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Throwback Thursday: VW’s Forgotten Karmann Ghia Type 34 Turns 50

Come September, there may be a birthday party in Wolfsburg, Germany — but it won’t celebrate one of the vehicles that helped make Volkswagen a household name. Instead, 2011 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Type 34 Karmann Ghia, a shapely, two-door sports coupe that was never officially sold in the U.S.

Although the Americas did receive a sizable number of the Beetle-based Type 14 Karmann Ghia, the Type 34 was a completely different beast. After witnessing the success of its first Ghia-designed, Karmann-built coupe, Volkswagen thought the same idea could be applied to its larger Type 3 sedan. Could a larger, more sophisticated two-door appeal to a more sophisticated (and more affluent) demographic in Europe?

VW decided to give it a try. The Type 34 — originally officially known as the Karman Ghia 1500 — debuted at the Frankfurt motor show in September of 1961. The finished product, designed by Sergio Sartorelli with some help from American expatriate Tom Tjaarda, was ungainly from some angles but beautiful from others. Critics praised the car for its style, comfort, and craftsmanship, but a high price tag (nearly 25 percent more than a conventional Type 3 1500 hardtop) and increased fuel consumption — to say nothing of its unavailability in the U.S. — meant production volumes were lower than expected.

Although Karmann proposed both convertible and fastback versions of the Type 34 (roughly 17 prototypes of the drop-top were actually constructed), neither were ever approved for production. Instead, the big Karmann Ghia soldiered through life with little change. A 1500S model, launched in 1963, saw power from the 1493-cc air-cooled flat-four rise from 45 horsepower up to 54. A larger 1584-cc engine was introduced in 1965’s 1600 model; power remained steady at 54 ponies, but it was delivered at 4000 rpm — 200 fewer than before. Front disk brakes arrived the same year, an automatic transmission was offered in 1967, and independent rear suspension replaced the aging swing axle setup in 1968.

These revisions may have refined the larger KG, but they didn’t improve sales. After production ceased in late 1969, volume amounted to just over 42,000 cars — a pittance when compared to the 362,601 Type 14s built from 1955 to 1974.

Despite its limited markets and volume, the Type 34 Karmann Ghia does have a loyal following, even in the U.S., where a handful — reportedly almost 500 —  currently reside. For more information, check out the Type 34 Registry online at www.type34.com.

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