Junkyard Find: 1970 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

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.

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

More by Murilee Martin

Join the conversation
2 of 55 comments
  • Nikita Nikita on Jan 07, 2013

    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.

  • Dm2012 Dm2012 on Jan 08, 2013

    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.

  • Wjtinfwb Funny. When EV's were bursting onto the scene; Tesla's, Volt's, Leaf's pure EV was all the rage and Hybrids were derided because they still used a gas engine to make them, ahem; usable. Even Volt's were later derided when it was revealed that the Volt's gas engine was actually connected to the wheels, not just a generator. Now, Hybrids are warmly welcomed into the Electric fraternity by virtue of being "electrified". If a change in definition is what it takes, I'm all for it. Hybrid's make so much sense in most American's usage patterns and if needed you can drive one cross-country essentially non-stop. Glad to see Hybrid's getting the love.
  • 3-On-The-Tree We also had a 1973 IH Scout that we rebuilt the engine in and it had dual glass packs, real loud. I miss those days.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Jeff thanks. Back in 1990 we had a 1964 Dodge D100 with a slant six with a 3 on the tree. I taught myself how to drive a standard in that truck. It was my one of many journeys into Mopar land. Had a 1973 Plymouth duster with a slant six and a 1974 Dodge Dart Custom with 318 V8. Great cars and easy to work on.
  • Akear What is GM good at?You led Mary............................................What a disgrace!
  • Randy in rocklin I have a 87 bot new with 200k miles and 3 head gasket jobs and bot another 87 turbo 5 speed with 70k miles and new head gaskets. They cost around 4k to do these days.