VW Karmann Ghia review

By: Guy Allen & owners - Words & Photos

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They say some things never go out of style and we reckon that applies to the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

If ever you wanted a car that talks to the history of the auto industry during the mid-20th century, you’d be hard put to find a better example than this, a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. The name itself is the giveaway, involving a high-profile manufacturer and two coachbuilders, one of which also became a styling house.

Volkswagen itself needs little introduction. Founded in 1937 as a state-owned maker, the German company famously established itself by announcing the Ferdinand Porsche-designed KdF Wagen (the forerunner to the Beetle). However plans for mass production stalled with the onset of World War II.


The classic lines are by Luigi Segre of Ghia

Volume production of the Type 1 was underway from 1945 and by March 1946, production was up to 1000 units a month. From there, the company built an extraordinary success from what was to become a hugely successful cult car.

Roll into the 1950s and a fascinating collaboration develops between Volkswagen, Carrozzeria Ghia and Karmann. The latter two were coachbuilders who made specialist cars for a number of high-profile makers over the years. In addition, Ghia added car styling and design to its portfolio.

| Read next: 1960 Type 14 Karmann Ghia review


Great shape with simple mechanicals – a good combination

That little grouping resulted in the Type 14 2+2, penned by Luigi Segre and built on a slightly widened Type 1 (or Beetle) chassis, and shown at the 1955 Frankfurt show. Incredibly, production of variants on this design lasted all the way through to 1974.

Speaking of variants, there were several. They included the cabriolet (or soft-top), plus a range of ‘big’ Type 34 1500 Karmanns based on the Type 3 platform.

| Read next: 1957-1974 Karmann Ghia buyer's guide


The one-off fastback Type 34

Though we tend not to see many on local roads, production numbers were staggering: 362,601 Type 14 coupes, 80,881 convertibles, plus 42,505 Type 34s. The most rare variant is a Type 34 fastback – just one example was built and it’s with the Volkswagen collection.

Originally specified with a 30ps (22kW) 1200 engine, performance, or a lack of it, was an issue for the early cars and it’s hardly surprising that many owners upgraded their engines to later and larger types – fortunately a task that’s relatively straight-forward thanks to the long-term popularity of the air-cooled flat-four engine series. Volkswagen itself over time produced 1500 and 1600 variants.


Road tests of the day inevitably commented on the car’s leisurely performance, though apparently it had other virtues. Noting that it cost $1000 more and was a little heavier than the contemporary Beetle, Road & Track magazine (USA) in 1956 wrote: "Underway to the testing strip, we found the noise level to be about the same as in the sedan. But the good aerodynamic lines of the GK make it far less susceptible to wind buffeting at highway speeds than its higher, more slab-sided cousin, and its somewhat lower centre of gravity gives a more secure, stable feeling in tight spots."

Owners Peter Sheean and Mechelle Moore got their hands on the example you see here over 20 years ago. "I’ve always loved a Karmann Ghia – since I was little," explained Mechelle. "So the idea of owning one was very exciting.


"But I didn’t know I was getting it. Pete went and purchased it. I just got home one day and there it was in the carport – it was very nice!"

Peter bought the car as a restored and going concern with a bit of a story behind it. At some stage it belonged to a TAFE teacher in Tenterfield who had restored the car with his pupils. Evidently they did a pretty good job, as the car has lasted well.


Original 1200 motor has been replaced with a 1600

Mechelle says this was her daily driver, doing the school and work runs, plus the odd trip on the weekend. "I’d go everywhere in it. And I loved the experience because you know you’re driving," she said.

However it wasn’t all peaches and cream. A regular trip on school runs included a monster hill that slowed the hard-working Karmann to a crawl. She recalls an infamous incident: "One day I was driving up it and there was a house being built on the side of the road. There was a guy out the front with a cement mixer. We had the windows down and he asked if I was okay, are you going to make it. I said yes, it makes it every morning.


The interior felt lower and more sporty than the equivelent Beetle

"He offered a hand and I said no I can’t stop. We were having a conversation. By the time we got to the top, my son was so humiliated he said I’ll never drive with you in this car again!" Peter added, "We bought another car the next weekend."

The Karmann nevertheless remained as a family pet, over time getting fresh upholstery. Around 2008 it also scored a new 1600 engine via Volkwerke. That, apparently, transformed the car.


According to Peter: "We can whip around Kinglake and up and down the mountains with no problem. I feel like Jack Brabham! It’s done 3500 miles since then and only gets out occasionally. One of the reasons we’ve kept it for so long is it’s so inexpensive to maintain. And I love driving it."


It seems that all good things come to an end, eventually, and the car is coming up on the market. Keep an eye out for it here at tradeuniquecars.com.au.



From Unique Cars #475, February 2023


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