Back in the late 50s, Wilhelm Karmann had the inside track in Wolfsburg. His Osnabrück company built the Beetle convertible and the Karmann Ghia (a.k.a. “Typ 14”) for Volkswagen. Rubbing shoulders with Volkswagen engineers and designers, Karmann knew early what others didn’t know: He knew the plans for the notchback VW 1500 “Typ 3”. Karmann shared the secret with the Ghia designers in Turin. Luigi Segre, head of the studio, could not control his excitement.
Drawing after drawing for a new larger Karmann Ghia based on the larger Volkswagen was sent to Osnabrück, along with letters that implored Karmann to build the car. Karmann was all for it, but Volkswagen in Wolfsburg was hesitant. The smaller Karmann Ghia was selling well, and why invest money into too many niches?
Finally, Heinrich Nordhoff, chief of Volkswagen, green lighted the project – with reservations. He doubted it would be a big seller. While the Typ 3 was developed, Karmann developed in parallel the “large Karmann.” To throw off spies, the project received the name “Lyon”. That could be a city in France. Or a big German sausage, “die Lyoner Wurst.”
The project leader at Ghia in Turin was Luigi Sartorelli, the man who had designed the smaller Karmann. For the large Karmann, Sartorelli drew inspiration from a surprising corner: In the U.S., the rear engined, compact and sleek Corvair had created a minor revolution.
Sartorelli’s first designs were heavily influenced by the Corvair, down to the closely grouped twin headlights. Those collided with German law. The inner pair was relegated more towards the center of the car. Segre and Sartorelli protested against the brutalization of their designs – even after production had begun, they sent designs for a different front.
At the Frankfurt Auto Show 1961, 50 years ago, the large Karmann was presented side by side with the freshly launched Typ 3. The model code for the large Karmann was Typ 34. At the time, this was the most expensive and most luxurious Volkswagen in the Wolfsburg line-up. The large Karmann could even be had with an electrically actuated sunroof – a revolution at its time. I remember hand cranked ones well into the 90s.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the large Karmann never had the the Bosch D-Jetronic injection engine. The technical data page of the 11/68 version of the VW 1600 L Karmann Ghia Coupé mentions only the naturally aspirated dual carbureted 1.6 liter engine 1.6 liter engine of the VW 1600. The Volkswagen historians confirm this.
The large Karmann was never officially offered in the U.S. However, many found their way across the Canadian border. Maintaining a show quality or even just a drivable large Karmann is an expensive proposition. Parts are hard to find. If you want to keep up a large Karmann, you better have two (one as a donor vehicle), or Murilee Martin’s number on the speed-dial.
Of course, Karmann immediately started out to design a convertible for the Typ 3, as they did for the Beetle and their own smaller Karmann. As told 2 days ago, this design was nixed, shortly before the introduction of the car.
One of the prototypes for the convertible survived in the Karmann Museum. After the Karmann plant was saved by Volkswagen end of 2009, the Museum was renamed to “Volkswagen Automobilsammlung Osnabrück.” Its chief, Klaus Ulrich, at Karmann since 1973, sometimes drives – very carefully – the prototype at old-timer rallies, such as at the Sachsen Classic Rallye in 2010 (picture above.)
Ulrich is proud of another rarity: The Karmann Ghia 1600 TL hatchback coupe. Built on the VW 1600 TL, it had a big hatch in the back and the rear seats could be folded down. Precursor of the hatchbacks of the 70s. Luigi Segre, who died in 1963, would have approved of the design: The twin headlights are illegally close together, framed in chrome trim. It was never built. Maybe not to steal the thunder of the Passat that came in 1973. It had a big hatch in the back and rear seats that could be folded down.
The large Karmann looked great, but I did not sell well. Only 42,500 units changed hands between 1962 and 1969.
At the end of 1968, Wilhelm Karmann received a letter from Wolfsburg: “In the interest of timely mutual planning, we would like to inform you that we intend to cease production of the Typ 34 in the following year.”
Volkswagen had a make good: The “Volksporsche” 914, built at Karmann from 1969 to 1976.