Some vintage cars get respect without being wildly expensive, exceptionally elitist or notably rare. Volkswagen’s Type 14 Karmann Ghia is both an automotive gem and an affordable sports coupe — a well-kept version can be had for under $20K. Built on the heels of the Volkswagen Beetle (known in the 1950s as the Type 1), the Karmann Ghia, which launched in 1955, was the sports car created for a new Germany and a new world — and one that would generate a cult following for generations. And though it never set any speed records, it most certainly set automotive hearts on fire.
What It’s All About
The iconic Beetle was originally created as the first Volkswagen or “people’s car”; it was never intended to be anything more than transportation for the masses that was reliable, inexpensive and easy to repair. The Type 14, however, was created to change the way people thought about VWs. World War II was over, and by the late ’40s and early ’50s Volkswagen needed to build something more than just utilitarian vehicular slugs like the Beetle and the VW Type 2 Bus. The Volkswagen Type 14 Karmann Ghia was the rich man’s Volkswagen (like the 914 was the poor man’s Porsche).
VW started talking with German coach-builder Karmann to work on the new car, and Karmann turned to Italian design carrozzeria Ghia for the design. Ghia had already designed a version of what would become the Type 14 for Chrysler, but Chrysler didn’t move forward on it. So when Karmann approached, Ghia modified the design to fit the VW platform and gave it to Karmann and VW. Built and marketed as a 2+2 sports car, it had the underpinnings of the Beetle but a slick body that looked nothing like the Type 1, save for a penchant for rounded surfaces.
The body was penned by the owner of Italian design firm Ghia, Luigi Segre, then hand built by Karmann. Back then, “hand built” meant painstaking shaping, welding and smoothing the same way high-end exotics were crafted. What VW, Karmann and Ghia did together was nothing short of miraculous, producing the Karmann Ghia for far less than other hand-built cars, keeping it within reach for the average human without losing the high standard of German manufacturing.
With a low-slung and rounded body, wide-set nostril grilles, bug-eyed headlights and long and prominent rear haunches, the Type 14 looked like a true sports car, but VW never advertised it as such. The focus was on the Karmann Ghia’s sophisticated style, not its horsepower. The car was propelled by a naturally aspirated flat-four engine, the same as in the Beetle, with a mere 39 horsepower (at its most robust, it boasted 60 horsepower). Of course, the Type 14 only weighed 1,830 pounds, so the car was still fun to drive, albeit not sports car quick.
The Type 14 quickly became an automotive darling, and critics and consumers both fell in love with it despite its lack of power. Changes throughout its long life mimicked the changes made to the Beetle, which made sense given they shared the same guts despite the disparate exteriors. In 1961, the Type 14 got a power bump to 40 horses and then to 45 horses in 1966 after a displacement increase to 1.3 liters. In 1967, it rose to 1.5 liters and 53 horses; in 1970, 57 horsepower and 1.6 liters; and finally to 60 horsepower in 1971. Even by vintage standards, the Karmann Ghia was no powerhouse; in 1971, the Porsche 911 was good for 123 horsepower, while the Chevy Corvette spit out 300 horsepower.
Its Place in History
The Karmann Ghia, as a sophisticated alternative to the “people’s car”, re-crafted the VW brand image without destroying the brand ethos. Volkswagen built nearly half a million Karmann Ghia coupes and convertibles during the car’s 20-year lifespan (1955-1975), and in its first year alone, VW sold 10,000 Karmann Ghias. The public ate them up at an even greater rate when the convertible hit the market — giving VW 18,000 a year in total sales in 1958 and an annual high of 33,000 cars through the late 1960s. That’s nearly the same number of total annual sales as the Volkswagen Golf in 2014.
Not many car models get a solid 20-year run, and the Karmann Ghia’s didn’t end because the car ceased to be popular. The Type 14 Karmann Ghia still sold in beyond respectable numbers in the 1970s, but Volkswagen decided to migrate their focus to the new Scirocco and the VW-built Porsche 914. But by then, the sporty-esque was already an icon. Today, the Karmann Ghia is considered one of the most coveted and affordable air-cooled Volkswagens. The convertible versions are the most desirable, with pristine cars netting over $10,000. And because of their direct mechanical connection to the Beetle, replacement parts are easily accessible. That allows even amateur restorers to keep the graceful, timeless car still running strong, a half century after it first graced the world’s roadways.