With a German-Italian name like Karmann Ghia it may surprise you that the little coupe/roadster built on the Volkwagen Type I (aka Beetle) chassis had its origins not on the continent but rather a few thousand miles west of Europe, in Detroit, of all places. By the early 1950s, the postwar Volkswagen company was getting on its feet and had expanded their lineup to include the Ben Pons inspired Type II aka Transporter aka Bus and a cabriolet version of the Beetle, built by the German coachbuilder Karmann. That company’s director, Dr. Wilhelm Karmann, had tried to increase his business with VW but management in Wolfsburg was less than receptive to his suggestions for variants of the Beetle. Karmann turned to Ghia to see if a collaboration would be more successful. Corrozzeria Ghia’s Mario Boano and Luigi Segre had already done some consulting for VW, though the company was about as accepting of their ideas as it was with Karmann’s.
Not much earlier, Boano’s son, Gian Paolo, had bought a VW Type I in Paris and drove it back to Italy. In Turin, Ghia’s workers removed the Beetle’s sedan body and over the next five months they handcrafted a handsome coupe that looked much more sporting than the Beetle (in reality, the Karmann Ghia was slower than the Beetle, all that fine coachbuilding meant that the coupe weighed about 200 lbs more than the Type I sedan). In November of 1953, the prototype of what would become the Karmann Ghia was examined at the Karmann works in Osnabruck by top VW managers including managing director Heinz Nordhoff, the man generally credited with building the modern VW company out of the ruins of war. Nordhoff and his team liked what they saw.
By 1953, Ghia had a well established relationship with Chrysler and their head of advanced styling, Virgil Exner Sr. That relationship was started when C.B. Thomas, the head of Chrysler’s export unit, set up a competition in 1950 between Pinin Farina’s styling house and Ghia to build their respective takes on a future Plymouth sedan. Pinin Farina pretty much built the car as designed, but Ghia added their own sense of style. Chrysler executives were impressed with the quality of the workmanship and Ghia’s added styling touches. Even more impressive was the fact that Ghia’s price of $10,000/car was a fraction of what it would have cost to have the car fabricated in Detroit, either by UAW labor in-house or by independent fabricators. Italy was still rebuilding after World War II and labor was cheap there. Ghia would go on to build a series of well known and well received show and concept cars for Chrysler in the 1950s and into the 1960s.
The Chrysler-Ghia concepts can be roughly divided into two groups, the first five cars that were mainly designed in Highland Park at Chrysler headquarters and the later cars that had more Ghia influence. The early “Exner Ghia” cars were the K-310, the C-200 convertible, and the fastback SS (for Styling Special), which Thomas liked so much that he ordered another one for himself in notchback form that is known as the Thomas Special. Chrysler’s French distributor may have liked it even more than Thomas and commissioned Ghia to build up to 400 similar cars called the the GS-1 (some sources say fewer than a dozen were actually built). Ghia also liked Exner’s Special because they licensed the design and built 36 Chrysler Specials, one of which is in the collection of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.
Exner’s vision was getting clarified. The DeSoto Adventurer continued Exner’s themes though Ghia is said to have reshaped the fender lines. He borrowed the long hood, short rear deck, close-coupled coupe layout from the classic European grand tourers, and, contrary to the trends in Detroit in the ’50s, he used chrome trim sparingly. The European influence on Exner would become recursive through the next car Ghia built for him.
The Chrysler D’Elegance of 1953 summed up the design philosophy of Exner in those days. A sleek car, it has a beautifully shaped greenhouse with delicate A pillars and graceful C pillars. A character line sweeps back across the D’Elegance’s lower flank from just behind the front wheel arch, eventually rising into the fender bulge over the rear tire. It may have been influenced by European touring cars but the D’Elegance was still unmistakably American, with bright red metallic paint, gun-sight taillights and trick show car features. The rear deck had one of Exner’s signature styling touches, the profile of the spare tire embossed in the metal, Ex’s distinctive and graceful interpretation of the “continental kit”.
If your familiarity with the continental kit is mainly due to the 1956 Ford Thunderbird, that was a particularly nice application of the concept. Many of the other cars with that modification, whether factory or aftermarket, ended up extending the rear bumper out to make room for the spare and its case. The results were awkward and inelegant, albeit popular. Exner’s idea to move the spare tire cover up onto the trunk lid allowed him to keep both the look of a spare tire carrier and the lines of the car. In the case of the D’Elegance it was a functional spare cover, which lifted up to allow the spare tire to be lowered to the ground with a hydraulic mechanism.
The D’Elegance had a Hemi in it, the original 331 cubic inch FirePower Hemi V8 with 180 hp. It also featured power windows and power steering, two luxury features in those days. The D’Elegance also featured power brakes, the Ausco-Lambert self-energizing disc brake system that had been offered on the top of the line Town & Country Chrysler and the Crown Imperial.
By the time the D’Elegance was fabricated, Exner and the Ghia stylists had an established working relationship that eventually had ideas going back and forth across the Atlantic. Clay models in 3/8ths scale would be shipped to Turin, where Ghia stylists like Giovanni Savonuzzi would scale up the rendering, often adding their own touches. The response to the D’Elegance when it hit the auto show circuit, debuting at the 1952 Paris auto salon, was so positive that Chrysler executives told Ghia to tool up for a short production run of 40 cars. However, the Korean War was going on and before it was completed the order was cut to 25 D’Elegances. That left Ghia with some unused capacity and its stylists with time on their hands. That’s when Boano and Segre made the little VW coupe to Savonuzzi’s designs.
Not only did cutting short the D’Elegance project give Ghia the opportunity to develop what became the Karmann Ghia, the D’Elegance donated its styling to the little VW sports car.
Virgil Exner Jr., an accomplished car designer in his own right, visited Ghia’s shop in Turin at his father’s behest in 1955, the year the Karmann Ghia went on sale. Though some automotive historians on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean think that Ghia’s stylists were just applying the same theme to different cars, not directly copying Exner’s work, both Exners, per et fil, thought otherwise. Exner Jr. is quoted in Chrysler Concept Cars 1940-1970 (Fetherston & Thacker, Car Tech Books) as saying that the Karmann Ghia “was a direct, intentional swipe off the Chrysler D’Elegance. Givanni Savonuzzi was the engineer and designer who downsized the D’Elegance and made the Karmann Ghia out of it. Nobody minded it. It was wonderful.” Exner Jr. would later work as a design consultant for Ghia, where he had a role in Karmann Ghia history.
In 1961, Volkswagen introduced the Type 34 Karmann Ghia, based on the Type 3 with the “pancake” engine. With a design headed by Ghia engineer Sergio Sartorelli, the shape of the Type 34 has nothing to do with the Chrysler D’Elegance or Virgil Exner (well, maybe a little bit as you’ll see later). If you ask me, it may have been influenced by the Chevrolet Corvair and an obscure AMC concept drawing by designer George Lawson called the CUDA. The Type 34 was known as “Der Große Karmann” [the Big Karmann] in Germany, the “Razor Edge Ghia” in the United Kingdom, and the “European Ghia” in the United States. It was expensive, twice the cost of the Beetle, it sold less than 10% of the numbers of the original Karmann Ghia, and it went out of production in 1969, outlasted by the original as well. Type 34s are very rare in the U.S. Interestingly, one of the cars that Virgil Exner Jr. worked on while at Ghia was the Type 34.
The Type 34 may have had nothing to do with the D’Elegance, but similarities between the Chrysler show car and the original Karmann Ghia, particularly in profile, are hard to ignore. The shape of the greenhouse and C pillars and the character line along the lower body sweeping up into the rear fender bulge are just about identical, though the front end treatments are different. The air-cooled, rear-engine Karmann Ghia didn’t need the D’Elegance’s large radiator grille. Also, Savonuzzi got rid of Exner’s inset headlights (whose own influence can be seen on the modern Chrysler 300 cars – the “Bentley” grille on current Chryslers can also be traced back to the early Exner-Ghia cars), moving them to the front of the fenders. I personally prefer Savonuzzi’s front end to Exner’s. It’s a cleaner look, even if it reminds me a little of some Studebakers.
Producing Ghia’s coupe meant just adding a new “top hat” to the Beetle’s platform chassis (platform as in a flat surface, not platform in the modern sense of a car’s hard points), giving the company a new, sporty model with few engineering resources needed to develop it. Nordhoff embraced the idea and as Dr. Karmann had hoped VW gave his company the production contract. The Karmann Ghia would be in production from 1955 to 1974. Perhaps one reason why it stayed in production so long was because of one of those family squabbles that periodically flare up between Volkswagen and Porsche.
In the 1960s, though they were separate companies, per Wikipedia, VW and Porsche had an agreement where the sports car maker was responsible for much of the technical development of Volkswagen cars. Under the direction of Ferdinand Piech, Porsche started developing a mid-engine car with a Targa roof. The original plan was to sell 4 cylinder models as VWs and 6 cylinder models as Porsches, replacing the Karmann Ghia at VW and the entry level 4 cylinder 911 marketed as the 912. Porsche decided that it would hurt its brand in America if a car with the same body was sold as a VW so the car was called the Porsche 914 here and the Volkwagen-Porsche 914 in Europe. Soon after the prototype was presented Heinz Nordhoff died and his successor, Kurt Lotz didn’t have the ties to the Porsche family that Nordhoff had. Upset that Porsche wouldn’t share in tooling costs Lotz ended the development agreement with Porsche. VW was still obligated to build the 914, but by then costs made it an impractical replacement for the Karmann Ghia. The Type 34 had never sold more than 5,000 units in a year so when that was discontinued the original Karmann Ghia stayed in production, produced the same way it had been since 1955.
Assembled and mechanically complete Type I chassis were shipped from the main VW factory at Wolfsburn to Osnabruck. Workers at the Karmann works made and painted the bodies, mounted them to the chassis, and completed assembly, installing the interior and trimming out the cars. Finished Karmann Ghias were then shipped back to Wolfsburg for distribution and export.
Quite a few of those exports made it to the United States. Virgil Exner Sr. is reported to have been “delighted” every time he saw a Karmann Ghia on the road. That’s understandable if you think about the fact that car designers rather like it when a design of theirs makes it to production. While there were short production runs of some of the Exner-Ghia cars, their numbers were nothing like the 445,238 Karmann Ghias that were built by Karmann, plus about 42,000 Type 34 cars. Another 23,402 Karmann Ghias were assembled by VW do Brasil, along with the Type 1600 TC (or Touring Coupe), attributed to Giorgetto Giugiaro.
The Karmann Ghias (and Porsche 914) pictured here were photographed at the 2014 Vintage Volkswagen Show in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS