Karmann Ghias: Volkswagen’s Forgotten Soldier

by Conner Mckay

Volkswagen has received recognition for its new age and classic Beetles, Buses, and Jettas. But there is another VW car that seems to have taken the backseat in the minds of people. This being the Volkswagen Karmann Ghias.

If you were around during the ‘60s and ‘70s, you may be an exception. Alternatively, for someone who has never seen, heard of, or even interacted with a Karmann Ghia, the little coupe will still deliver the fun and artistic design VW is known for.

Made during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Karmann Ghias were produced heavily and about 445,000 models were made. Thousands of variations were released into the market for South American and Brazilian consumers. These numbers are shocking when you consider that Ghias were assembled by hand.

Origin Of Karmann Ghias

The blend of solid construction, almost bulky Italian styling, and durable components derived from the rear-engine VW Beetle made the Karmann Ghia a big deal. The history of this coupe is somewhat confused. That’s since at least two individual designers claim to have been the old for designing its evocative lines.

Both Mario Boano and Virgil Exner claim to have been behind the design of the Karmann Ghia; some parts of it, especially the “hips” resembled one from the Chrysler D’Elegance lineup. The latter was designed by Exner despite being built by Boano Carrozzeria Ghia in “53. However, other styling cues strongly hint at this being the work of Boano.

When Luigi Segre, the commercial director of Ghia asked Karmann to come up with the blueprint of an “image car” for the brand, the Karmann Ghia was created.

After Europe recovered from the long-lasting effects of WW2, Volkswagen made a reputation for producing small, reliable, and efficient cars. However, they wanted to explore new markets and for this, so they needed the perfect weapon. What came was a car that would attract the attention of the general public effortlessly like the Chevrolet Corvette or Ford Thunderbird would.

Works In 1953

In 1953, Karmann came to Serge with a brief of the VW’s image car’s design. It was suggested that the Ghia was not a new design. Instead, it was siding more toward a “re-work” of an original, unused design for Chrysler. Whatever the truth, the new and extended body shell was mounted upon a widened floor pan of the Beetle.

Gian, Boano’s son had gotten access to a Beetle from Paris Volkswagen Importer Charles Ladouche’s Society France Motor. The brand was also a Chryslers’ importer and had commissioned Ghia to come up with 400 D’Elegance style GS-1’s.

Gian has a ready prototype by the autumn of ‘53 which was going to be shown to Dr. Karmann. It only took five months to transition from idea to working prototype (which backs up the theory that Karmann Ghias do not have a completely fresh design).

The new prototype was secretly delivered to Osnabruck (Karmann’s plant) and in November 1953, Karmann showcased the sleek coupe to Dr. Feureisen, the vice president of VW, and Heinz Nordhoff, the replacement MD of VW as appointed by Major Ivan Hirst. Both parties immediately loved the outlook of the car.

Karmann prepared a proposal that gave the project a go-ahead. He would make the cars and Volkswagen would sell them. Somewhere along the long line of developments, the new coupe was equipped with 2 unique “nostril” grilles – features that would become the vehicle’s identity. The first Type 14 completed the production cycle in 1955. Even to this point, the car didn’t have a name.


In July 1955, the new coupe was revealed to the press, without a name. A bunch of Italian names was thrown around but Dr. Karmann finalized Karmann Ghia. After its introduction to the European market in 1955, the Ghia arrived in America a year later – the coupe version. The convertible arrived shortly after – in 1958. Although it was about $300 to $400 pricier than the coupe, the convertible was sportier and perfect for Americans – the original target audience.

The svelte vehicle was sold through 1974. More than 380,000 units were sold which is a big number. The success could have lasted longer had the Karmann coachworks of West Germany not needed the extra space to produce the new Scirocco coupe from VW. This car significantly lacked the flair of Karmann Ghias.

Over the years, many Karmann Ghias have bitten the dust. The ones that lived are primarily concentrated in Sun Belt zones where there are no rust-making salted winter roads.

Modern-Day Ghias

In 2009, a good condition 1954-76 Karmann Ghia was valued between $4,225 to $5,875, while the same car in an excellent shape could easily go for around $9,700 to $12,925, according to the Collectible Vehicle Value Guide. The more expensive convertible costs between $7,425 to $8,650 for a good condition model and from $15,575 to $18,150 for ones in their best shape.

The first of the Karmann Ghias improved VW’s image in America when the Beetle was rather new there – sometime during the mid-1950s. The cars were a constant reminder that VW could manufacture solid, dashing cars with the storied reliability and quality of the Beetle. Under its sleek body, the Karmann Ghia has a rear-mounted, air-cooled, and rugged engine.

The dashboard of a Karmann Ghia was sportier than that of a Beetle, apart from the wide, padded adjustable front seats that made you wonder if the seats on a Beetle are cheap. When you remember that the Karmann Ghia originally cost $900 to $2,245 more than a Beetle, these enhancements start making sense.

The most desirable model of Karmann Ghia would unarguably be the 1967 one with its 1.5-liter engine. That was the last of its kind to be safe from U.S. safety and emissions regulations. A Karmann Ghia was easy to purchase and service, dissimilar to most other foreign sports cars.

The Designs

VW never marketed Karmann Ghias as sports cars, even though the tight fold-down back seat could make the car into a two-seater. Initially, Karmann Ghias were just equipped with the Beetle’s 1.2-liter, 36 HP 4-cylinder engine. But as the car only weighed around 1,750 pounds, roughly 150 pounds more than its counterpart, the Beetle, acceleration was acceptable.

In length, the Karmann Ghia surpassed the Beetle by 3 inches and it was around 7 inches lower. The low-slung body made it better equipped for neat handling and resistant to crosswinds, unlike the awkwardly shaped Beetle. The Beetle’s amazing traction was an added benefit.

The Ghia’s aerodynamic exterior allowed it to reach about 80 mph – another acceptable figure because high-speed interstate highways were not as much in precedence for the entirety of its life. Karmann coachworks specially crafted Karmann Ghia’s body. They were making Beetle convertible before that in the early ‘50s. They viewed a car like the Karmann Ghia as a means for making more money.

Chassis side rails had to be widened to accommodate the 4” wider body of a Karmann Ghia. A front anti-sway bar was included for improved handling along with different shock absorbers and springs. Devoid of bodies, Beetles were sent from VW’s main plant Karmann’s facilities, where the Ghia bodies were assembled, painted, trimmed, and inserted into VW’s distribution channel. This process was not easy.

A body as complex as the Karmann Ghia’s called for multiple internal pressings to be attached and to the panels. Hand-construction methods were needed which included filing, sanding, and filing all seams before painting. All these helped give a more stylish look to the car but ultimately led to pricey repairs if the body panel needed to be replaced.

Karmann Ghias

The Competition

With the Beetle growing rapidly in sales, automakers Volkswagen did little to nothing to promote the Karmann Ghia till ‘61, when 40 HP was featured. What followed was small improvements and tweaks here and there that helped enhance the Beetle.

The Karmann Ghia is one of those cars that boasted near-to-perfect original design so not many styling changes were in line for the passing years. For instance, larger taillights and parking lights, hazard warning lights and turn signals followed the U.S’s new safety regulations.

In 1965, front disc brakes were included. A year later, horsepower rose to 53. For 1968, a semi-automatic transmission was brought into the options. The Ghia could successfully reach 90 mph by 1972 thanks to its bigger 1.6-liter, 60 HP 4-cylinder engine. Despite all that, the main attractions of the car remain its sporty appearance and appeal, not performance. But since it could keep up with traffic, it wasn’t all that bad.

Similar to the Chevrolet Corvair, the Karmann Ghia is now getting the recognition and love it deserved when it first rolled off the production line.

Karmann Ghias: Buying Guide

To purchase a Karmann Ghia you need to know your stuff. Seasoned collectors are well aware of what to look for in these designs, but if you are someone who has not much idea about what makes a good Karmann Ghia, we have your back.

Before making the purchase, here are the factors to consider.

Karmann Ghias: Body

An important deciding factor for the Karmann Ghia more than other cars of its age, the viability of this VW beauty boils to how little or how much rust the body has accumulated. With their hand-crafted, coachbuilt body made from complicated shapes, lead-loaded finish, and overlapping panels, any restoration or repairs can be rather expensive. We really cannot underestimate how thoroughly one should inspect a Type 14 that is going through a buying cycle.

For the entire car, from tail lamps to headlamps and from roof panel to sills, there is a need for careful examination. Begin by observing the panel gaps and doors to the sills along with both wings, and make sure you can see the sill recess where it fits behind the wings.

Then inspect the sills, inside and out plus underneath. That is where the welded bottom edge will overlap the floorplan’s edge and around the jacking point. Extra reinforcement is added between the inner/heater channel and outer sill. Full inner/outer sill replacement will set you back around $450 in parts alone.

Examine around the headlamp bowls, making sure to get both inside and outside the wings. Front-end collisions make the nose panel prone to damage whilst rust can form inside the nose grills (look for where the fresh air ducts are placed as well as the air ducts along the inner wing). Inspect all 4 wheel arches – really get into the inner rear wings.

Karmann Ghias: Doors And Floorpan

Have a look at the door bottoms – externally and by touching along the lower edge of the door. Corrosion in these parts can be fixed without going into the scary world of the full rebuild – the parts and panels are available, but for a significant price tag. The labor fee along with the parts fee will not exceed the added value of the Ghia.

Check the floorplan, particularly around the front footwells before moving to the area where the frame head structure and front axle mounts meet. Convertibles generally suffer from rust in the floor because of leaky seals and hoods being stuck in rain with a downed hood. Raise the “bonnet” and the “boot” lids to examine the condition of the inner wings rear and front and the bumper attachment points.

Karmann Ghias: Check For Rust

Rust may also form on the engine and boot compartment floors as a result of missing or perished lid seals. A light layer of rust isn’t the end of the worst but if there is heavy corrosion in any of the aforementioned mentioned, consider that a warning sign. If it’s bad enough to warrant a replacement, know a full body-off rebuild is needed.

When new, Karmann Ghias are made and assembled to strict standards, so panel gaps have to be both tight and even. The doors should latch quickly and effortlessly. Dragging doors and wonky panels are indicative of poor-quality restorations, a rust-damaged body, or accident repairs.

Karmann Ghias

The car’s reputed sculpted, smooth shape calls for filler slapdash application, so keep an eye out for suspicious plastic areas of bodywork. Consider using a magnet for the inspection.

All Karmann Ghias traditionally featured a dual chrome trim strip coupled with a styling crease pointed at the front from the leading edge. While nude looks are trending, many cars will not feature this trim as the body is filled with filled to maintain it or because the automakers viewed it as a non-essential piece in an affordable restoration.

Karmann Ghias: Engine

Engines in Karmann Ghias are all Beetle units. Thus, there is no question regarding its reliability when properly maintained and kept in standard form. Unfortunately, drivers often skip basic maintenance and go straight for crazy customizations, with predictable results.

Heat is the killer of air-cooler engines and temperature is heavily regulated by the oil system paired with the cooling fan. If the oil level has fallen beyond the prescribed limit, suspect an ignorant owner. Any missing items in the engine compartment are also bad news.

What can be seen inside the engine bay is but a small part of an otherwise vast engine, as the sump, cylinders, and crankcase are mainly hidden underneath. As the cooling fan ducts over the hot cylinders, the design absorbs cool air.

The matt black metal pressings are designed to seal the engine’s aperture and separate the cold and hot air. The engine will not run cool properly if that has been removed and shiny chromed parts fail to suppress the heat too.

If a Volkswagen flat-4 engine emits a little blue oil smoke when first started after being left overnight, particularly if it was shut down after an extended period, don’t worry. All horizontally-opposed engines have this design that allows for a touch of hot oil to seep into the cylinders through any open valves and once the car is started, it will blow away.

In good condition, a VW engine sounds like a well-oiled sewing machine, lest any clattering suggests valve clearances that must be fixed. Though, if the worst happens, it’s a simple engine to remove. Start by lifting the car, loosening the engine from the gearbox and allow it to slide out.

Karmann Ghias: Transmission

The transaxle gearbox is an absolute beast of transmission and you will rarely come across one with big issues. Jumping out of gear, mainly when removing the car from a gas pump quickly, suggests the linkage has to be adjusted. It’s a relatively simple job that involves loosening the plate at the level’s base level.

A rattling from the lever or shift action can often be due to a worn nylon block situated in the long shift rod. It doesn’t take much to repair or replace it. You can access it via a plate underneath the back seat.

Clutch problems do not pose much of a threat either given how easy it is to take out the engine from an air-cooled Volkswagen. If it’s only an adjustment, the fix can be done with a wing nut on the cable’s end.

Karmann Ghias: Suspension And Brakes

Similar to the Beetle, a Karmann Ghia is powered by a simple torsion bar suspension. You can maintain it without much stress as the axle beam and mounting points themselves are rust-free. These are 4 grease nipples on the front torsion beam, so check for dirt or debris in these zones. Cars made up until 1966 were equipped with king/link pins rather than ball joints for the front wheels. Each of them also have lower and upper grease points.

No free play should be discernible with the wheels unloaded. A jerky or stiff ride can be the result of dry torsion leaves. Inspect for uneven tire wear, indicative of geometry is being messed with by seized or worn suspension parts.

From 1969, proper rear suspension systems were given to Karmann Ghias with CV joints on both ends of the driveshafts (to learn more, check out our explainer on the drive shaft center support bearing replacement and shock vs strut), instead of the conventional swing axle system. Apart from an additional part of gaiters and joints to check, there is no major difference in durability, but the later process accommodated superior road holding.

Earlier cars might be equipped with IRS-type shafts, which will work as long as the task is done properly. The box steering does produce rather wooden and numb steering. Although, it would be accurate without producing any slack than near the center point. Examine the relative motion of the output and input shafts for internal wear. On the bright side, this can be fixed at the box (to a certain point).

Modern ball joints were not the norm till 1966 – check both these and rod ends for torn gaiters or wear.

Karmann Ghias: The Whole Braking System

Before 1967, Karmann Ghias featured single circuit hydraulic drum brakes, which got replaced by a dual circuit, front disc system. The latter is superior, but there’s not much fault with a good condition all-drum set-up either. The car in question did not receive performance or power upgrades.

The original reservoir is attached to the upper portion of the bulkhead, with elongated flexible hoses behind the pedal. Leaks can be found on these long hoses. Additionally, some cars will come with replacement cylinders equipped with an integral reservoir which can be difficult to access.

Aside from this, the brake system is traditional, so inspect the cleanliness of the fluid. Also check for “pumping” action or sponginess in the pedal, sensations, and sounds of warped drums discs, wheel cylinder leaks, and make sure the car stops straight.

Lowering the stance of a Ghia has become quite popular and it fits various wheels. Check if this work has been done properly on the Karmann Ghia of your choice. Extensive changes might also mean the vehicle has ceased being exempt from requiring an inspection.

Karmann Ghias: Interior And Electrics

Early VW trims were outstanding in quality. Thus, finding the perfect replacement seat coverings in the right patterns can be difficult. Ask for help from other owners to point you in the direction of local trimmers who have experience in the brand. Plus, check overseas where right-pattern replacement covers (rear and front) are advertised at $400 to $600 for each set.

6-volt electrics have to be maintained but a certified auto-electrician but later models come with 12-volt systems that are generally reliable. Complete dynamos for six-colt cars are priced above $500.

Facts about the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

  1. The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia is a vintage car that is a practical and cost-effective choice for buyers on a budget.
  2. The Karmann Ghia was introduced in 1955 and was a Type 1-based coupe designed by Italian-based Carrozzeria Ghia’s Luigi Segre.
  3. Volkswagen approved the design in 1953, and the car debuted in auto shows across Europe in 1955, with over 10,000 units sold in the first production year.
  4. The Karmann Ghia was essentially a Beetle/Type 1 with different bodywork, but the streamlined design made the car more aerodynamic, allowing for a top speed of 76 mph, compared to the Beetle’s 68 mph.
  5. The car’s design was influenced by several designers, including Luigi Segre, Mario Boano, Giovanni Savonuzzi, and Sergio Coggiola, with a long-standing rumor that some of its design was copied from Virgil Exner’s 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance.
  6. The Karmann Ghia’s simplicity is one of its main selling points, with its mechanical bits sharing similarities with other air-cooled Volkswagens and many companies still making new parts for these cars.
  7. The Karmann Ghia was never intended to be a performance car, but rather to look the part.
  8. Prices for Karmann Ghias can be steep compared to a conventional Beetle due to fewer surviving units, with over 21 million Volkswagen Beetles produced compared to approximately 445,000 Karmann Ghias.
  9. Karmann Ghias can fetch anywhere from $1,650 and beyond in the modern market, with the oldest variants and convertible versions being the most expensive.
  10. The car’s minimalist nature and the vast availability of parts make it an excellent platform for those with little experience in repairing classic cars (even among the most reliable classic cars).

Bottom Line

Karmann Ghias are finally getting years in the sun after being ignored for the longest time. These cars were not built for power or performance. Rather, more for the “looks,” so keep that in mind before buying. Overall, this is a great vehicle to have in your collection that many will come to appreciate.

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