the clear vinyl that became opaque as time passed. And some time had passed.

And yet, to quote Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” For $900 it was mine. The window was a simple fix. Our friend knew a guy who owned a top shop (of course he did!) and for a nominal sum he was able to replace the not-so-clear window with a clear one. And for about a month or so, everything was Jake as they used to say. But perhaps inching towards the territory of Jake Gittes? Was I catching a subconscious whiff of John Huston’s secondhand cigar smoke at this time?

It began with a distinct loss of power. I felt like I was thrashing the car, and yet it was driving like the parking brake was partly engaged. And the mileage began to plummet. I brought it to my Volkswagen specialist and the valves and head gaskets were shot.

Now, the perverse beauty of the air-cooled Volkswagens was, early on, the life expectancy of an engine was not long, and as replacement of major components or the engine itself was accepted as a necessary form of repair, they were built with that in mind (much like the power plants of the single engine airplanes that they closely resemble). And so, for just under $300 he performed the necessary repairs and I was back on the road.

While not necessarily a head-turner like the yellow Ghia was, it turned out to be a perfectly serviceable car. Early in the fall I had to replace the muffler, and instead of the stock unit (or the many available knock-offs that sold for much less) I instead went with what used to be termed an “extractor” system, which was like a header system that resembled someone’s arms crossed in front of their chest. These were originally manufactured by EMPI I believe, and were ubiquitous on the early Meyer’s Manx and Manx knock-off dune buggies built on shortened VW floorpans. The outlet was in the center of the rear with a triangular three bolt flange, to which I mounted a single glass pack off to the side. The sound, to me, was terrific. I loved driving in a parking garage with the top down. So what if it just had an AM radio? I was listening to motor music. (And while you may think this a rather juvenile pleasure, these days both VW and BMW electronically augment the engine sounds inside the cabin of some of their cars.) Of course, coupled with the Autostick it sounded much faster than you were actually going, but it was a fun, cheap thrill.

I had two unique occurrences with this car. One night I had raced to the Ozark hangar to put in my bids for the next month. (Crew assignments changed each month and you bid for your preferences and the schedules were assigned in seniority order. We had to physically stuff a piece of paper into a box before 6:00 am the day bids closed, and even then being a deadline worker I usually waited until the last minute.) On my way home, the car suddenly pulled to the left. Once I stopped, it was nearly impossible to move the car and I had to have it towed. It turned out to be a brake caliper that locked up. First and only time I have experienced that.

The second one for the records also occurred at night as I was driving in the right lane of a four-lane road. I experienced a quick “wump-wump” along with two vertical jolts and this time the car pulled to the right. Turned out that a piece of asphalt curbing had somehow come to be placed perpendicular to the street on the right side of the lane and the impact bent both rims to the point where the tires could no longer seal. Fortunately, for reasons I cannot remember, I had removed the spare for a period of time from the previous Ghia and still had it, so once it was towed home I was covered. Fall became winter became spring, and I was beginning to become tempted by the “all new” 1979 Mustang. (Which I first wrote about almost exactly seven years ago.) At the same time, the work of the dreaded “tin worm” was beginning to become noticeable. Rust was creeping up the rocker panels and ahead of the rear wheels.

By this time, I was ready for something newer, more powerful and with air conditioning. As you can read in my previous story, I ordered my new car in October, but it was not delivered until April. It took nearly that long to sell the Ghia, which I did in March, with a clear conscience to an instructor from a local tech school who was going to have it “restored” as a project for one of his classes. It seems Karmann-Ghias have become much more popular in the last decade, especially the early, “low light” models. I look upon them with appreciation, but no longer with the urge to own another. Good thing, as they good ones are way out of my price range. And the not so good ones, well, if it is really, really quiet, listen . . . .