“I can’t remember the last time I even sat in a real old Volkswagen!” my dad shouted as we sped down my street in a 1963 Karmann Ghia. We hadn’t made it to the first stop sign before his foot was searching for the phantom passenger-side brake. Despite being the guy who actually taught me how to drive 20 years ago, he still gets nervous with me at the wheel.
Like many of you, my love of cars comes from my dad. When I was growing up in Detroit in the ’90s, it didn’t matter what we were doing, all it took was a piece of poster board with the words ‘Car Show Today!’ to make my dad turn the family minivan hard into whatever church parking lot, shuttered gas station or sometimes just an honest-to-god field that was hosting the gathering. Wherever the cars were, we’d be there. After walking the rows of classics, each of us four kids would pick out our personal Best in Show and get pictures, of course.
I had a thing for cars with fins and shorts with contrasting stitching back then. Yes, I was extremely cool, thank you.
While driving down the road he’d quiz us over the make and model of any brightly colored classic joining us in traffic. In the winter, when all the good cars were stashed away from the snow and the salt, we’d spend at least one weekend a month (sometimes more) at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn to appreciate the immense machines of industry and the generations of hometown-built vehicles just beyond the railings, plexiglass, and informational plaques.
While great fun and educational as all hell, these activities weren’t really getting me as close to The Cars as I wanted. They were shiny pieces of forbidden fruit. I was raised with a strict “do not touch” mindset. Some disagree.
To Touch The Cars seemed like an unachievable dream for most of my life. Cool cars were something other people had. Rich people. Suburbanites who had time and money to pour into a barely functioning automobile. While we were often fairly broke, my dad and I attempted a few times to buy classic Volkswagens as my first car; those turned out to be non-runners when we looked at them, and one was so eaten by rust it was beyond saving.
So I carried on the family tradition of lower-middle class frugalness with my own cars. I drove a third-generation hand-me-down ’95 Dodge Avenger until it literally rusted apart one day and then a Saturn Ion which ran like a dream for years until one day it didn’t. Both were practical machines within my budget for point A to point B conveyance. I didn’t get a car that I actually cared about until I was 31 and bought my 2015 Volkswagen SportWagen TDI.
Despite staring at Detroit steel for a good chunk of my childhood, the car I really desired as I grew into my driving years was a Karmann Ghia. We moved to the suburbs and there was a classic Volkswagen repair shop in our town. Every time we passed it I’d specifically look for Karmann Ghias outside. This was before the air-cooled revival struck when it was just a weird, happy few keeping these cars alive. There would always be a few lined up on an outdoor lot waiting for service.
Is this a normal car to capture a kid’s imagination? I’m not sure. I didn’t realize at the time that I was falling for a handbuilt vehicle from a fancy Italian design house until my dad tried to talk me out of loving it. “It’s just a Beetle!” And? I thought we loved Beetles! “It’s not very powerful.” Neither were Beetles or the MGBs he obsessed over. It didn’t work. After growing up staring at huge, heavy Fords and Packards, the delicate chrome of the Karmann Ghia was the pinnacle of stylish to me. Volkswagen even calls the Ghia its “first truly beautiful car.”
While the Karmann Ghia certainly looks fancy, it never pretended to be anything more than it was, as demonstrated by my favorite car commercial of all time:
When was the last time you saw a car company poke a little fun at its own expense, especially over its fancy handbuilt flagship vehicle? This commercial is a perfect fit for the car. It’s a fun vehicle that doesn’t ask for much from the driver (except, perhaps, patience with its tiny engine as it worms its way up to 3rd gear) and keeps expectations right where they need to be.
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my dad (on this planet or on this website) but my chances to drive classic cars in the past never really synced with being able to share the experience with him. That changed when Volkswagen offered us some classic rides from its press fleet. Suddenly, I had my teenage self’s dream car, though only for 24 hours. Luckily, he now lives only 20 minutes away.
I’ll admit, it was nerve-wracking at first. Here’s the guy who taught me how to parallel park perfectly every time, who taught me the details that distinguished different years of vintage Pontiacs and Fords, and after a lifetime of not being able to Touch The Cars, we were going to Drive The Cars.
(Updated Friday August 30, 2020 12:18 p.m.—The following specs are what was supplied to me by Volkswagen, however, Jason Torchinsky pointed out that he believes this Ghia actually runs a 1600 because of the dual-port intake, which would make closer to 50 HP)
Luckily, the little 40-HP, 1192 cc engine was very forgiving. It is a beautiful car, with its single-piece bodywork and delicate chrome accents. And it certainly looks as if it could possibly be a quick one. But with all the brawn of a Coke can on wheels, being a little slow isn’t so bad. It makes for a confident drive. As David Tracy once told me, “Everything is safe if you drive slow enough.” Besides, taking the time to enjoy your surroundings is one of the great things about a convertible.
And it was all those little things that reminded me of being a kid growing up obsessed with cars. The heavy “clunk” of the real metal doors, the cheerful glitter of round analog gauges on the dash, and that undefinable old car funk brought me right back to those innumerable lazy summer days spent at car shows.
As soon as we hit the road, we were both grinning from ear to ear and talking about the old days, mostly the same stories I have heard many times before about my dad’s VWs. How he took one of his Beetle’s air-cooled engines completely apart and put it back together in a single afternoon, just to see if he could do it. How he’d drive cars into the ground until it was more expensive to fix them than go to the junkyard and find another one with less catastrophic issues. How he knew the exact cost of a front fender for his Beetles at the junkyard so that when other drivers invariably didn’t see him and smashed his Bug, he could charge them the correct price right on the spot.
We cruised the leafy boulevards of my cute and comfortable northwest Detroit neighborhood until my dad, feeling particularly nostalgic in the old Volkswagen, directed me to the nearly empty streets of nearby Brightmoor to look for the house he rented back when he owned air-cooled VW Beetles in the early ’70s.
The house is gone now, just a field, as is almost every other house on that street. He was sad for a moment, but not surprised. Things change. Whole neighborhoods get swallowed by the decades. Kids grow up and parents grow old. I didn’t get to just drive my dream car, I got to honor every moment of connection I ever had with my dad over cars. I got to bring him back to memories of his own life that he was able to share with me. It’s up to rare and beautiful cars like the Karmann Ghia, objects of both artistic expression and wide-eyed experience, to connect the threads of whole lives. A tall order for such a small vehicle, but the Ghia lived up to that expectation and then some.