The Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia is one of those car that even non-gearheads tend to like, because it’s just a fundamentally pretty object. It’s elegant and friendly and curvy and sleek all at once, while being approachable and inviting. It’s just a lovely little design for a car, and pioneered the idea of a sporty car, as opposed to an actual sports car. Sure, it looked like it might be fast, but it wasn’t and it didn’t care. The Ghia is an undeniable classic, so you may as well learn these five interesting things about it, right?
Okay, that sub-headline makes this all sound more devious than it actually was, but the basic idea is true: the design that became the Karmann-Ghia started off as a show car Virgil Exner designed for Chrysler, called the D’Elegance.
Chrysler and the Italian coachbuilder and design house Ghia had a partnership in the 1950s, the result of which was a number of collaborative show and concept cars. One of these, designed in 1952 by Exner and built by Ghia, was known as the D’Elegance.
The car had many of Exner’s trademark design touches like the embossed wheel on the rear decklid that held the spare tire and a certain elegant restraint from excess ornamentation.
The show car turned out to be quite lovely, and got some positive attention in the auto show circuit, but nothing really came of it after that; Exner and Chrysler moved on to new design concepts, and the D’Elegance was just sort of left behind.
Then came Volkswagen. VW had been mildly interested in a sportier version, of the Beetle, but hadn’t been impressed with the ideas their longtime convertible-building partner, Karmann, had come up with.
So, Karmann reached out to Ghia to see if they had any great ideas, and Ghia looked over to the corner of their workshop and saw the forlorn D’Elegance and said “Well, now that you mention it...”
Ghia tweaked and re-packaged the D’Elegance to fit on a slightly widened Beetle chassis, the long rear deck of the D’Elegance lending itself well to the rear-engine design.
Exner never approved or okayed his design to be repurposed in such a manner, so, really, it was stolen by Ghia, or at least plagarized in large part, but Exner wasn’t angry. He’d moved on to new ideas, and was happy to see the design make it to production.
Virgil Exner’s son even said of the Ghia,
“[the Karmann-Ghia] was a direct, intentional swipe off the Chrysler d’Elegance. Givanni Savonuzzi was the engineer and designer who downsized the d’Elegance and made the Karmann Ghia out of it. Nobody minded it. It was wonderful.”
And, really, it became one of Exner’s most-produced designs ever, with about 500,000 Ghias made in Germany and Brazil, from 1955 to 1974.
One of the reasons the Karmann-Ghia has such a lovely and distinctive look is that, unlike most cars, its body is entirely one piece, save for the parts that open, the doors, hood, and engine lid. There are no issues with panel gaps because there really aren’t any panel gaps.
There’s no separate bolt-on fenders or anything like that. The body of the Karmann-Ghia was laboriously hand-welded and sanded and finished, by skilled craftspeople, not big machines.
This made for a very elegant-looking car, though it was a pain if you had a fender bender. Unlike a Beetle, which could have a fender swapped in ten bolts and 20 minutes, a Ghia would require extensive body work.
So many Ghias had damage to their rounded noses, and fixing them was such a pain, that a whole little sub-industry of aftermarket dent-covering fake grilles for Ghias soon sprung up. It was a sort of hacky fix, but, really, they didn’t look all that bad, and, besides, it looks better than a dent, right?
Maybe one of my favorite things about the Karmann-Ghia was the charmingly self-effacing way Volkswagen marketed it. Sure, it looked like a fancy Italian sports car, but VW knew that the Ghia, with its 40 or 50 (depending on year, etc.) horsepower engine from the Beetle, was not exactly a speed demon.
So, they played with that idea. They marketed the Ghia as a car with VW reliability and economy and sports car looks. Just don’t expect to win any races.
That led them to making fantastic ads like this one:
Really, losing doesn’t hurt if you don’t care, and the Ghia did not care. It was too pretty to give a crap. I can’t imagine a modern carmaker having this kind of confidence and self-awareness when it comes to marketing a car.
I know everyone always says the Karmann-Ghia was just a Beetle with a sleeker body, but there were actually some other changes, too. While the chassis was based on the Beetle pan, the Ghia’s full-width body required the floorpans of the Beetle chassis to be widened, resulting in a chassis that was four inches wider than the stock Beetle.
This wider chassis was more flexible to a greater number of body designs, and as a result was used for a number of other VW Type I cars, including the VW Thing and the Brazilian Beetle replacement, the Brasilia.
Even though the Karmann-Ghia was never really a true sports car, in the latter part of its life it found a niche as a sort of pure sports car surrogate, specifically with how it related to the legendary Porsche 356.
The 356 was, like the Karmann-Ghia, derived from Porsche’s original Beetle design. Where the Porsche 356 developed into a much more focused sporting design, the Beetle continued as an economy car, and the Ghia as a “sporty” car.
But after the 356 ended production in 1965, the Karmann-Ghia suddenly became the car closest to the old 356 in design and character. If you wanted some of that 356 feel, but didn’t want to make the costly leap to the larger, more powerful Porsche 911, a Ghia could be a fantastic choice.
It was easy to get more power out of VW engines, so if it was, say, 1972 and you wanted a new car that was as close to a Porsche 356, then a twin-carb Ghia with some headers and good wheels would be by far the best place to start.
For a car that had no plans on being a real sportscar, it’s ironic that near the end of its life it found itself standing in for one of the truly legendary sports cars of all time.