Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia Year-By-Year Changes

Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia year-by-year changes were particularly languid when it came to the styling, packaging, and marketing of the cars, though both the coupe and convertible had their fender lines and headlamp height raised slightly in 1959.

Thereafter, most every successive change made to the Beetle was also made to the Karmann-Ghia. An exception was the Super Beetle’s MacPherson-strut front suspension, which would not fit under the Karmann-Ghia’s bodywork. However, the front anti-roll bar first seen on the Karmann-Ghia was adapted for 1960-model Beetles.

That same year, Karmanns got a new steering wheel that was dished for safety, and a hydraulic steering damper to quell kickback. A vacuum-operated clutch was also introduced as an option, though sources differ as to whether availability was confined to European-market cars.

For 1961, horsepower jumped to 40 at 4900 rpm and the final-drive ratio changed from 4.43:1 to 4.37:1 to slow engine speed, through the ratios of first and fourth gears were tightened in an effort to preserve “acceleration.”

Engine size increased to 1.3 liters for 1966 and horsepower rose to 50 at 4600 rpm. There was another bump to 1.5 liters and 53 horsepower for 1967, and a step to 1.6 liters and 57 horsepower for 1970, and finally, to 60 horsepower in 1971.

The 1600s were the quickest Karmann-Ghias, capable of 0-60 mph in about 21 seconds and a top speed of around 82 mph. A switch in final drive for manual-transmission models in 1972 increased top speed to 90 mph. The 1600s also had better stopping power, thanks to their standard front disc brakes. When VW revamped its power ratings for 1973, switching from gross to net figures, the Karmann-Ghia was rerated to 46 horsepower.

Safety came to the fore in 1968 when, per new U.S. regulations, Karmann-Ghias adopted round side marker lights on the rear fenders, as well as an energy-absorbing steering wheel and steering column, and front seats with integral headrests. An external gas filler door appeared on the upper front bodywork.

VW’s semi-automatic transmission was offered as an option starting in 1968, and as on the Beetle, cars ordered with it got the new double-jointed rear suspension.

Demand was still relatively healthy into the early 1970s, but the Karmann-Ghia’s days were numbered. Karmann needed all the space it could find to build the brand new VW Scirocco sports coupe, and ceased production of the Beetle-based cars in 1974.

It had built 283,501 coupes and 80,897 convertibles. An additional 23,577 coupes had been built at VW’s plant in Brazil. Sales in the U.S. had peaked in 1970 at 38,825, of which 5,873 were convertibles.

Concurrent with its production of the Ghia-styled, Beetle-based cars, Karmann also built a four-passenger coupe based on the Type 3 1500-series sedan introduced in 1961. This coupe was called the Type 34 and shared the wheelbase and air-cooled, rear-engine running gear of the sedan upon which it was based.

The Type 34, however, lacked the visual charm of the Karmann-Ghia models and it sold slowly. Buyers were cool to the styling, which had nice proportions and an airy greenhouse, but was awkward around the front where two large outboard headlamps and two smaller driving lamps flanked a metal Roman nose.

The Type 34 debuted in 1961 and was sold primarily in Europe. Ghia built a two-seat convertible version of the Type 34, but it did not go into production. With demand never very strong, production of the Type 34 coupe was halted in June 1969, after just fewer than 42,500 had been built.

It is the original Karmann-Ghias that introduced the world to the idea of a sporty Volkswagen. If the Beetle was the people’s car and the Volkswagen bus was the people’s van, then it might be acceptable to characterize the Karmann-Ghia as the “people’s Porsche.” Don’t try to race a Porsche with one, however. You’d lose.

A Brief History of the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia

The Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia is a stylish, affordable collector’s car that’s inexpensive to buy, run and maintain.

The combination of almost voluptuous Italian styling, solid construction and durable components from the rear-engine Volkswagen Beetle gave the Karmann-Ghia a winning combination.

The first Karmann-Ghia was introduced in Europe in 1955 and arrived in America as a coupe in 1956. The convertible soon followed in 1958. It cost $300 to $400 more than the coupe, but was sportier to convertible-loving Americans, for whom it initially was built.

The slick little car was sold through 1974. Sales totaled an impressive 387,975 cars. And it could have lasted at least several years longer, except that the Karmann coachworks of West Germany needed more space to build Volkswagen’s new Scirocco coupe, which lacked the Karmann-Ghia’s flair.

Many Karmann-Ghias have survived, mostly in Sun Belt areas with no rust-producing salted winter roads.

As of August, 2009, a 1956-74 Karmann-Ghia coupe in really good shape is valued from $4,225 to $5,875, while one in excellent shape costs $9,700 to $12,925, says the Collectible Vehicle Value Guide. The pricier convertible costs from $7,425 to $8,650 in very good condition and from $15,575 to $18,150 in excellent shape.

Those figures are basically chump change for a desirable collectible car in today’s market.

The first Karmann-Ghia enhanced Volkswagen’s image when the Beetle was fairly new to America in the mid-1950s. Each one built reminded Beetle buyers that Volkswagen could make a dashing, solidly built car with the Beetle’s storied quality and reliability.

It couldn’t be any other way. because the Karmann-Ghia was a Beetle under its sleek body, with the same rear-mounted, rugged, air-cooled engine, chassis and other mechanical components.

Even the nicely padded convertible top with its glass (not plastic) rear window was easy to use, especially when compared to troublesome soft tops of popular British sports cars sold here in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Karmann-Ghia had a sportier dashboard than the Beetle’s, besides wide, highly padded adjustable front seats that made Beetle seats look cheap. But, after all, the Karmann-Ghia initially cost $2,245, or $900 more than the Beetle and was expensive by Volkswagen’s 1950s standards.

The most desirable Karmann-Ghia is arguably the 1967 model with its 1.5-liter engine. That’s because it was the last one unaffected by U.S. safety and emissions regulations.

This special Volkswagen was easy to buy and service, unlike most foreign sports cars, because many areas of the country had a conveniently located VW dealer. Many Karmann-Ghias have survived, mostly in Sun Belt areas with no rust-producing salted roads.

Volkswagen never called the Karmann-Ghia a sports car, although its tight fold-down back seat essentially made it a two-seater.

One clever VW advertisement pictured it with racing stripes that made it look ready for the track. “You’d lose,” said the advertisement’s tag line.

At first, the Karmann-Ghia just had the first Beetle’s fuel-stingy 1.2-liter, 36-horsepower four-cylinder engine. But acceleration was acceptable because the car only weighed approximately 1,750 pounds, or about 150 pounds more than the Beetle.

The Karmann-Ghia was three inches longer than the Beetle and nearly seven inches lower, although front head room was decent. Its low-slung body helped it handle better and made it more resistant to crosswinds than the oddly shaped Beetle, although it had the Beetle’s excellent traction.

The Karmann-Ghia’s aerodynamic body let it reach almost 80 mph, which was acceptable because many high-speed interstate highways weren’t in existence during much of its life.

The Karmann-Ghia’s styling was from Italy’s famous Ghia studios, which worked on exotic Italian sports cars. It’s unclear who did the Karmann-Ghia’s actual styling work. But strong styling influences were from American Virgil Exner, who created Chrysler’s sensational 1955 “Forward Look” styling, and Italian Mario Boano. Ghia styling director Luigi Segre, who helped promote the Karmann-Ghia project, combined their ideas with the work of other Ghia personnel.

The Karmann-Ghia had a specially crafted body from the respected Karmann coachworks, which was making solid Beetle convertibles in the early 1950s. It saw a car such as the Karmann-Ghia as a way to make more money.

Chassis side rails were widened to handle the four-inch-wider Karmann-Ghia body. A front anti-sway bar was added for better handling, and there were different springs and shock absorbers.

Beetles without bodies were shipped from Volkswagen’s main plan to Karmann’s facilities, where Karmann-Ghia bodies were made, painted, trimmed and put in Volkswagen’s distribution system.

That process wasn’t easy. The complex Karmann-Ghia body called for many internal pressings to be welded together and to the main panels. Almost hand-construction methods were required. They included filling, filing and sanding all seams before painting. All that helped make the car look great, but led to expensive repairs if a body panel needed replacement.

Beetle sales were climbing so rapidly that Volkswagen did little to promote the Karmann-Ghia until 1961, when it got 40 horsepower. After that, the car just kept getting better in small ways because it received the mechanical changes that improved the Beetle.

The Karmann-Ghia was one of those cars with virtually perfect original styling, so only subtle styling changes were made as the years passed. For example, larger parking lights, taillights, turn signals and hazard-warning lights followed new U.S. safety regulations and industry trends.

Front disc brakes were added in 1965, and a semi-automatic transmission was made available for 1968.

Horsepower climbed to 53 in 1967,and the car could hit 90 mph by 1972 with its larger 1.6-liter, 60-horsepower four-cylinder.

The Karmann-Ghia’s main attractions, though, were its sporty appearance and quality, not its performance. Still, it was fun to drive and could keep up with traffic.

Just as Chevrolet’s rear-engine Corvair is becoming a desirable, affordable collector car, the Karmann-Ghia is finally getting its day in the sun.

About time, too.

Featured Ghia

This is a post from a member of a Ghia group on Facebook. I can relate to this and wanted to share.

Many of you have seen the story of my father’s ‘63 coupe brought back to life by House of Ghia.

Tomorrow my wife and I take the Ghia on a ferry ride over to Port Orchard to show the car to one of my father’s best friends. He knew my Dad when he pushed the car off the showroom floor in 1963.

This is a big deal for me, and an important milestone in the journey to restore the car and do right by my late parents and their memory.

Driving it is a little like spending time with them and, though it doesn’t bring them back, it does actually help.

Something to consider for any of you deciding whether to keep a car as part of your family legacy.

Cheers –