One prominent advertising character of the late 1920s was Fisher's Body Girl. GM's "Body by Fisher" became a euphemism for "well-formed" ladies. The girls and Fisher's carriage logo became emblems of desire that elided the realities of mass production.
By the late '50s, Fisher's finned auto bodies were shown rocketing through space. Americans learned however, that on the terra firma these jet-age fetishes were caskets. In 1957, Industrial Design claimed ill-conceived bodies by Fisher "die young." The car that ID thought would endure because it looked "elegant, fast, and expensive," was the compact, unexaggerated "Ghia VW."
ID's words proved prophetic; VW's Ghia outlived its contemporaries--due to sound styling and careful construction. Unlike most affordable postwar cars, the smart-looking Ghia was coachbuilt by Karmann GMBH.
Karmann: Europe's Automotive Couture House
Karmann was established in 1901, when Wilhelm Karmann took over Christian Klages' 27-year-old coachbuilding shop. In 1902, the firm built its first car body. By WWI, Karmann employed 50 people, who built bodies for chassis supplied by automobile makers.
During 1924, Wilhelm Karmann traveled to the United States, where he learned steel bodywork and spray painting methods. These new techniques were adopted and Karmann began series production of car bodies.
The Depression however, proved difficult; Karmann's best customers folded. Yet, an arrangement with Adler proved beneficial because Karmann built Adler's Trumpf--a successful 1930s engineering marvel. Karmann also built Adler's fine convertible tops. These well-made weatherproof tops won several Concours d' Elegance.
In 1949, Karmann resumed coachbuilding when VW's executive director Heinz Nordhoff ordered 1000 four-seater Beetle cabriolets. Karmann's signature multi-layered insulated top--albeit bulky--was four-season friendly.
Karmann's topless Beetle attracted actress Brigitte Bardot and designer Pierre Cardin. They were open-air Bug enthusiasts. When production ended in January 1980, Karmann produced more than 330,000 Beetle convertibles.
Instead of ephemeral paper glamour girls for promotion, it manufactured something that was timeless-VW's Karmann-Ghia. This remarkable motorized billboard proclaimed Karmann's body-building prowess worldwide.
It worked. Soon, according to Alex Walordy (Car and Driver, January, 1962), "When a naked chassis needs to be clothed, motor moguls who care usually say, 'have Karmann make the body.'"
Origins of VW's Chic Car
The Ghia's design is shrouded in controversy. At least two designers have said they penned its compelling shape and the car's gestation was secretive: Virgil Exner and Mario Boano.
Some writers agree. Peter Vack's Volkswagen Buyer's Guide says, "It seems that a good deal Graham Robson's Volkswagen Chronicle, claims, "whether [the Karmann-Ghia] was a copy of Exner's D'Elegance [sic] concept is less certain...Nonetheless, the cars had obvious similarities." Robson is probably incorrect when he says, "Ghia added two front 'nostril' grills for effect." Ghia's original prototype didn't have grills. Thus, it's possible that Karmann created them.
Automotive historian Jan Norbye set the record straight. In VW Treasures by Karmann, Norbye--who interviewed designers and checked documents--suggests that the inspiration for the car came from Mario Boano's (who worked for several Italian coachbuilding firms and bought Carozzeria Ghia in 1944) creative mind.
Norbye's evidence is powerful. Several Boano-designed cars foreshadowed VW's Ghia. These include the Alfa Romeo 6C2500 S Convertible (1949), the Lancia Aurelia limousine (1950), and the Gioiello/Fiat coupe (1949). It's more likely that the sultry VW's pint-sized Chrysler d'Elegance-look was Boano's rather than Exner's.
Nevertheless, the plot thickens. Ghia built Chrysler's show car in 1953. Then, it built about 400 d'Elegance-like GS-1s for Charles Ladouche's Societe France Motors. This Paris firm imported Chryslers and VWs too.
Meanwhile, Ghia, whose commercial director, Luigi Serge bought a Beetle from Ladouche. Within five months, Ghia built a prototype on this Beetle's chassis. Then in the fall of 1953, Ghia presented their VW to Dr. Karmann.
Later that year, the vehicle was secretly delivered to Osnabruck. During November 1953, Karmann presented the voluptuous coupe to Dr. Feuereisen--VW's vice president--and Nordhoff. According to Norbye, Feuereisen's reaction was visceral: "Now that has class!" Nordhoff's response was more reserved when stating that it was "a very beautiful car, but much too expensive." Dr. Karmann then questioned, "how can you say that? I have not even told you what it costs."
Dr. Karmann made an excellent offerand Nordhoff sealed the deal. Karmann would build it and VW would sell it. Modifying the Beetle's platform and testing the prototype commenced. Later, production tooling was ordered. In June 1955, the first unnamed Karmann coupe was born.
A Sight for Sore Eyes
During July 1955, VW introduced the sensuous auto to the European press. The coupe's press preview, claims Dr. Karmann, "was a world sensation," but the car "still did not have a name." Italian monikers were considered. Eventually, Dr. Karmann suggested Karmann-Ghia--a delicious sounding name that everyone liked.
Two months later, VW's new coupe appeared at the Frankfurt Motor Show. It received accolades for its "purity of line and perfection of proportion that almost takes one's breath away." (Autosport, February 15, 1957)
It was luxuriously aerodynamic without cliches. Indeed, American industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague selected a Karmann-Ghia for his list of the world's most beautifully designed products.
Americans got their first glimpse of VW's Italian beauty in late 1956 when Science and Mechanics (October, 1956) tested an early model. Austrailia's Wheels' (April, 1957) "Ghia-Karmann [sic] versus the Volkswagen" comparison revealed that "Ghia looks better, handles better, outshines the Volkswagen on the road," while America's Road and Track (April, 1956) was less sanguine when stating, "the overall performance improvement, we feel, is negligible. For nearly 1000 dollars more than the sedan, then, the customer is acquiring a very pretty body."
Science and Mechanics said, "the ladies asked for this one." Yet, an editor's wife disagreed. Her sidebar said this might be correct "were it not for the fact that every Ghia I have seen...was being driven by a man!" Nevertheless, she and 485,983 (Karmann's official production total) future owners were "sold on the Ghia's looks."
What is It?
VW's glamour car puzzled reviewers. In fact, many got the name wrong! Road and Track in its first two Ghia articles called it the Ghia Karmann--as did Modern Motor, Science and Mechanics and Wheels. Journalists had a point. Even though the 1956 Ghia erased 10.8 seconds off the 1956 Beetle's 0-60mph in 45-second time, bested the Beetle's top speed by four-mph at 71 and had a front stabilizer shaft (which reduced side-sway in sharp turns), it was more tortoise than hare. And the back seat was "not improved" whined another reviewer.
Nonetheless, although the Karmann-Ghia never excelled as a performance car, it did performatively succeed. The car became a contemporary classic and it democratized automotive fashion; it had "sensible richness." The Ghia was to "automobility" what Christian Dior's New Look was to fashion--a version of automotive haute couture.
The similarity between Karmann, Ghia and Dior wasn't accidental. These "fashion" houses symbolized postwar affluence with sculpted elegance and fine craftsmanship. There was one significant difference--"dynamic obsolescence." Dior's fashions were like GM's autoerotic Motoramas. GM's extravaganzas--you could look but not touch-were big-budget versions of cheaper Hugh Hefner-like creations meant to "distract men from the anxieties of the atomic age." Dior, GM and the press spun a frenzied series of fashion trends each meant to draw consumers into an unending chain of commodity consumption. VW's Karmann-Ghia, however, wasn't about chrome, 44-D cups, rocket launchers or push-button symbols of primal lust. Instead, it eschewed faddish exterior design and mechanical novelties for styling sanity and mechanical simplicity. It offered good design in an age of shoddily built insolent chariots. VW, true to form, avoided hyperbolic promotional stunts. Without fanfare, the Ghia slipped into VW's Bauhaus-like showrooms.
Quiet worked. Ghia buyers, during the 1950s, exceeded supply. One reason was that the Ghia's seamless shape required a lot of hand labor. After molding this automotive confection, cotton-mittened hands caressed the Ghia's nude shimmering, discolored body searching for blemishes.
Once the body passed inspections, it was submerged into a zinc phosphate primer, then it was wet sanded. Following that came the initial coat of paint and hand sanding, and this was repeated until the fourth coat. To achieve a nearly flawless finish, Karmann's paint booth used a dust removing curtain of water.
Ghia production increased during 1962, when Karmann developed techniques that replaced some handcrafted methods. This lowered the 1962 Ghia's U.S. price: $ 135 for a coupe, $ 200 for a convertible.
Road and Track (January, 1962) predicted that "you'll see a lot more Ghias simply because more are being made and the car will receive a greater share of VW's...advertising budget." The magazine's forecast proved correct. The anti-hotrod Ghia moved from 2,452 (1956) to 9,300 units (1961), then toward first place in two-seater sales--38, 825 in 1970.
Beauty is More than Skin-Deep
VW's coupe was technologically advanced. All of the car's windows were curved--even the side glass. Moreover, the door and side-quarter windows were frameless. Finally, the car's low profile and carved out-of-soap shape required sophisticated production techniques.
The packaging was also unique. By putting a coachbuilt body on a Beetle chassis, VW found a niche for an exotic-looking economy car. Eventually, other automobile manufacturers borrowed VW's recipe.
Even the ads were different. Although early sales literature used artful illustrations, during the '60s, VW's ad agency--Doyle, Dane and Bernbach--discarded tradition. They turned lampooning "normal" advertising into a sport.
The agency's soft-sell ads were hip. Instead of herds of horses or scantily clad women , an early Ghia ad admitted, "This ad is six years late." It was a thinly veiled attack on planned obsolescence and false advertising claims. For instance, its copy faux confessed that what the car people thought was an Alfa Romeo or a Ferrari was "Brace yourself...a Volkswagen." It warned, "Sorry we can't do anything about strangers who think it's a $ 5,000 car. You may still find bellboys... expecting bigger tips. But nothing's very perfect is it?"
Another ad's cutline below a Ghia with racing stripes admitted, "You'd lose." But, "it might comfort you to know, you'd be driving the best-made loser on the block." VW even suggested the Ghia was "for people who can't stand the sight of a Volkswagen." Then, it revealed that the photogenic car shown was a fancy wrapper; it covered the Beetle's "strictly functional chassis." Its beauty was "more than skin deep."
In an era of dueling muscle cars, an ad mocked racy cars and their owners. Its cutline asked, "Can you spot the druggist from Toledo." Photographs of viral well-attired men with their equally fancy European sports cars are shown. One "playboy," however, was an impostor who drove an ordinary Karmann-Ghia.
Finally, there was a TV spot that spoofed the Shell's Platformate commercial. In this ad, the Karmann-Ghia is shown heading toward a paper barrier. When the car hits it, the barrier merely budges and then car bounces backward. A voice-over says, "The Karmann-Ghia is the most economical sports car you can buy...It's just not the most powerful." Rosser Reeves, the assertive advertising man who pushed "unique selling propositions" had a coronary.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
The Ghia received few exterior changes during its production run. Various modifications to the signal lights and bumpers followed headlight modifications. The most notable was the addition of bigger bumpers and larger rear signal lights in 1972. Like the Beetle, the most significant chassis improvement came in 1969 when a new rear suspension was introduced. And like the Beetle, engine displacement increased from 1200cc to 1600cc.
While these alterations improved the car, they never transformed its tame image. That was problematic. After Woodstock, the coupe's price escalated from $ 2,399 in 1970 to $ 3,475 in 1974. Likewise, the convertible's price climbed a whopping $ 1,326 to $ 3,935 in 1974. The 1974 Ghia--eclipsed by competitive offerings--was quietly laid to rest. A new front-drive Karmann-built, Italian-designed VW Scirocco coupe replaced it. Like the Ghia, the Scirocco won acclaim for its styling, practicality and contrarily its sports-car demeanor.
NOTE: VW's model year begins in August. VW made changes during production runs. U.S. delivered VWs are "export" models. Often, they have deluxe trim, the largest available engines and up-to-date suspensions. However, european consumers had a choice of engines and suspensions.
1950 Unknown to Karmann or VW, Carozzeria Ghia's owner Mario Boano designs a VW coupe. The "paper car" refines previous Ghia styling ideas. Ghia tries building the car but VW won't supply a chassis. Meanwhile, Karmann and VW discuss building a Beetle-based sports convertible. VW's management rejects Karmann's styling concepts.
1951 Dr. Karmann shares the VW sports car idea with Carozzeria Ghia's commercial director Luigi Serge. Ghia, during this year, decides to build an Exner-designed body on a Chrysler chassis.
1952 Ghia builds first in a series of Chrysler show cars or Styling Specials.
1953 Early in the year, Mario Boano's son Gian fetches a VW Beetle from Charles Ladouche, the French importer of Volkswagen and Chrysler cars. Within five months, Ghia's Turin, Italy facilities complete a prototype. By late summer, Serge presents this coupe to Dr. Karmann.
1954 Karmann's body engineering team designs body tooling and modifies VW chassis. Only four or five test cars were built. Since the coupe's fenders were welded into the body shell and that shell used many small pressings, there were nearly 140 inches of welds on the outer skin. Many stampings were water-cooled to prevent distortion. A convertible prototype is built.
1955 On July 14th, Karmann offers the press preview of the nameless VW coupe. VW decides to call the lithe coupe the Karmann-Ghia. On September 14th, the car is officially introduced at the Frankfurt auto show. The Karmann-built coupe differed slightly from Ghia's prototype. Changes included twin nostril-type front apron vents, curved side glass, full-width bumpers, wider chromes strips around the windows, relocated front signal lamps, revised rear deck louvers and a repositioned Ghia fender badge.
1956 Karmann Ghias available in the U.S. Price: $2,395. Zero-60 time is 34.2 seconds.
1957 August--Karmann-Ghia convertible production begins. Fuel gauge and elaborate Ghia-only horn ring introduced. Vinyl replaces cloth door panels. Roller accelerator wheel replaced with treadle pedal.
1957 September--Convertible model's official introduction at Frankfurt's international motor show. The U.S. price is $2,725 and deliveries begin in 1958. Various body reinforcements compensate for the topless car's reduced body rigidity. All U.S. bound Ghias get plumber's delight bumper overrider tubes.
1958 August--Door hinges get multi-position check straps.
1959 April--Revised windows and winding mechanisms.
1959 August--Karmann-Ghia loses the voluptuous front fender dip; headlights are raised two inches and the wheel arch openings are reshaped. Front nostrils are replaced by perky multi-louvered intakes. The quarter windows pop out and there are larger rear lamps. Padded dash with grab handle. Side trim length is changed. Driver's door arm rest added. Special Ghia horn ring replaced by semi-circular Beetle ring. Steering wheel is dished.
1960 March--Steering damper added.
1960 August--New 40-hp 1200cc engine with fully synchronized four-speed transmission. New carburetor with automatic electric choke. Flatter gas tank increases trunk room. Last year for fuel reserve lever.
1961 August--Seat belt anchor provisions installed. Revised front VW emblem. Price reduced: $2,295 coupe, $2,495 convertible. Worm-and-roller steering gear improves precision.
1962 August--Smaller Ghia script from Type III Ghia and the Volkswagen name installed on rear deck lid.
1963 August--Fresh air heating system. Semi-circular horn ring dropped. Type III interior door lock controls installed. Exterior door handles and latch assemblies changed.
1964 April--Convertible top changed. Sheet metal pressings replace castings. Various changes through mid-1965 reduce the top's bulk.
1964 April--Two levers near parking brake handle replace former heater knob. Sun visors now swivel sideways. Side trim and interior light revised. Basket-weave vinyl seat covers.
1965 August--Larger 1300cc engine with Solex 30 PICT carburetor improves acceleration; new ball-joint front suspension increases steering precision and the semi-circular horn ring returns. Flat hub caps grace vented wheels. The battery is moved to left side of engine compartment and the air cleaner is now on the right. An ash tray is now mounted below the dashboard that sports plastic chrome trim. Swan-like, fender-mounted, rear-view mirror replaced by door-mounted break-away design. Front lid drain tubes added.
1966 August--Type III-inspired 1500cc engine, rear "z" bar, wider rear track and "softer" rear "spring" rate. Front disc brakes. Four bolt wheels. Dual brake circuits. Final drive ratio lowers engine rpm for relaxed cruising. Twelve-volt electric system. Faux-wood dash fascia (mask) with dashboard knee pads sports mini Ghia script. Large speedometer flanked by smaller gauges. Round, dash-mounted, fresh-air control knobs replace former levers below dash. Door locks now have buttons on door tops.
1967 August--Rear side reflectors. Gas filler moved to right front fender--a safety feature. It has a nifty paint protecting rubber flap. Automatic Stick-Shift with new multi-jointed rear suspension. Mirror-shaft mounted interior lamp. Seat backs taller. Trunk release moved inside lockable glove compartment. Front shoulder straps standard. Air conditioning is an option. Trigger-style exterior door handles. Column-mounted ignition switch
1968 August--Manual transmission model's swing axles replaced by new multi-jointed rear suspension (IRS)--improves handling. Separate headrests on front seat backs. Electric rear window defroster. Convertible gets glass rear window. Gas filler on right fender's top has remote release. Locking steering column.
1969 August--Larger front and rear signal lamps. Rear lamps include back-up light. Relocated and redesigned rear reflectors, 1600cc single-port engine. Beginning during the 1970 model year there were throttle positioners--either vacuum operated or dashpots installed to reduce emissions. Air intake preheating system thermostatically controlled by engine's thermostat. Evaporative emissions system installed on California cars; this eventually becomes standard on all U.S. models. Detachable rear lid drain tray with tubes.
1970 August--1600cc dual-port engine with Solex 34 PICT-3 carburetor. Thermostatically controlled air preheating system has separate thermostat on air cleaner assembly. Door locks revert to earlier style. Larger defroster outlets. Felt-style carpeting.
1971 August--Single blade sturdier bumpers, Type III rear tail lamps. Four-spoke collapsible steering wheel. Dashboard fascia and window sills covered by pebble-grain plastic. Inertia-locking, single-tab seat and shoulder belts. Instrument cluster redesigned. Fuel, speed and time are now indicated within two tunnel-like round dials. Revised vacuum-controlled intake air preheating system. Right stalk on steering column operates wipers. Fresh-air control knobs moved. Door window seals changed and window scrapers revised. Seat covers changed. Engine's compression ratio dropped from 7.7 to 7.3.
1972 August--Reinforced front bumper meets new U.S. standards. Alternator introduced during 1973 model year. Fuel pump body and push rod changed. Girling front brake calipers installed. New cylinder head alloy. Engine and transaxle mounts improved. Fasten seat belt warning system. Parking brake warning lamp. Rear "emergency seat" eliminated. Exhaust gas recirculation on California models.
1973 August--Rear bumper extended. Meets new bumper standard. EGR on all vehicles. California cars get Solex 34 PICT-4 carburetors and twin-tube intake manifold preheating system. Seat belt starter interlock. Small lamp beneath dash illuminates heater controls. Brake light and fasten seat belt lamp now placed together at the dash's center. VW Owner Security Blanket with Computer Analysis (12-month or 20,000-miles basic warranty) provides free "substitute transportation." VW claims a 0-60mph time of 18.5sec, top speed 90mph.
1973 Dec. 21--European Type I Ghia production halts, but U.S. export production continues.
1974 June 21,Karmann-Ghia production halts. Coupe's price: $3,475. A Motorola-built AM radio with stereo eight-track player is a popular option.