For people who can’t stand the sight of a Volkswagen.” That’s how VW marketed the Karmann Ghia, a beautiful car born from one of automotive history’s most fruitful love triangles.
In 1949, Karmann, a coachbuilding company based in Osnabrück, Germany, was contracted to build the convertible version of Volkswagen’s hugely successful Beetle. A year later, Wilhelm Karmann, Jr., tried to convince the automaker to let Karmann build a sports car for them as well, but Volkswagen wasn’t interested. Undeterred, Karmann teamed up in 1953 with Luigi Segre, head of the Ghia design studio in Turin, Italy, to create a concept for a sleek VW sports car. This time, Volkswagen bit. After seeing the mock-up, Heinz Nordhoff, VW’s managing director, immediately approved the car for production. Karmann would manage the build process, and Volkswagen would handle engineering and distribution. The car would be called, simply and logically, the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.
Out of necessity, it would be built on the Beetle platform, which wasn’t exactly a thoroughbred sports car, but Karmann production engineers made it work. In fact, they made astonishingly few changes to the platform. They simply widened the floor pans, lowered the steering column, and hacked off a bit of the shift lever. The company spent most of its time shaping the exotic body from Ghia. The car’s front end alone consisted of five separate pieces that needed to be welded together.
The finished product looked like something that rolled out of a factory in Italy, not northern Germany, but no one would confuse the engine sitting under the rear deck lid for anything other than a Beetle flat-four. The 36-hp 1.2-liter had only a sliver of the performance that the Karmann Ghia’s racy styling suggested, but the car was easy to drive and inexpensive to own, thanks to an abundance of cheap replacement parts. It turned out that sex appeal trumped speed, because the Karmann Ghia became a huge success: over its long lifetime, about 443,000 were built. A fifth of them were convertibles — a body style introduced for 1958 — and a majority of those were shipped stateside.
Holly Fischer’s 1972 Karmann Ghia was one of them. Her late father, John, bought the car in 1990 so that Swiss relatives would have transportation during their honeymoon in America. Five years later, he gave the VW to his daughter, who drove it around her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a decade before deciding to fix it up. After an eighteen-month restoration at a local shop, Fischer’s Karmann Ghia convertible isn’t so much a perfectly restored example as it is a restomod, an old car that’s been modernized with upgraded mechanicals.
The floors and rusted sections, mostly at the back of the car, were replaced. So was just about everything else, aside from the windshield, gauges, shift knob, bumpers, door handles, and seat and convertible frames. The interior, originally worn-out vinyl, is now trimmed with rich Austrian leather and intricate German square-weave carpet. When the electrical system was redone, about thirty feet of wiring was done away with. The convertible top sits lower when it’s folded. The front suspension is fully adjustable, and there’s an upgraded audio system and better sound insulation, as well as new wheels and tires. The shop scrapped the car’s 1.6-liter flat-four — the largest engine to make its way behind the tiny rear seat of any Karmann Ghia — in favor of a Mid America Motorworks 1.8-liter flat-four with two big carburetors and a free-flowing exhaust. It produces about 90 hp, a 50 percent jump in power output.
Fischer makes no apologies for her nonstock droptop. “I used to take the car no further from home than I could walk or call a friend for a ride if it broke down, and I never, ever, went near the highway,” she says. “Now I keep up with 85-mph traffic and have everyone check me out.” No longer relegated to the slow lane, as most Karmann Ghia drivers are, Fischer drives her car everywhere. She put 3500 miles on it last year and couldn’t be more pleased with her hopped-up ride.
She should be pleased. It has a much nicer interior than the original car, an engine that’s far more engaging than the stock one, and a lot of modern amenities. But thousands of shop hours and dollars spent couldn’t improve on her car’s best feature — its exterior. Its sheetmetal that fits like a slim-cut shirt. Its soft body lines. Its sex appeal. That’s why the Karmann Ghia sold so well, and that’s why people still gawk at the car.
Whether today or nearly sixty years ago, it doesn’t matter that the Italian-designed sports car shares its underpinnings with the pedestrian Volkswagen Beetle. It only matters that it doesn’t look like a Volkswagen.
1.2L OHV flat-4, 36–40 hp, 56–64 lb-ft
1.3L OHV flat-4, 50 hp, 69 lb-ft
1.5L OHV flat-4, 53 hp, 78 lb-ft
1.6L OHV flat-4, 57–60 hp, 82 lb-ft
Transmission 4-speed manual
Front Suspension Trailing arms, torsion bars
Rear Suspension Swing axles, torsion bars
Brakes f/r Drums/drums or discs/drums
Weight 1725–1975 lb
Years Produced 1956–1974
Number Produced 443,466, of which 80,881 were convertibles.
Original Price $3099 (1972 convertible)
The thought of owning a Karmann Ghia is alluring — an indulgence that’s both beautiful and relatively easy and cheap to maintain. Replacement parts are readily available. As ever, it’s important to buy from a dry climate. These cars’ shapely bodies aren’t simple to repair. If you think Karmann had a hard time piecing together the Ghia-styled panels, imagine what it’ll be like for you.