Modern Classic: Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

Modern Classic: Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

Cute, curvaceous and not so fast

To qualify as a "modern classic," we choose vehicles, which are comparatively affordable now and that we think will increase in value over time. These are cars many people would love to have: head-turners, trend-setters in their time, cars people see that still make them smile, cars that were definitive in their own right, stylish and fun to drive. Our focus is on cars at least 25 years old, so they can be registered and insured cheaply and aren't subject to annual inspections. Tastes may vary, as may peoples' own definitions of "affordable." Our theoretical limit is $50,000 for a car in good to excellent condition, which rules out many of the traditional exotics. This month's selection is the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.


Volkswagen's sleek Karmann Ghia was nearly called Ascona, San Remo or Corona. Cooler heads prevailed. Actually the second Karmann-bodied VW (the first was the VW Beetle Convertible from 1950 onwards) was named for its builder, Karmann G.m.b.H. of Osnabruck, Germany, and design firm, Carrozzeria Ghia. Sources differ but the Karmann Ghia is considered to be a scaled-down adaptation of Virgil Exner's Chrysler d'Elegance show car designed by Ghia's Luigi Segre.

The Karmann-Ghia first appeared in 1955 in 2+2 coupe guise. U.S. deliveries began in 1956 and grew steadily until 1970. Its price was $2,395, about $870 more than the Beetle. Mandatory options, a radio and whitewalls, added another $100 (about $500 more than the convertible Beetle. Basically, the stock VW platform was retained and topped with Karmann's curvaceous coachwork. The only chassis change was a rear anti-roll bar. Volkswagen recommended a 3-psi increase in rear tire pressure to aid cornering. The engine remained VW's 1192cc, air-cooled four, so the K-G coupe's added 200 pounds made its performance even more lethargic than the plodding Beetle's.

Writing in Sports Cars Illustrated, just after the K-G's U.S. introduction, Karl Ludvigsen said it had "the looks and handling qualities of a sports car, but not the top speed nor the acceleration." Real sports car fans could buy an MGA or a TR2; the only sporty 2+2 competitor was the short-lived Sunbeam Rapier. Although it was often judged as such, the Karmann Ghia never pretended to be a sports car. It was simply an attractively bodied Volkswagen with all the benefits of custom coachwork in an era when many people replaced VW bodies with something they thought was more attractive. A largely hand-built car, its quality was equal to Porsches and Benzes of the period.

As Volkswagens evolved, Karmann Ghias benefited from most improvements, although the Super Beetle's MacPherson front suspension was not adaptable. Visible and interior changes were subtle over the years. A convertible with a padded top appeared in 1957. Fenders and headlights were raised in 1958 (making earlier models rarer and more valuable). In 1960, a dished steering wheel, a steering damper and an optional vacuum-operated clutch were offered.

From 1962-1969, Karmann also built 42,434 1500 Karmann Ghia coupes, styled by Sergio Sartorelli, based on the new VW Type 3. "Regular" K-G engine size increased three times over the years, culminating with the 1600cc version in 1970. Along with ugly 2.5-mph bumpers and huge taillights, a semi-automatic transmission became available in 1972. Automatic K-G's later got VW's improved, double-jointed half-shaft rear suspension. Front disc brakes were standardized in 1973. When the model run ended in 1974, Karmann had produced a remarkable 283,501 coupes and 80,897 convertibles. Another 23,577 coupes were made in Brazil.


Although they were VW dead-reliable, all Karmann-Ghias suffer from creeping rust, especially in the rocker panels. That stylish but protuberant nose was a frequent victim of "Ghia gash"-an unsightly "parking" dent inflicted by the bumper of a much taller car. Prices range between $4,500-$8,000 for a coupe and $8,500-$12,000 for a convertible.

Underway in any Karmann-Ghia, you can't forget its Volkswagen ancestry. Don't expect rocket acceleration. The raucous whirr of the boxer motor, the flat dash, quickish steering, whippy shifter, and mushy handling are all par for the parentage. What you really get is a pretty little boulevardier for less than half the price of a New Beetle-and people still smile at Karmann-Ghias.


CPI, Cars of Particular Interest Collectible Vehicle Value Guide,

Karmann Ghia Club of North America,

House of Ghia,

Essence of Ghia,

Vintage Volkswagen Club of America, PO Box 6249, Harrisburg, PA 17112, 717-540-9972

Karmann Ghia Parts & Restoration, Ventura, CA 800-927-2787

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