1968 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia cabriolet
1968 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The rise of the giant Volkswagen factory after World War II in what became the West German City of Wolfsburg, was a modern industrial miracle. Constructed before the war to build Hitler’s “Peoples Car,” it produced few cars before and during the war. It mostly built Volkswagen-based Kubelwagens, Germany’s version of the Jeep. When hostilities ended, the plant was largely in ruins from allied bombing.

The British were placed in charge of the mile-long factory, but didn’t know what to do with it. There were also the thousands of freed prisoners of war, displaced persons and refugees streaming in from Soviet-controlled East Germany just eight kilometres (five miles) to the east.

The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers used the plant as a military vehicle repair facility. But that was only a temporary measure, and the army requested that a British commission, headed by Lord Roots of the Hillman Motor Car Co., study the plant and a Volkswagen car, and make recommendations on their potential.

The commission concluded that the Volkswagen was technically inferior, ugly and noisy, the type of car that “… will remain popular for two or three years, if that. To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.” Regarding the plant, their advice was simple: Raze it.

In the meantime, the ex-prisoners and others scrounged around and found the hidden VW tooling. They set about cleaning up and restoring the plant. Pleased to see the people occupied, the British Army began trucking in coal from the Ruhr Valley. By the end of 1945 the enterprising Germans had produced several hundred Volkswagens.

There were setbacks along the way, but the VW plant gradually got into full scale production. By March, 1953, it had built a half-million Beetles, and by August, 1955, a million.

By the early ’50s, with the Beetle a success, company management wanted to build something more stylish than the Beetle, not replacement, just an addition. They engaged famed Italian coachbuilder and stylist, Turin-based Ghia, to design a new car.

The design studio lived up to its reputation and produced a beautifully sculpted coupe that looked nicely proportioned from any angle. The German coachbuilder Karmann of Osxnabruck, producer of Volkswagen cabriolets, was commissioned to build the new car. It was introduced as the 1956 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, and was an immediate success. It was strictly a two-seater with just a fold-down shelf behind the two comfortable bucket seats. A cabriolet was introduced a year later.

Because it used the same powertrain as the Beetle, the Karmann Ghia possessed its rugged durability and good fuel economy. But its humble VW components precluded it from being called a true sports car by the purists, even though Porsche had achieved this a few years earlier. But Porsche had, however, at least beefed up the horsepower. Enthusiasts noted that the Karmann Ghia didn’t even have a tachometer; ‘sporty car’ was the best the Karmann Ghia could claim.

The Karmann Ghia was longer, lower and wider than the Beetle. Power came from the familiar 1,192 cc (72.7 cu in.) air-cooled, flat four located behind the rear axle. It developed an un-lusty 36 horsepower and drove through a four-speed manual transmission. Suspension was independent all around via torsion bars.

The performance of the Karmann Ghia was inevitably compared with the VW sedan. According to Road & Track magazine (4/56), its zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 28.8 seconds was slightly slower than the sedan’s 28.0, no doubt because the coupe weighed 54 kg (120 lb) more. At 798 kg (1,760 lb), however, it was hardly a heavyweight.

Top speed was a different story. Its superior aerodynamic shape, and eight inch (203 mm) lower height, made the Karmann Ghia’s 122 km/h (76 mph) 10 km/h (6 mph) faster. And like the Beetle, it would cruise happily all day long at top speed and still turn in excellent fuel economy. The owner’s manual stated that the maximum and cruising speeds were the same.

The Karmann Ghia stayed in production for 19 years virtually unchanged except for achieving slightly more pleasing lines by stretching the front fenders a bit. It provided exactly what the company wanted; a car “For people who can’t stand the sight of a Volkswagen,” as VW said in its fiendishly clever advertising.

For chic Italian styling combined with sturdy VW mechanicals, buyers were willing to pay a premium of approximately $1,000 over the sedan, a significant amount in those days. By the time production ceased in 1974, some 443,000 Karmann Ghias had been built, including 81,000 convertibles. The Karmann Ghia was succeeded by the nimble handling, front engine, front-wheel drive VW Scirocco hatchback, which was clearly the wave of the future.

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