By on January 5, 2013

I see lots and lots of air-cooled Beetles in self-service wrecking yard, and this has been the case for the 30 years I’ve been frequenting such places. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of old Type 1 Bugs slowly trickling into junkyards, and I usually ignore them (though I thought this ’73 Super Beetle was interesting enough to photograph). It’s not that I don’t like these cars— I’ve owned a few and thought they were great fun— but mostly they’re just background. Junked Karmann Ghias, on the other hand, get my attention. Sure, they’re Beetles under the skin, but you just don’t see many of the crypto-sporty air-cooled VWs these days. Here’s one I found at a snow-covered Denver self-service yard last week.
Even though I moved to Denver from the San Francisco Bay Area two years ago, this snow-in-the-junkyard business still seems wrong. Midwesterners keep telling me that I don’t know the meaning of snow, but still… wrong. Anyway, all Karmann Ghias that show up in these yards get picked over in a hurry. This one still has a few goodies left, but it had only been out on the yard for a few days when I found it.
The last owner of this car either had a great sense of humor or no sense of humor. Hey, look, Karmann Ghias had electric rear-window defrosters (to go with the hydrocarbon-o-riffic exhaust-heat-powered interior heaters.
Someone has grabbed the engine out of this car, which came with a 1600cc air-cooled boxer four making 57 horsepower. Air-cooled VWs get engine swaps about every two years, so there’s no telling what this car’s most recent powerplant might have been.
In stock form, these cars didn’t even come close to being sporty or quick, though they were much more fun to drive than the even-worse-than-the-Malaise-MGB horsepower numbers might suggest. Thing is, the transaxle can handle lots of additional power and aftermarket engine upgrades make it pretty cheap to double your horsepower. Then the sensible little two-seater becomes a homicidal spinout monster with the fuel tank perched right over the driver’s knees.

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55 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1970 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia...”


  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    “homicidal spinout monster”

    You make is sound like there’s something wrong with that.

    ;-)

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    The electric rear-window defroster looks aftermarket.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Put a judson blower on a standard bug and you got the same thing. I did not keep it long.

  • avatar
    W.

    My uncle had a black Ghia that he kept running with the parts from a yellow Ghia. He used to haul his two kids and wife around in that thing. When they weren’t driving their Type 2…for some reason my extended family had a thing for Volkswagens of the late 60′s through early 80′s.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    Back in the day, Karmann-Ghias were prime candidates for a Corvair engine swap, because the Corvair six fits underneath the factory engine lid, which it does not in a Beetle (aftermarket bubble butt lids were sold for the purpose). I suspect that not too many new conversions are being done now, as the remaining supply of Corvair engines is probably all taken up by people restoring Corvairs.

    • 0 avatar
      zbnutcase

      No need anymore. A built Type 1 VW engine will run circles around the most built Corvair engine these days…and stay together ..Surprised the Corvair guys aren’t swapping VW engines into their cars these days

    • 0 avatar
      nikita

      Experimental aircraft engine conversions, believe it or not, as well as those restoring Corvairs. It is much easier to build up a 2180cc or so stroker VW with all new parts than do the Corvair swap, which involves reversing the ring gear in the transaxle, due to the rotation difference.

      Im building a Corvair powered experimental airplane. I was going to do a VW, but there is no “replacement for displacement” in the air. High rpm peak power is useless spinning a propeller, and VW cases tend to crack from the stresses.

  • avatar
    chris724

    My brother in law has one of these with some kind of funkatronic semiautomatic transmission. I’ve heard that these were a regular manual with a solenoid actuated clutch. But when I rode with him, it sounded like a regular manual with a torque converter in place of the clutch. Does anyone know the truth about these transmissions?

    • 0 avatar
      zbnutcase

      Yes. Its called Automatic Stick Shift. It’s a 3 speed manual trans, with a dry clutch activated by a vacuum diaphragm, and a hydraulic torque converter. Put it in gear, take off and when ready to shift, an electric switch in the shifter activates the solenoid controlled vacuum valve,feeds vacuum to the diaphragm to disengage the clutch, shift, let go of shifter to reengage clutch. Rinse and Repeat. Only the Germans…

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Paul Niedermeyer (of Curbside Classic fame) commented about driving one that the system would very quickly teach you not to rest your hand on the shift lever or the clutch would disengage. That had to be a very disconcerting feeling.

      • 0 avatar
        ranwhenparked

        Easily the most complicated thing on the car (although still simpler mechanically than a full-auto would have been), nobody seems to know how to fix them anymore and most of the cars with them seem to have been swapped out to conventional 4 speeds. The technology was originally developed for WWII veterans with injuries that prevented them from working a clutch, but in the US, Volkswagen adopted some really sexist marketing – selling AutoStick cars as VWs wives wouldn’t be afraid to drive.

        I guess all things considered, it wasn’t that bad of an idea, sort of combines most of the fuel economy of a manual with most of the laziness of an automatic. Wasn’t stellar at either, but sort of in between.

      • 0 avatar
        ixim

        Reminds me of Chrysler’s Fluid Drive. I had a ’53 Windsor with it. There was a clutch pedal, used only to put the car in gear, a fluid coupling [no actual torque converter], 4 gears shifted by vacuum diaphragms and solenoids. Replaced by the legendary TorqueFlite, I believe.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Actually, you normally wouldn’t repeat because under normal circumstances you only used the top two gears with those things. 1st was for chasing squirrels up trees.

        Scary thing is you could get that transmission in a Porsche 911 too…

    • 0 avatar
      Muttley Alfa Barker

      It was called the VW Autostick. But before the Autostick existed, VW used a licensed version of a semi-automatic transmission called the Saxomat.

  • avatar
    zerofoo

    I dated a girl for a while that had one of these. She push started the thing for 6 months because she couldn’t afford a battery for it.

    In retrospect she was a mixed bag, cute, could drive a manual, and push start it in reverse – but not financially astute enough to save up for a battery.

    Probably a good thing she didn’t work out in the long run.

    • 0 avatar
      zbnutcase

      Or she’s well on her way to becoming the Millionaire Next Door…

    • 0 avatar
      blowfish

      she’s for sure fits the definition of tough broad

      kick start her own vibrato and roll her own t*mpon.

      do have to hand it to her as even for a dude to push start a buggy is not easy feat.

      owned a few during my miscreant youth but never tried this alone.
      mines always had good batt.
      once in Toronto it got kind of cold drained out the batt as the gas froze, in the end have to put in some methyl hydrate.
      even to this day MH is my best friend, i need them in my diesel / vege oel mix.

      early 911 i was told they use semi auto too.
      hen i was a kid in HK one time i saw this high fashion lady had to use both hands to shift her 911 , i think got to be going in reverse!
      normal driving would be a recipe for disaster.

  • avatar
    Darkhorse

    Had a 1966 convertible Ghia. Fun little car except for the crappy 6 volt electrical system. I think the 1969 rear defogger came about due to a requirement from the state of New York.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Was the requirement for defrosters from that long ago? I know our cars from the early 70′s did not have them, but I do remember my dad grousing about the mandated defroster when he bought a new 1981 model.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I once had to ride in the back seat of a hippie friend’s Karmann Ghia, along with his 12-string guitar. I’m 6’6″; it was a bad experience.

    BTW: Switch the “w” and the “s” in the headline, and you’ll have it just right. :)

    • 0 avatar
      Xeranar

      I’m 6’3 and the Kharmann I drove was a modified racer but it was surprisingly roomy for the front. It did have the seat bolted further back to accommodate the driver. Overall that car was fun to tool around in on the track. The front felt extremely light. Once you get the weight shift in the corners down it is a spritely little monster.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    In most parts of the U.S. a Ghia as rust free as this one would certainly be worth saving as they are notorious rust -buckets , much more so than most VWs of this era . Several friends had them back in the day , I even rode in the back seat on a number of occasions , a bit cramped but I’m only 5′ 5″ . Owned a few VWs but never a Ghia , though I always thought about getting one . Drove a couple of Beetles with the aforementioned Automatic Stickshift , a GF had a 1970 Beetle so equipped and had one as a loaner from a repair shop. They were a bit slower and a different gear pattern as I recall, but an interesting variation . Back in the day , a lot of people replaced them with a conventional manual , as they were considered wimpy .

  • avatar

    The Karmann Ghia was essentially styled in Detroit, by Virgil Exner Sr, though unintentionally. Chrysler had an ongoing relationship with Ghia, using the Italian company to build their “idea” cars (because they had outstanding quality and they worked cheaply), culminating in Ghia building the Chrysler Turbine cars. When Volkswagen approached Ghia about designing a small Beetle based coupe, Giovanni Savonuzzi, who was in charge of design for Ghia at the time, took Exner’s 1952 d’Elegance show car and pretty much made a smaller scale version of it, though with a different nose, a rear engine vehicle not needing a traditional grille. Exner was reportedly delighted.

    The side profiles of the Karmann Ghia and the Chrysler d’Elegance are identical.
    http://www.rmauctions.com/FeatureCars.cfm?SaleCode=mo11&CarID=r191

    The relationship went both ways. Some of the Ghia built Chrysler show cars were based on models and drawings shipped from Detroit. Others were in-house designs by Ghia. The DeSoto Adventurer was based on the Ghia Supersonic, that started out as a one-off body for an Alfa based racer, then was the basis of a short run of 8 Fiat based cars, along with a Jaguar and an Aston Martin version.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    This has a decent body that should be salvaged for other Ghias, unlike VW Bugs Ghias had one-piece bodies and require welding to repair dents.

    That gear shifter would make a fine paperweight.

  • avatar
    zbnutcase

    What a shame, that car looks very restorable, at least from the pics.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      It does. Many have bondo filled unibodies especially around the headlights and the beak. I would not be surprised if someone cut off the front from A-piller forward.

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    VW Beetle Type 1/Karmann Ghia = VW Golf/Audi TT.

    • 0 avatar
      Xeranar

      And that is bad? Nothing wrong with TTs. They are generally faster than most cars in their price bracket. I would love a TT as a weekend car just for tooling around a track.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        Actually the TT Coupe Quattro would be a fine everyday car. AWD for in-climate weather which you can’t get on similar sports or small cars i.e. Mini. Though the backseat is tight except for the kiddies it has a decent sized hatch for grocery getting and mileage that rivals a Subie or a VW.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    The high school star athlete had one of these in yellow/orange and the hottest chick in the school, lucky SOB!

  • avatar
    phxmotor

    I had two of the “semi-automatic” VW’s… one years ago just to see what it was like. Never broke down…easy to drive…smooth shifting…nothing wrong with it except it sapped all the power for intown driving…on the hiway id didnt seem to have any adverse affect.
    The second was given to me by a Japanese American friend who’s family farmed in the central valley of CA and loved German cars… I gave it to my daughter who just got her drivers license.
    The transmission is a two speed… but not really… its actually a three speed… if you want a low 1st gear… its there for the asking. I taught my daughter how to drive the thing… and a couple months later she took me for a drive. Everything was fine…she starts out in 2nd…and leaves it there…except on the freeway she just leaves it there! 2nd gear to start out made for a slow acelleration but it was easier for her. High revs at 40mph didnt bother her… and I got used to her logic pretty quickly. It was pretty funny actually. She could brag to her friends that she knew how to drive a stickshift… and eventually she did… Her next car was a stickshift Focus… never would have bought that valve-seat dropping piece of s–t except for the fact that a shop convinced its 1st owner that its engine was destroyed when it only lost its timing belt. Got it for $100 and literally nothing was wrong except a motor-mount and the timing belt… until it lost the valveseat that is. The destroyed engine part had to wait 4 more years for the inevitable dropped valve seat.
    BUT: the VW semi-automatic is and was a great car. My daughter NOW misses it…i kept telling her she would be telling her grandchildren that her 1st car was a VW Bug… but w/o a/c in the central valley it just wasn’t going to cut it for a teenager. Sold it for $1500. Dang thing is worth $3,000 now. Oh well. The real engineering marvel is the Citroen “Citro-Matic”… now there is a technology worthy of a few articles. Rube Goldburg would be proud of that one.

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    The pump that you mentioned was for the fluid coupling. Had the same color Ghia many years ago. My kids drove that car for over 5 years and i was talked into giving it to my buddies son. The car is now restored and is only driven to local shows. He has won many awards for that car. Loved working on that car. Any work to be done on the engine i could pull it out of the car in 15 minutes. Have a 1971 Beetle that i restored a while back that i just use locally for shopping and driving to the park to run. Not a month goes by that someone stops me to see if it is for sale. Truth be known the driving difference between a 42 year old beetle and my 2012 VW GTI is like night and day. Give credit though it always starts first crank and i get plenty of heat in the winter.

  • avatar

    You can see some of that rear-fender styling on the latest Bentley Continental GT, which of course is Volkswagen-engineered…

    • 0 avatar
      Glen.H

      It’s a great way to annoy Bentley owners to point that their car is “just an overgrown VW”! Of course older Bentleys were just re-badged Rolls-Royces…

      • 0 avatar
        Eric Green

        @ Glen.H:

        In defence of W.O. Bentley’s engineering brilliance, I take issue with that statement. Cricklewood Bentleys were among the finest sporting cars of their day (multiple Le mans winners; drove Ettore Bugatti to distraction), and until the RR takeover occasioned by the Great Depression, had nothing in common with the RR marque. I sometimes wonder what W.O. would have made of the cars bearing his name today- as an engineer, I reckon he would be appreciative; as a Brit, he would be appalled…

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        But without RR, vickers and VW, Bentley would be but a memory… And a car you could see occasionally taking part in the annual Silvretta Classic run.

      • 0 avatar

        And current Rolls-Royces are rebodied BMWs. The thing about Bentley, though, is that it has two tiers. There are the Volkswagen-engineered ones, which consist of the Continental lineup, and then you have the really-nice ones, which borrow very minimally from VW Group (instrument-panel LCD display, chimes, keyless-entry, infotainment) Currently that’s just the Mulsanne, which will eventually spawn coupe and cabriolet variants.

  • avatar
    Advance_92

    My Mom’s friend had one of these and in addition to the driver with a little coaxing you could fit five 3-4 year olds into one around 1977 or so. One of my more vivid early memories.

  • avatar
    nrd515

    My grandmother’s ex-husband showed up in a brand new one of these on one of his semi annual returns to Toledo after he moved away when he and grandma split up. It was an awful tan color. He always had weird cars, in weird colors, and this was actually one of his better choices, in cars anyway. The absolute worst is the one he bought right after he and grandma got divorced, a Triumph TR4A. I rode in it The VW) several times during the week he stayed with us (my mother blamed her mother for the breakup and he was a really nice old guy), and remember him driving it like he hated it, shifting furiously and squealing tires around corners.

  • avatar
    amca

    I recently read a piece arguing persuasively that the source of the Karmann Ghia’s body design was Virgil Exner’s 1953 Chrysler d’Elegance show car.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    That appears to be a ’71 model .

    Back when VW Autosticks were still in the Dealers Showrooms , no one could fix the common shifting troubles so I had my business partner buy a wrecked one from the Police Impound , dug out my shop manuals and took it apart and learned what made it tick and how to fix / adjust it ~ they’re very simple and seriously overbuilt to ensure long , troublefree service *if* you take any sort of care of it .

    Sock , they were actually faster 0 ~ 60 than the same year stick shifts , few understand this as few ever bother to properly tune thier air cooled VW’s .

    When it was announced at the 1968 Auto Show , they had a tranny on a display stand powered by a COX .049 model airplane engine to demonstrate how little power it used ~ the torque converter sucks up all the power but who cars in advertising , right ? .

    VW actually made a bunch on these in late 1960 as 1961 models and called it ” Saxomat ” ~ only a very few remain .

    I rather liked these cars and kept one in service from the late 1970′a through my divorce in 1995 , the ex took it , she loved it .

    Porsche’s Autostick was clled the ” SportoMatic ” and have four speeds to VW’s three , also a very good thing but not if you’re a racer I guess .

    It’s nice to see there are still some air cooled enthusiasts about .

    Renault had a similar thing in the Dauphine , called the ” Ferlec Clutch ” , it had an electro magnet embedded in the flywheel and used the current in the generator to measure how it took up ~ Sam McCall loved it , I did not and junked the one I had .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Joss

    Car-man’s Ghia? See how Wolfsburg (& Detroit,) embraced the “homogenous platform,” in an almost communist-like idyllic.

    The capitalists are the heroes now behemoth drives the peasants plow.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    The Karmann Ghia was certainly one of the prettiest and most attractive cars mass-produced. Ever.

    So far as I can tell, no one has yet mentioned how, in the coupe models, the rear seat back folded down revealing a storage compartment behind the seat that could hold items like a couple of small duffle bags or purses when folded up. When folded down the seat back created a shelf that extended back into the storage compartment and that could hold carry a suit case, although it would be visible and in the open behind the front seats. I don’t know if convertible models had a similar compartment.

    I once read about a man who lived in a northern U.S. state and who owned a Karmann Ghia coupe. He would frequently drive it into Canada where he would buy bottles of liquor which he would place in the hidden compartment behind the rear seat. He would then return to the U.S. and when driving through the U.S. check point would conveniently forget to declare that he had purchased several bottles of liquor while in Canada, thus avoiding paying any duty on it. Supposedly he never got caught.

    In the past there have been discussions about how t.v. and movie directors will use an automobile to help define a character. I don’t want to list every t.v. show or movie in which a Karmann Ghia appeared, but I did want to mention two notable movie characters who drove Karmann Ghias.

    Midge Wood (played by Barbara Bel Geddes), the charming, stylishly pert but love-lorn bohemian department store clerk and artist in the movie, “Vertigo,” famously drove a trout blue 1956 Karmann Ghia coupe up and down the streets of San Francisco. I still can’t believe that Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) would dump her for that devious hussy, Judy Barton (Kim Novak).

    (Rumor has it that Midge left San Fran and returned to her family in Texas where she married a well-to-do Texas oilman. She was last seen driving an ’80s Volkswagen Cabriolet and is believed to have passed away at a ripe old age.)

    Andie Walsh (played by Molly Ringwald), charming, stylishly second-hand store chic but love-lorn bohemian working-class high school student and TRAX record store clerk, famously bopped around town in a pink metallic 1959 Karmann Ghia coupe in the movie, “Pretty in Pink.” Unlike poor Midge, Andie actually got the guy, Blane McDonough (played by Andrew McCarthy), in the end. (No word on whether or not they are still together.)

    • 0 avatar
      silverkris

      In the 1960s spy-spoof comedy “Get Smart opening credits, Don Adams (as Maxwell Smart) is seen driving and parking a car – most of the time, a Sunbeam Alpine, but later a Karmann-Ghia and an Opel GT.

    • 0 avatar
      silverkris

      In the 1960s spy-spoof comedy “Get Smart” opening credits, Don Adams (as Maxwell Smart) is seen driving and parking a car – most of the time, a Sunbeam Alpine, but later a Karmann-Ghia and an Opel GT.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    There was another version of the Karmann Ghia , this one based on the Type 3 ( VW Squareback , etc . ) chassis , available only as a coupe , a bit larger than the Type 1 version . It was a bit of a flop , and never was officially imported to the U.S. However some were imported here on the grey market or brought back by servicemen . Rarely seen here nonetheless. Some people think the styling was a bit Corvair- like and ugly , with odd slanted headlights . One thing it was known for IIRC was offering the industry’s first power sunroof. Incidentally , I remember hearing that , once the Automatic Stickshift was offered in German market Beetles , it was ordered by half the buyers .In the U.S. back then I doubt more than 20% of buyers chose the automatic. A bit of a reversal from today’s world
    where nobody in the U.S. wants a manual .

    • 0 avatar
      ranwhenparked

      That would be the Type 34, very rare and never sold in the US, but there are a decent number of private imports here. I’ve always wondered about the lack of popularity of the AutoStick in the automatic-obsessed United States. I figure it has to do with the sort of counter-cultural image the Beetle had here. People didn’t buy it because it was a particularly good or particularly economical car, they bought it because it was a rejection of traditional consumerist/capitalist values and a way of “rebelling” against corporate America as embodied by the Big Four. American landyachts were almost exclusively automatics, so younger buyers turning their noses up at them prided themselves on owning a manual Beetle.

      That’s my theory anyway. By all rational logic, the AutoStick should have been a home run in America, that fact that it was a relative flop means that there was something at work there.

  • avatar
    mpresley

    In 1972, stopped at a traffic light while driving the old man’s ’62 Rambler Classic (with the aftermarket J.C.Whitney replacement engine), a guy in a Karmann Ghia ran into the back of another stopped car to the right of me. The VW, having no engine in the front, made a dull thud sound, like a hand hitting an empty milk jug, and bounced back from the low speed impact. I wondered, “Why isn’t water and smoke bellowing out of the damn thing?” The Ghia driver just backed up and drove around the accident scene to the side of the road. What an odd-looking car, I thought. But then I remembered I was driving a ten year old Rambler with a replacement engine from J.C. Whitney, and I became envious.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I owned a ’68 Ghia which I bought used in ’72. There were two significant improvements in the ’70 car over previous models. The swing axle was double-jointed, avoiding radical wheel camber changes as the suspension loaded and unloaded in turns, stops or acceleration. The engine was also fitted with dual-port cylinder heads, creating the opportunity to use two carburetors, one for each bank of cylinders. For its time, this was a pretty good handling car, especially if you put Michelin-X radials on it, rather than the more common bias-plies. The observed top speed of my slightly modified car was 80 mph, but it would maintain 70 on the highway with no problem, getting around 28 mpg doing it. Assuming the heater boxes were not rusted out, the heater/defroster was pretty effective as long as the temperature wasn’t too far below freezing.

    The biggest complaints I had were: (1) the four speed transmission had a large gap between third and fourth gear (which was an overdrive) which meant that acceleration was very limited above 55 mph when shifting into 4th was required (2) the car could not be air conditioned.

    With a bolt-on modified engine (2 2bbl. Holley “bug spray” carburetors, mechanical advance distributor, with exhaust headers and low-restriction exhaust) the performance of the car was not much less than the vastly more expensive Porsche 912.

  • avatar
    nikita

    Ive got a ’69 KG in my collection, 35,000 original miles on the single port 1500cc engine. The non swing axle rear suspension became standard in ’69, introduced in ’68 with the Autostick option. The car is slow, but handles fine with modern radial tires.

    Its garage mate is a ’74 “Thing”. Yes I’ve always had at least one old VW in the family fleet. The Think sits on the same pan (platform) as the Ghia, wider than the beetle. That is one reason the Ghia front seating area is roomier.

  • avatar
    dm2012

    A ’71 Karmann Ghia convertible was my daily driver from 1996 through 2001. Lots of fun and pretty reliable, if you regularly adjusted the valves & used good quality parts (rather than the cheap, widely available bargain-basement crap.) But it’s not a good car to crash in. In early 2002, an old man behind the wheel of a late model Maxima fell asleep on a curvy, canyon-studded section of Mulholland Drive and very nearly sent me to my Maker. I was able to move just far enough right for the Maxima to impact my left rear quarter panel rather than the drivers-side door. The impact busted my left rear suspension & sent me into a NASCAR style spin, but I was somehow able to stop before impacting anything. Collected my insurance settlement, then sold it to a VW collector in Montana who fixed it up nicely.


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