The VW Karmann Ghia Buying Guide – A Beetle with Italian styling
Combining Italian styling with German engineering, the VW Karmann Ghia has all the ingredients for a long and fulfilling classic car relationship.
Back in the 1950s, German coachbuilder Karmann was involved in the manufacturing of the drop-top Beetle, and realising the versatility of the platform they approached VW with a proposal for a sports car they had co–developed with Ghia. The project soon got the green light and in 1955 the Luigi Segre-styled Type 14 Karmann Ghia was launched.
The public immediately took a liking to these beautiful cars. The Beetle underpinnings meant that they were more cruiser than racer, but continual development and incremental refinement ensured that the Karmann Ghia remained popular throughout its production run.
Some of the more notable changes included the 12–volt electrical system from 1967-on and independent rear suspension on all 1969 and newer models. There were a whole host of styling changes that divide Karmann Ghia fans about which years looked best.
1961 saw the introduction of the Type 34 Karmann Ghia (below), a larger car styled by Sergio Sartorelli and based on the Type 3 VW chassis. It offered more modern suspension and luxury extras such as an electric sunroof and plusher interior trim. It model was sold alongside the original Karmann as a more luxurious alternative, but higher pricing and no US sales limited uptake, and it was less successful than the original versions, ending production in 1969 with around 42,000 units built.
In all, there were approximately 444,000 Karmann Ghias produced in total, and thanks to the wide availability of parts and the popularity of the cars themselves there are still a fair few around today. Becoming a member of a Karmann Ghia owners’ club is an excellent way to get access to a whole host of information on the cars themselves as well as the best places to source parts and trim.
Karmann Ghia Engines and Gearbox
Mechanically the Type 14 Ghias are essentially a Beetle underneath. This means reasonably-priced parts and good availability. The engines range between 1.2 and 1.6-litres; all are flat-fours and leave oil on the driveway just like any healthy Beetle would.
It’s all about the model year with Ghias: early cars had drums all-round, with post ’67 Type 14s getting front discs. A semi-trailing arm rear suspension replaced the swing axles in 1969, which is worth knowing if you are looking for a sweeter-handling variant or just want an original example. Check the tyres for uneven wear as this can indicate worn suspension components.
Karmann Ghia Bodywork
A Ghia’s bodywork is where you should focus your attentions when assessing the viability of a purchase. Rust or damage on a number of panels may make it financially unrealistic to restore a car due to the cost of the parts as well as labour required to effect the repairs. Check thoroughly around the following areas for rust:
Sill/rocker panels, which are especially important on convertibles as strengthening beams run through this area providing structural integrity. These parts were once impossible to get but can now be sourced again so rust here is not as terminal an issue as it used to be.
Check the rear boot lid, spare tyre well and around the battery where spilt acid can cause corrosion over time. The single-piece nose cones can be prohibitively expensive to replace or repair so check for signs of accident damage.
Karmann Ghia Interior
A shoddy interior on an otherwise sound Type 14 should not dissuade you from making a purchase. Trim is readily available and entire retrims are far less costly than extensive body or mechanical work.
Type 34 Karmann Ghias were based on the newer Type 3 chassis and are mechanically identical to other Type 3 chassis cars, which included the 1500cc and 1600cc Notchback and Fastback VWs of that era. The Type 34 has unique interior trim and bodywork compared to other VW models, and parts are slightly harder to source due to the lower production numbers.
Model History of the Karmann Ghia
1955: Type 14 Karmann Ghia launched in Coupé body style only available in LHD
1957: Convertible model launched in LHD
1959: Both Coupé and Convertible models now available in RHD. Dashboard is padded for enhanced safety
1960: Headlight height raised and taillights enlarged to meet new regulations
1961: Type 34 Karmann Ghia Coupé with 1500cc engine is offered alongside existing Type 14
1962: Electric sunroof option introduced on Type 34 in LHD models only
1964: RHD Type 34 models now also offered with sunroof option
1966: 1300cc engine available for one year of production for Type 14
1967: 1500cc engine standard across all Karmann Ghias, as well as front disc brakes. Three-speed semi-automatic gearbox introduced
1969: Type 34 production ends with 42,498 cars made. Type 14 receives updated suspension
1970: 1600cc engine introduced and bumpers are redesigned. Convertibles get glass rear window
1974: Type 14 production ends with 444,300 vehicles made
Which Karmann Ghia To Buy
If you are looking for speed then this is not the car for you: the Beetle-based underpinnings even in 1.6-litre form provide leisurely acceleration at best. What this car is about is stylish transport, enjoyed at a more relaxed pace.
From a practical standpoint, Type 14 Ghias built in the 1960 and 1967 model years had a lot of bespoke parts unique to those years of manufacture, so make sure that if you buy one of these models, they are in as complete a condition as possible. Cars built up until the end of 1959 are called “low light” models due to their different head and taillight designs and are much rarer than the latter cars. Convertibles from this era are arguably the most collectible.
Modified Ghias are quite common with many owners having upgraded engines and suspension components. This can enhance the driving experience if you aren’t too bothered about originality. Body panels are expensive, and rust is a big issue so be careful when looking at potential restoration projects.
Values have been rising over the past decade and will most likely continue to do so,. Still, not all cars have been well-cared for so do your homework before committing. You can afford to be selective as there are still plenty of them out there.
The Karmann Ghia’s recipe of affordable mechanicals covered with beautiful body panels is just the thing to ensure its enduring popularity. Buy right and it can be all the classic car you will ever need.
VW Karmann Ghia Specifications
Top speed: 75mph
Economy: 36mpg est.
Top speed: 80mph
Economy: 35mpg est.
Top speed: 90mph
Economy: 35mpg est.
Top speed: 93mph
Economy: 32mpg est.
Words John Tallodi Photos Volkswagen
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