VW KARMANN GHIA YOUR GUIDE TO BUYING THE MOST STYLISH VOLKSWAGEN EVER
The Karmann Ghia has often been dismissed as all style and no substance. The first part is certainly right – few cars have been so explicitly and entirely about looking pretty and the result is one of the most distinctive and attractive classic cars there is. But no substance?
That’s a charge made in error by people expecting the Karmann to back up its sleek, jet-age looks with similar performance. All the Karmann Ghia ever had to do was be a very handsome variant on the Beetle, and it does that superbly – in teaming the stylistic masterstroke of one of the great Italian design houses with the high build quality of a German coachbuilder, VW cooked up a recipe for an enduring and very appealing car that was a classic from the moment it was launched.
The genesis of the Karmann Ghia came in the early 1950s when economic strength and rising living standards across Europe made Volkswagen consider broadening their product’s appeal away from mere economy and reliability – something you bought because you had to – and into something with a bit more flair and aspiration. Wilhelm Karmann’s coach-building operation (something of a misnomer for a firm that had pioneered specialist assembly of all-metal and monocoque cars and could turn out complete vehicles in large volumes) was already building the convertible versions of the Beetle. A chance meeting with Luigi Segre of Ghia in early 1953 led to the stylist and the coachbuilder working up a prototype.
Taking cues from contemporary American cars but on a smaller, more pleasing scale, the result was presented to Volkswagen CEO Nordhoff later that year, and the project approved. Production began in 1955, with Karmann building the bodyshells on a slightly widened version of the Beetle floorpan and inheriting all the Beetle’s mechanical parts.
Originally offered only as a coupé, the Karmann Ghia featured virtually no straight lines and hardly any discernible body seams. The body wasn’t stamped and machine welded, but cut and formed by hand, with panels welded end-to-end so there were no visible joins and then the whole thing was lead-loaded to produce the unmistakable smooth, flowing shape. And yet Karmann was able to produce cars with this craftsmanship to the tune of over 33,000 examples in peak years. A convertible model (cabriolet) was added in 1957.
Originally with 30bhp and never more than 50bhp even with a 1600 engine, plus that weighty lead-loaded body, the car was never about performance, but offered the style of a low two-seater and the quality of a hand-crafted machine yet with the compact size, thrifty running costs and reliability of an air-cooled Volkswagen. That was an attractive package, and it still makes a huge amount of sense over five decades later.
Even more so than for other classic cars, the viability of a Karmann Ghia comes down to how little (or how much!) rust is in the body. With their coachbuilt, hand-crafted body made from complex shapes, overlapping panels and lead-loaded finish, any repairs or restoration can be hugely expensive. It really can’t be underestimated how thoroughly any prospective Type 14 purchase should be checked over, and if you don’t have the necessary expertise, be sure to join the KGOC and tap into theirs prior to purchase rather than afterwards.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, the entire car, from headlamps to tail lamps and from sills to roof panel, needs careful examination. Start by looking at the doors and panel gaps to the sills and both wings, and ensure that the sill recess is visible where it fits behind both wings.
Then examine the sills, both inside and outside as well as underneath where the welded bottom edge should overlap the edge of the floorpan and around the jacking point. Between the outer sill and the inner/heater channel the cabriolet has additional reinforcement. Complete inner/ outer sill replacement will cost over £300 in parts alone.
Check around the headlamp bowls, both inside and outside the wing. The nose panel is prone to damage from front end collisions, whilst rust can be found inside the nose grills where the fresh air ducts are located and in the air ducts all along the inner wing. Check all four wheelarches, the inner rear wings from the wheel box right back to the tail lamp surround. Check too the condition of the door bottoms, both externally and by running a hand along the lower edge of the door where it sits against the seal.
Any corrosion in these parts can be sorted without sliding into the realms of a full rebuild – the panels and parts are available, albeit for a price, and the work involved won’t cost more than the added value of the car.
However, also check the floorpan from both sides, especially around the front footwells and then going forward to the area where the front axle mounts to the framehead structure.
Convertibles usually suffer more from rust in the floor due to leaky hoods and seals or being caught in rain with the hood down. Lift the ‘bonnet’ (or luggage compartment lid – the one at the front!) and the ‘boot’ (engine compartment) lids and check the condition of the inner wings front and rear and the bumper attachment points at both ends. Also examine the condition of the boot and engine compartment floors, as these often rust out from perished or missing lid seals. The rear left inner wing often rusts around the battery tray. Anything but the lightest corrosion in any of the areas mentioned in this paragraph should be a warning sign, and if it’s bad enough to need replacement then a full body-off rebuild is on the cards.
Karmann Ghias were assembled and built to rigorous standards when new, so panel gaps should be both tight and even and doors should latch easily with little force. Wonky panels and dragging doors point to poor-quality restorations, accident repairs or a rust-weakened body. The car’s famous smooth, sculpted shape encourages slapdash applications of filler to hastily welded-in repair panels, so look and feel for suspiciously plastic-seeming areas of bodywork – a magnet is a useful tool.
All Karmann-Ghias originally had a dual chrome trim strip along the styling crease leading forward from the leading edge of the rear wing. While there is a fashion for a nude, pared-back look, many cars will lack this piece of trim because the body is too full of filler to support it or because it was seen as a non-essential item in a tight-budget restoration. If you’re after a project, an honestly rusty car is invariably easier (and cheaper) to put right than a poor-quality ‘restoration’ held together by filler and good intentions.
If a Karmann Ghia’s body is decent, then you’re pretty much home and dry. The mechanical parts are all shared with the Beetle, so they are simple, sturdy and widely available, (there are thousands of Karmann Ghia parts listed on www.californianclassics.co.uk for example, or call the Hull company on 01424 752217), but there’s no point making life difficult for yourself!
The Ghia came with the familiar Volkswagen air-cooled flat-four in 1192, 1285, 1493 and 1584cc forms and followed the mechanical development of the Beetle. The engines can last for very high mileages if properly maintained, but consider the average life to be in the 70,000-100,000-mile region, especially for the hard-worked smaller capacity units.
The big killer of VW engines is overheating, often caused by things as simple as a slipping fan belt, malfunctioning thermostat or blocked oil cooler. The latter is hard to inspect, but look at the condition, tightness and alignment of the belt and for any signs that it’s been slipping. Check that the thermostat located under the push rod tubes expands when the engine is warm and contracts when cold – this opens and closes the cooling flaps located in the fan housing. The engines usually keep their cool in the UK climate, but it’s important to keep the airflow separate between the upper and lower halves of the engine compartment with all tinware and seals in place to prevent hot air from the cylinders being drawn in by the fan.
Chrome-plated rocker covers and fan shrouds may be a popular accessory, but they also make the engine run hotter than intended. Carburettors with worn throttle spindles, leaky manifold seals (especially twin port engines with rubber connecting sleeves) or being badly set up will make the engine run hot and lean, as will tight valves or incorrect timing.
A compression test is the best way of gauging the overall health of the engine if the vendor will allow you to perform one – you want to see even readings of at least 100psi on all cylinders, with 120psi being the sign of a really good motor. Engines should not leak oil, so be wary of units with signs of oil leakage from the oil cooler, the pushrod tubes and the flywheel crank seal. Try and lever the crank pulley back and forth to check for noticeable end play which signifies worn main bearings (also inspect it with the engine running and an assistant operating the clutch) – ideally you want to see no movement at all.
Engines with worn or scored cylinder barrels or seized rings from overheating will blow blue smoke under acceleration. Worn valve guides will result in a puff of oily smoke on start-up. Engines will make the distinctive air-cooled churning sound at idle, but listen for knocks or tapping sounds, usually indicative of worn main or small end bearing knock. Ghias lacked an oil pressure gauge as standard, but check that the warning light goes off quickly after the engine starts and that The cabriolet version of the Karmann Ghia was introduced in 1957 as a 2+2. Approximately 80,000 were built between then and 1974. it doesn’t light up or flicker at a hot idle. Many Karmann Ghias will have had later engine/ transmission units fitted, or had upgrades such as twinport cylinder heads, uprated carburettors (or twin-carb kits) and sports intake/exhaust kits. The points to check on any of these remain the same.
The gearbox and clutch aren’t the slickest or most pleasant examples in the world of classic cars, but they are robust and functional. The biggest issue is worn synchromesh caused by sheer age or mileage, leading to crunchy down-changes and grinding when selecting first/ second gear, although that may be simply an out-of-adjustment clutch linkage. Check for wear by coming off and on the throttle a few times in second and third gear and seeing if the box jumps out of engagement. This will also reveal any worn IRS driveshaft couplings.
From 1968 a three-speed semi auto was available. It uses the top three gears of the manual box with a torque converter and vacuum operated clutch operated by a microswitch in the gear lever. Problems to check for are with electrics, switches and vacuum controls. On all boxes, worn bearings and chipped teeth usually show up by chattering or rattling sounds in neutral with the clutch up. The remote gearchange isn’t the most precise one ever devised, but if it feels loose or the gears hard to find, then the rear coupling, gearlever lockout plate or nylon bush may be worn, which are easy to replace. A complete rebuilt transmission unit (gearbox and final drive) costs about £1000 plus fitting.
SUSPENSION, STEERING & BRAKES
Like a Beetle, the Karmann Ghia has simple torsion bar suspension, so it is easy to maintain as long as the mounting points and axle beam themselves are rust free. The front torsion beam has four grease nipples, so look to see that these show signs of being used recently and aren’t under a cake of dirt and paint. Earlier cars up to 1966 have link/king pins instead of balljoints for the front wheels, each with upper and lower grease points. There should be no discernible freeplay with wheels unloaded. Dry torsion leaves can give a stiff or jerky ride. Check for uneven tyre wear, which often indicates that the geometry is being thrown off by worn or seized suspension parts.
From 1969 the Karmann Ghia gained a proper independent rear suspension system with CV joints at both ends of each driveshaft, rather than the older swing axle system. Other than an extra pair of joints and gaiters to check, there is no difference in the durability, but the later system provides superior road holding. Earlier cars may be fitted with the later IRS-type shafts, which is good so long as the work is properly carried out.
The steering is by a box which, while producing rather numb and wooden-feeling steering, should be accurate and with hardly any slack other than around the centre point. Check the relative motion of the input and output shafts for internal wear, although this can be adjusted at the box up to a point. Modern balljoints were fitted from 1966 on – check both these and track rod ends for wear or torn gaiters.
Before 1967 Karmann Ghias had single circuit hydraulic drum brakes all-round, superseded by a dual circuit, front disc system thereafter. The disc system is better, but there’s little wrong with the all-drum set-up so long as it’s in good condition and the car in question hasn’t had power or performance upgrades.
The original reservoir for the master cylinder is mounted on the upper part of the bulkhead, with long flexible hoses to the cylinder behind the pedal on the floor. These long hoses can be a source of leaks, and some cars will have had replacement cylinders with an integral reservoir but this can be difficult to access. Beyond this the brake system is conventional, so check the cleanliness of the fluid and for any sponginess or ‘pumping’ action in the pedal, leaks from the wheel cylinders, sounds and sensations of warped discs or drums and make sure the car pulls up straight.
It has become quite popular to lower the stance of a Karmann Ghia and fit different wheels, so check this work has been done competently and you appreciate the differences to a standard car. Extensive changes may also mean the car is no longer exempt from needing an MoT.
INTERIOR & ELECTRICS
The interior of a Karmann Ghia is fairly straightforward and generally the materials are durable so long as they haven’t been exposed to harsh UV light for a long period – this is more of a problem for cars in hotter, sunnier places than the UK! In terms of soft furnishings like floor carpets, seat covers, door cards and roof lining, it’s all available new from a variety of sources and there’s nothing that a competent trim specialist won’t be able to restore. A carpet set is about £160, a complete seat cover set is £200-£300 depending on the type of seats and the material, cabin side trim sets are about £300 and headlining is about £100, all of which will be subject to the additional fitting cost if you can’t do the work yourself. Even things like steering wheels, mirrors and door handles are available, though they are pricey. In short, the interior is not a big worry so long as the rest of the car is in good condition and defects in the interior make a good haggling point.
On cabriolets, check the hood for damaged mechanisms, rotted wooden hood bows, shrinkage, splits and tears (especially in the PVC rear window for pre-1969 cars; after ’1969 these were replaced with a heated fold down glass window) but, again, new ones in a variety of materials and specifications, ranging from straightforward replacements to luxurious colour-coded mohair ones with heated glass, are available in the £400-£600 range. It’s more important that a tatty hood hasn’t let water in to rust out the floor!
The electrics are simple. Pre-1968 cars had six-volt electrics, but many have been converted to 12-volt systems by now. Most problems are caused by bad earths due to corroded fittings or rust in the body, or by degraded wiring with flaking insulation. Check behind the dashboard to see the condition of the wiring loom – it shouldn’t look or feel like a bird’s nest. However this is one of those areas where you can compromise a little if the car is structurally and mechanically decent – sorting out wiring is much easier and cheaper than rebuilding a rotten bodyshell.
WHAT TO PAY?
Whilst Karmann Ghia values have picked up over the past few years as the spotlight has shifted from the ever-desirable but increasingly expensive campers and buses, they have yet to reach their full potential. Condition is everything and if you want an original car, make certain you know what you are looking at! Generally the earlier the car, the more you will need to pay, so very good ‘low light’ coupés (only officially made in LHD from 1956-1959) can be £25,000-£30,000. Excellent 1960-1965 cars can fetch up to £24,000, with 1966-1969 cars 10-15% less.
The 1972-on ‘big bumper’ cars in top condition struggle to better £14,000, whilst 1970-1971 cars with larger indicators/ rear lights fall in between. Cabriolets are typically worth up to £5000-£6000 more for good examples than equivalent coupés. Project cars can be had for £2000 upwards depending on age and degree of decay.
Most cars in the UK have been imported from the USA (with a few from South Africa) and there is still demand to import good, usable, rust free examples at a significant saving. There is now little practical difference in prices between LHD and RHD cars as they are both equally sought after in the UK, and the European market is strong for the best cars.
Our grateful thanks to Mark Poulton and the Karmann Ghia Owners Club GB for invaluable help with this feature. For further advice and help, check out their website at www.kgoc.org.uk
Luggage space – up front of course – is limited. RHD was only offered from August 1959, but some earlier cars have been converted.
The Coupé lasted nearly 20 years, from 1955 to 1974. In that time well over 350,000 were built.
Engines used in the Karmann Ghia mirrored the evolution of those used in contemporary Beetles.
The cabriolet version of the Karmann Ghia was introduced in 1957 as a 2+2. Approximately 80,000 were built between then and 1974.
The Ghia was crafted by Karmann for Volkswagen. When production finished in June 1974, the factory retooled to build VW Sciroccos.
Barely a seam in sight – rebuilding a Karmann Ghia body properly is a skilled job and so expensive.