Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

For everything you ever needed to know about Volkswagen Karmann Ghias but was afraid to ask. Including specifications, performance, history, pictures, restoration and lots of links.


Karmann Ghia

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History of the Karmann Ghia Buying a Karmann Ghia Karmann Ghia Associations and clubs

  Note: these are very basic translations and may contain errors.

This site last updated on Thursday, January 06, 2009

Karmann-Ghia History

The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was produced between 1955 and 1974, with some 360,000 coupes and over 80,000 cabriolets completed. What is certain is that it was the most beautiful car ever produced by the BeetleMeisters, what is unclear is exactly how the car was designed and conceived.
Certainly the initial idea was sparked by Dr Wilhelm Karmann, who were building the Life Insurance Beetle cabriolet, suggested to Ghia that a beetle-based sports car could be made and presented to VW for their approval.

Several people claim a stake in the cars concept, in addition to the obvious triumvirate of VW in Wolfsburg, Karmann in Osnabruck and Ghia in Turin.

A Ghia or not - the Chrysler Coupe D'Elegance
In the early 50's, the American Chrysler designer Virgil Exner is credited with having at least some deal of influence on the project, if not it's overall design. Being Chryslers' prototype vehicle designer, he had met with Luigi Segre of Ghia and they had drawn up a contract for Ghia to build coupes penned by Exner. When the Karmann Ghia coupe was revealed in 1953, Exner claimed it to be a scaled-down version of his own Coupe D'Elegance. The picture to the left depicts Exners' creation. Naturally, this was disputed by Ghia who stated that Mario Boano at Ghia, had designed the car back in 1950.
Whoever designed the car, it was an instant hit with everyone who saw it. In the autumn of 1953, Dr Karmann was invited to see the car, in Paris (somewhat bizarrely) and was surprised that it was a coupe and not a convertible, as he'd originally planned. In fact he was totally unaware of the cars' actual existence until this time.

The original Karmann Ghia coupe prototype - at the Karmann museum in Osnabruck...

...the extra air slots in the engine cover and the 'Volkswagen' lettering - neither were used
The idea in essence, had been a simple one. Build a good looking sports coupe, using as many components as possible from a standard saloon - in this case the Beetle. The idea not completely new at the time, but Volkswagen were arguably the first to put the idea into serious production. The Beetle's floorpan was widened to take the extra girth of the coupe and Dr Karmann's factory in Osnabruck began to tool up for the job.
The car was finally shown to the VW chief, Heinz Nordhoff, who at first was dubious as to the cost of producing such a gorgeous looking car, when his company was squarely aimed at the standard saloon market.
Finally convinced that it was not only cost-effective, but profitable (and with the addition that it offered an inspired piece of marketing for a classy sports coupe from a somewhat mundane and austere stable), Nordhoff relented and one of the most aesthetically pleasing vehicles of our time, was finally given the go-ahead.

Luigi Segre Ghia

Assembly at the Karmann factory
Things weren't settled just yet though. The car was incredibly complex to build, being welded and lead-filled by hand from lots of small components. Also, the Karmann factory was so small, that they couldn't store even the number of cars required for the press launch in 1955, so the date was pulled forward some months.
The cars initial design was altered only slightly, with some changes to the rear engine cover, bumpers, indicators and the addition of front fresh air vents, the nostrils. Designated Type 143 by Volkswagen, the nameless car was christened by Dr Karmann who simply added his firms' name to that of Ghia and the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia was born.

Although built in numbers, the Karmann Ghia was never turned out in vast mass-produced quantities and so remains quite rare. Though over 460,000 (including around 81,000 Cabriolets) were built during its 19-year lifespan, this is dwarfed when compared with the one-million plus Beetles turned out in the 1961 year alone. That year also marked the five millionth Beetle built, since the end of the war just 16 years earlier.

Ghia designers at work

This though, was the Karmann Ghias strength. It very nearly created its own market when shown and had the look and feel of a hand built sports car, with the running costs of the worlds most inexpensive to own car and a vast dealer network already in place.
It relied heavily on its reliability, cost of ownership, build refinement and looks as it was undoubtedly a sheep in wolfs clothing. With a 1192cc engine and pushing out a feeble 30bhp, which was only increased in 1960 to 34bhp. Hardly inspirational when compared with the similarly-priced MGB with it's 95bhp power plant and over 100mph performance, or the much cheaper Triumph Spitfire with a similar sized engine, which provided nearly twice the horsepower.

The advert to the left is an example of how Volkswagen used it's austere and plain-looking image to good effect.

Continual improvements meant that the Ghia managed to keep pace with the competition and was soon equipped with a 1300cc block - which only lasted a year in 1966. Then one of VW's finest engines, the 1500, powered all Ghias until it's final upgrade to a 1600cc unit in 1971, until the cars demise in 1974.

Original 1950's 30bhp engine...

...changed to a more powerful 1600cc unit


The Mostly UK Guide to Buying A Karmann Ghia

A lot of people ask me which Ghia is good for me? and this page outlines what my opinions of that are. They are just that though and not everyone is going to agree. I've tried to angle this for people in the UK, but a lot applies wherever you live.

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Which Ghia is for you depends on your circumstances. If money really is no object and you're looking for a second, 'occasional' car, then the early classic 50's models are undoubtedly the most collectable and their prices reflect this. If the car will be used daily or at least 3 or 4 times a week, then the later cars with more powerful engines and greater creature comforts are the better bet. The latter option is what I chose and I actually prefer the looks of the later cars (though the wood-effect dash seemed to be a slight regression). Whatever style you choose, remember to check for corrosion thoroughly as even the last Ghias are now well over a quarter of a century old. Time takes its toll, so accept nothing on face value.
Early "lowlight" (pre 59) note rear optional 'spats'

The KG owners club is a really good place to start - they're at you can join online. It's a good place for info and advice, also carries some cars for sale too. You don't have to get involved in any "anoraky" stuff if you don't want to, they send a newsletter out bi-monthly and they are the very best source of cars, parts and services such as insurance, maintenance and general advice. I joined the club years before I found my car!

A perfect early to mid-60s coupe

The best bargains can be had in the private sales, but the biggest risks lurk there too. Take someone along who knows what to look for (and wont fall head-over-heels with the first rusty car they see). Bodywork is all-important, so get the very best you can afford. Mechanicals are pure VW Beetle, so everything is simple if you want to learn (look for the "How to Keep your VW alive" book, by John Muir - easier to read than the "Haynes" manuals) - if you don't then there are lots of air-cooled VW specialists around - Tip - avoid modern VW dealers, most would never have even seen a KG and sadly know little of air-cooled stuff. Instead use the list of specialists in the KGOC GB's handbook and newsletters.
69-71 - Still classic styling but with more power and refinement. This one made to 'look early' with 2-tone paint.
There are some KG dealers, notably "KG Motoworks" in Mansfield, Notts ( :// ) which is run by a chap called Martin McGarry (who also is involved with the KG owners club) and his cars come highly recommended, but the price does reflect this. His current stock listings are on his site, as are dozens of pics, so you can get to see what you really like etc - I borrowed some of Martin's photos to illustrate on these pages. His cars really do look superb and must rank amongst the finest available.
So, do you want a coupe or a cabriolet...? - Again, a coupe may be best suited as a daily-driver, as it is more secure, has slightly more rear room and has better rear 3/4 visibility, than the cabrio with hood/top up - something more of a hindrance with left-hand drive cars in the UK. In general though, LHD cars are fine for UK roads. It's easier for Brits to drive LHD because the gear-shift is with the right hand. I've driven left-hookers for years with no problems at all (except I sometimes get in the wrong side, with all the shopping etc... d'ohhh)

72-74 - Coupes seem to carry final changes better than cabrio's did - both still look cool though.

Typical prices for good cars needing no work would be around £4-5k for a coupe, £8-10k for a cabriolet. Early (pre 1960) are the most sought after and can be £1-2k more expensive - later (1967+) cars have more powerful engines, come better equipped (with things like a fuel gauge !). A1 cars add probably £2k onto those prices too, but then you're entering show condition stuff. Cars needing work can start anywhere really but I wouldn't spend any less than about £3.5k on a car (may have some niggles, but shouldn't have major faults).
My 1971 Cabriolet. Everything I ever wanted...

Get the info direct from those that ought to know - Karmann Gmbh's definitive guide to all Karmann Ghias
The differing styles of Karmann Ghias from 1955 to 1974

Early, so-called "Lowlights" (because of the headlamp location being lower down the front wings) have pure classic styling. Puny engines and parts are most difficult to come by (almost impossible for some RHD). Expect to pay anything up to $18000+ (£12+k) for pristine examples. Some "original" cars are almost doubling that value

The Original Ghia - Headlamps 2" lower on early cars... ...tiny rear lamps and 6v electrics means difficulty seeing and being seen
1960-1970, Larger tail lights and regular improvements to the engine, which increased to 1300cc's in 1966. In 1967 1500cc power and 12v electrics were introduced.

Daily drivers, start your search from here.

Raised (brighter!) lamps, 12v electrics... ...more power and enlarged rear lamps

1971-1972, yet larger tail lights with most powerful 1600cc engine. More comfortable interior and better spares availability.

Prices more sensible and more of these style cars survived, but watch out for bodge-jobs from unscrupulous folk

1971 sees largest engine at 1600cc's... ...with wrap-around indicators and a glass rear window (1970)
1972-1974, Final changes included 14" tail lights and large, box-sectioned 'europa" bumpers (only produced for 3 years). Interior all-black, sombre affair.

Expect $9-12k (£8-10k) for an immaculate cabrio (around half that for a coupe), for the post-67 cars.

Final Ghia with large bumpers... ...and huge tail lights from '72 to '74.
You'll look at this more than any other part of your car (not to mention simply sitting in it), so it pays to get it right. Interiors, side-by-side - from the left are; early 1960s, late 60's/early 70's and mid 70's examples

Crisp and clean styling, but this model isn't the earliest, as it has the luxury of a fuel gauge. Better no wood, than bad wood? - late '60s saw this interior style with more comfort and more options Final changes were a typical mid '70s style, awash with black plastic. Most comfortable and better ergonomics though.
Get the info direct from those that ought to know - Karmann Gmbh's definitive guide to all Karmann Ghias

Associations Personal, Restoration and Information Sites

  Karmann-Ghias dot Com - Have your very own KG personally supplied and restored in Florida, USA (worldwide shipping available!)
  The Volkszone - Huge resource for all air-cooled VW's
  VW Heritage's website - online ordering and parts/pricelist (in PDF format) for air-cooled VW's - excellent site!
  Volkswebbin' - Technical info, chat forum, classifieds and lots more from this well-established internet presence.
  Bill Berckman's Aircooled Links - Thousands and thousands of VW Aircooled links!
  The KG Trading Post - Probably the best source of Ghia ads on the net - place your own ad or search the hundreds here.
  Sewfine homepage - complete online catalogue of VW interiors - if these guys don't have it, they can make it - in ANY colour
  Brocks' VW Magazine Online - Anything and everything VW is contained in this essential on-line read
  Mike's VW Museum - Dedicated to the fine art of Karmann and all the
  The Karmann Website - 5-star site from the company that started it all... (In German and English) Excellent source of information and don't miss "The Karmann Ghia Story"
  Volkswagen's home on the web (though nothing of any aircooled note, here)
  Planet Karmann Ghia - get a Ghia screensaver here!
Clubs and Associations
  Karmann Ghia Welt (Karmann Ghia world)

Karmann Ghia Club Sudhessen (German and English)

  Karmann Ghia Club - GB - New website - join online!
  Karmann Ghia Club of North America - Comprehensive website - Detailed information on many models, including colour schemes

Karmann Ghia Club Nederland (Dutch, German and English versions)
Car Loan

  Australian Karmann Ghia Association
  Karmann-Ghia français (French and English)
  Karmann Ghia Club Austria