VW Karmann Ghia Review

Published: 07th July 2010
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Every yin needs its yang. The yin: Volkswagen's global bestseller, the meek, mild and inexpensive Beetle; the yang: Volkswagen's new kid on the block, the voluptuous and seamless Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. The panache of one balanced the functionality of the other. The Karmann-Ghia breathed new life into Volkswagen.

The Karmann Ghia. was a graceful coachbuilt vehicle introduced to the press at the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show. It was Volkswagen's mascot, a savior that would create an aurora of elegance that had been lacking in VW showrooms. Initially offered in Europe, it debuted in America in 1956 and lasted until 1974. Throughout its lifetime, the Karmann-Ghia was offered as both a coupe and a cabriolet. It was Volkswagen's glamour car, and had a lasting effect on Volkswagen's image.

Just who built the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia? Was it Chrysler's American Virgil Exner, Karmann's German Wilhem Karmann, or Gia's Italian Mario Boano? While few historians can offer a definite answer, many agree that Karmann, who owned a renowned German coachbuilding company, constructed the mechanics of the Karmann-Ghia, while Boano, a successful automobile designer, created the style - possibly with some inspiration from Exner, who created the similar Chrysler d'Elegance. When their efforts were presented in 1953 to Dr. Feureisen, the vice president of Volkswagen, Feureisen exclaimed, "Now that has class!" Wait - an upgraded coachbuilt Beetle had class?

In fact, the Karmann-Gia was built to embody class; it was billed as "sensible richness." Wider and softer bucket seats enveloped driver and passenger; a stylish dashboard and accessible control panel made commuting pleasant; the smooth transmission and balanced body gave a effortless - if not intense - driving experience. For a $1,000 more than regular Bug, the Karmann-Ghia showered its owner with indulgence.

Using the Beetle's air-cooled, horizontally-opposed 36-hp boxer-4 engine, it shaved over 10 seconds off the Beetle's apathetic 0-60 time, had a top speed of 71 mph and boasted an anti-sway front stabilizer bar. Australia's Wheels claimed that the "Ghia looks better, handles better, [and] outshines the Volkswagen on the road." Despite its noted improvement, however, few aficionados termed it a true sports car. The Karmann-Ghia sold because of curvilinear style, not careening speed.

Sales soon doubled after the inaugural production. Starting at 2,452 in 1956, it achieved 9,300 sales in 1961. Due to its coachbuilt status and initial welcoming, the Karmann-Ghia underwent few major changes during its lifestyle. To a large degree, it followed the mechanical alterations of its cousin, the Volkswagen Beetle. Subsequent a few slight exterior changes, it received a new rear suspension and bigger engine in 1969 - raising horsepower to 57 - and larger bumpers in 1972. At its peak, the Karmann-Ghia jogged from 0-60 in 21 seconds, packed approximately 60 horsepower and had a 90-mph top speed. Despite these changes, however, modifications were mostly minor.

Changes in price were not. They soon jumped from $2,395 in 1956 to $3,347 in 1974. Near the end of its life, consumers were unwilling to rescue the Karmann-Ghia by tossing expensive lifeboats, and left the once-beloved Ghia to drown under the waves of its competitors. It was discontinued in 1974, replaced by the Karmann Scirocco.

The Karmann-Ghia found a total of 485,983 owners during its lifetime. Now, many enthusiasts wish to join the following. Why? Because they want class - "sensible richness."

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