By on January 27, 2017

1961 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 34, Image: Volkswagen

The Karmann Ghia is familiar to most automotive enthusiasts as a styling exercise intended to turn the Volkswagen Beetle into a slinky “sportscar” using pedestrian internals. The resulting Type 1 Ghia debuted way back in 1955 and added some (more) Porsche styling to the family sedan. Assembled by Karmann in Osnabrück, Germany, with styling from Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin, Italy, the curvy two-door offered little performance, but much style, compared to its stablemates.

However, the Type 1 Karmann Ghia wasn’t the only car to bear that German-Italian nameplate.

West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder — “economic miracle” — aided by the Marshall Plan and a focus on strengthening the border states of the Iron Curtain meant capitalism’s success manifested itself in new ways. Cashing in on a re-emerging middle class with newfound wealth and prosperity, companies like Volkswagen launched newer, sportier versions of their small, economy-minded sedans.

Because the Type 1 (also known as the Type 14) had been an attempt to bring style with very little added substance, the first Karmann Ghia was great at attracting attention — but not much else (especially sales). Early on, the Karmann Ghia really struggled to support its steep entry price relative to the performance it had on tap. To capture headlines and the market’s attention, the company would need something more substantial.

1955 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 14, Image: Volkswagen
1955 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 14

To rectify this, in 1961 Volkswagen launched a second Karmann Ghia based upon the new Type 3 platform. Now with 1493cc from the familiar flat-four, the new Karmann Ghia had more go to back up the show. With some 53 horsepower, the Type 3 represented a power increase of nearly 50 percent over the Type 1. Later in the production run, when the chassis was updated in 1967, the Type 3 gained front disc brakes and a new a bump in power thanks to the new “1600” (1584cc) engine producing 66 horsepower. The 1500 was marketed as the “big brother” of the successful Type 1.

1961 Volkswagen 1500 Sedan, Image: Volkswagen
1961 Volkswagen 1500

New influences changed the styling, as well. Sergio Sartorelli at Carrozzeria Ghia had been responsible for the light restyle of the Type 14 Karmann Ghia in 1959, and was joined by American Tom Tjaarda (later of De Tomaso Pantera fame, among many others) to give the new Karmann Ghia a decidedly more grown-up and angular look. While sometimes referred to as the 1500/1600 Karmann Ghia Coupe, it was better known as the Type 34. With raised fender lines, a tall and more upright greenhouse and longer overhangs, the new Karmann Ghia looked ready to be Volkswagen’s new flagship model for 1961.

1961 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 34, Image: Volkswagen
1961 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia 1500 Coupe (Type 34)

Volkswagen’s marketing aimed the Type 34 squarely at the broad shoulders of newfound German wealth; pictures showed the Type 34 at home with the equestrian crowd. Dioramas in dealerships even held riding apparel, or showed the prospective owners on their way to a ski vacation in the Swiss Alps. The brochure used words like “beauty” and “perfection” — not exactly the ideas ownership of a Type 1 conjured. It was a luxury vehicle Volkswagen desperately hoped would break the blue-collar image of the cheap People’s Car.

1961 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 34, Image: Volkswagen
“Outstanding Elegance, Extreme Performance, Higher Driver Comfort, As Economical As Every VW”

The new styling and performance helped to market Volkswagen to a more upscale crowd, but the accompanying price of this newfound fame was steep. The Type 34 sold for the equivalent of nearly $3,000 in the mid 1960s; for comparison’s sake, the 1964 Mustang came to market nearly $800 cheaper. More relevant was the price point compared to Volkswagen’s own 1500 Coupe; the Karmann Ghia hit the market in Germany at DM 8,750, while VW marketed the more “common-sense” 1500 at DM 5,990. Because the two shared all components outside of the bodywork, the 50 percent price increase was a hard pill to swallow for many consumers.

The result was that the Type 34 was slow-selling from the start and never offered in the United States. The high costs of even the basic sedan meant that the planned coupe and convertible models were eventually axed after the planning phase; sales simply wouldn’t have materialized at the very high price the drop-top would have to be offered at. Volkswagen chose to have Karmann continue work on its existing lineup of Type 14 Ghias and the Beetle convertible, rather than pursue the Type 34 convertible. VW viewed the reception of the Type 34 with some dismay, and sheepishly referred to the production volume of “8,653 units in 1962 [as] less than expected.”

1962 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 34, Image: Volkswagen
Karmann production, c.1962

Volkswagen AG met with new challenges in the late 1960s. A declining market share from its antiquated model lineup, coupled with a relatively minor recession in 1965/6, meant that the higher-cost models built on the Type 3 chassis were scaled back as early as 1967. Volkswagen had taken over Auto Union and their productive capacity from Daimler-Benz in 1965, and was struggling to come to terms with new production lines in need of revamping. The high-class but high-cost Type 34 was the unwitting victim, with production ceasing in 1969.

In total, some 42,498 Type 34s sold — less than 10 percent of the 445,238 Type 14 models made. Of course, both of these numbers pale in comparison to the original Beetle, which made it somewhere north of 21,000,000 when production finally ceased in the 2000s. At the height of Type 1 production in the 1960s, Volkswagen produced a staggering 4,200 Beetles every day.

1965 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Type 34, Image: Volkswagen
A Type 34 with proposed Coupe Fastback and Convertible pre-production models

Karmann may have produced as many as 16 pre-production convertible models, but solid numbers don’t exist. At least six are claimed to survive, including one at the Karmann museum. The proposed Type 34 Coupe Fastback continued to be developed by Ghia, though Volkswagen didn’t plan production after 1965. None other than our old friend Giorgetto Giugiaro was employed by Ghia at the time to help refine the shape for a new model to be marketed in South America. The resulting design took on a look similar to the Glas GT and was produced starting in 1970 by Volkswagen do Brasil. It was called the Karmann Ghia Touring Coupe (TC) Type 145 and sold only in South America, with a claim of just over 18,000 produced.

1972 Volkswagen TC Karmann Ghia Type 145, Image: Volkswagen
A 1972 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia TC (Type 145)

[Images, sources: Karmann, Volkswagen Classic, Karmann Ghia Connection, Type 34 World]

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27 Comments on “Volkswagen’s Other Karmann Ghia: the Type 34...”


  • avatar
    OldManPants

    Great article!

    I always wondered about those Angry Ghias, having only seen car mag photos.

    Absolutely lovely greenhouse on the coupe. Ahh.. ’60s German aesthetics.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    I like ’em all. I’d love to see someone repower these with a Subaru flat 4 like some of the old VW buses.

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    “big, flat ass fraus”

    Freude!

  • avatar
    2manycars

    At least a few made it to the US, possibly servicemen bringing them back home. I saw the remains of one in a junkyard a few years ago.

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    Normally silver paint repels me like raw diesel fumes but the silver/brown on that coupe is just Busen.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Interesting stuff!

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Always thought the Type 34 resembled a Corvair from the side.

    Yes some Type 34’s also made it to Canada. Of course, the east end of Toronto was for decades home to VW Canada’s Head Office and distribution centre. Also garages/sales centres run by the likes of Ludwig Heimrath and Horst Kroll. Heyman Motors was another independent specializing in VW’s located at Dufferin and #7 in Concord from the 1950’s until the late 1980’s. There is still a small independent VW shop in Pickering with lots of hulks of air cooled VW’s in various states of disrepair.

    Prices for Karmann Ghias are again outrageous. As someone with a history of owning/driving VW’s of that era (2 Beetles both 1962’s, a Type III squareback and a Type IV squareback), I would not mind having a Karmann Ghia but would probably prefer another VW of that era, the one known here as a 914.

  • avatar
    Pinzgauer

    A few years ago I strongly considered buying a white type 3 ghia coupe. It was beautiful. I do kind of regret it still.

  • avatar
    relton

    The original Karmann Ghia styling was, essentially, a rip-off of a Chrysler show car, the D’Elegance. The show car was styled by Virgil Exner, in Highland Park, and built by Ghia. Ghia built many of Chrysler’s show cars in the 50s. Ghia was so embarrassed by this blatant design theft that they gave Exner a couple of cars.

    The later Ghia also has a lot of Exner infuences, though they came from his declining period. The headlight treatment in particular is very 1960 Plymouth inspired, as is the windshield shape.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Relton you are correct, the front end looks like a tribute to a 1961 Plymouth Belvedere.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      I’d say Studebaker Starlight. That reached production and predated the D’Elegance. Both Exner designs, of course, so I’m quibbling. (I think the Starlight generally is credited to an Exner-headed team within Raymond Loewy’s studio.)

      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/1947_Studebaker_Commander_business_coupe_side_crop.jpg

      I’m not seeing anything after a laborious 20-second internet search, but I’ve read or heard that the Starlight originally was planned as a rear-engine car, so it makes sense that Ghia would crib the profile for a rear-engine VW.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    When our Corvair club (North Texas Corvair Assn) hosted the CORSA convention in 1995, one of the cars that showed up was a Corvair-powered Type 34. It was pretty slick.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Thanks for this article. I never heard of this car, and I really like the looks (closet Corvair fan). The comparison to Mustang’s pricing tells the story.

  • avatar
    markogts

    All those models will be lost in time, like diesel drops in an emission scandal.

  • avatar
    True_Blue

    Type 34 fastback, with the Subaru EJ22T… on Fuchs. Have me some mercy.

  • avatar
    lon888

    I a!ways wondered about these. When I was a kid I had the Corgi model of one of these. None of the KGs I saw looked like this. As Paul Harvey would say now I know the rest of the story.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Nice article, well done .
    .
    Many of these beautiful cars were direct imported from Canada .
    .
    I like the entire Typ II line .

    Oops, gotta run .
    .
    -Nate

  • avatar
    GeneralMalaise

    That is a great looking little car!

  • avatar
    never_follow

    Overpriced for the US market, the more things change…

    They seem to have learned that specific lesson though, given the Corrado is the last top of the line sporty car they’ve offered at ridiculous prices. Sadly the strange but pretty new Scirocco never made it across the pond.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    Back in the Day I would see the Typ 34 driving around as another VW car. I knew that they were never on the official import list for VoA, but quite a few made it here from Canada and Europe.
    In the VW cult these are often called the “Typ III Ghia” even though Ghia had little or nothing to do with it.
    I am sure not rusty, semi-straight ones are quite rare now. I would shudder to think what some of the unique parts would cost, or how hard they might be to find. Such as the tail lights and any body work.
    One rare model was the, optional engine “1500 S”, which had a higher compression ratio and much more power than even the later 1600 cc motor.
    Interesting to note that “high compression” was 8.5 to 1 and would likely detonate itself to death on today’s fuel. Back then you could get 94 to 100 octane gasoline at most stations for, in today’s money, about $2 a gallon. Most air-cooled VWs were 7.2-7.5 to 1.
    For a while I thought I would like to have one of the last of the production of these 34s. That model would have the 4 joint rear suspension which worked much better than the swing axle found on the earlier models.

  • avatar

    My uncle had a pastel green – what Fender would name seafoam green – Type 14. Up til then all I had ever seen was the Beetle so this was a fascinating little car to me (15/16 yrs old at the time). He let me drive it once. I was not used to driving a stick and he offered to let me “practice” with the Ghia as he rode along. It was so easy to drive; shifting was so effortless to the point that I wondered why anyone would want an automatic.

    For whatever reason I was under the impression that one downshifted as the primary means to reduce speed when turning a corner which is what I did. Needless to say I hit the turn faster than I should have. Came to stop on the gravel road after the turn to collect myself – and to see if my uncle would allow me to drive it back to my grandparents house. Nothing damaged except my ego and my uncle’s nerves. He advised me that nothing would be said about the incident so as not to tarnish my limited driving record. So what was the first thing he said when we were back in the house? You guessed it – further humiliation. Anyway, for a couple of years after that I seriously thought about the Type 14 as a potential first car. Never did buy one, but they always caught my eye whenever I would see one on the road.

    As an aside, I wonder what the “tall” thing is that the occupants of the T34 are looking at?

  • avatar
    Jeff Zekas

    We were a Volkswagen family: ’58 Beetle, ’68 Westfalia, ’70 Squareback, and mom’s ’68 Karmann Ghia. When she bought a new car, Mom gave me the KG: slow, bad handling, and noisy with the top down. VW’s of the era did have one distinction over current VW products: they were reliable and lasted forever.


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