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Karmann Ghia 50th Anniversary

Broadcast dates : 4th December 2005
10th December 2005


What better way to spend a Sunday than cruising in a bunch of sports cars. Sports cars you say? Well, in the case of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, that may be stretching things a bit.

The VW Karmann Ghia was never meant to be a true sporting machine. In fact the head of Volkswagen at the time, one Heinz Nordhoff, said you should think of the Kharmann Ghia as a Beetle in a party dress.

The Pretoria Old Motor Club in Silverton near Pretoria was the venue to celebrate fifty years of the Karmann Ghia recently.

Organised by the Karmann Ghia Gold Club in Gauteng, the event drew over 30 Ghias, ranging from beautifully restored cars to modified California-look coupes.

This red 1961 120 may not be a concours winner, but it makes a stylish fashion accessory. Melissa Coston was lucky enough to receive it as a birthday present from her parents.
The beautiful shape of the Karmann Ghia was the result of a unique partnership between Volkswagen, the German coach-builders Karmann and the Italian styling studio, Ghia.

It made a sensational debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1955, and half a century later, its styling still looks almost contemporary. What a finely-balanced design it is!

It’s based on standard VW Beetle mechanicals, and a Beetle floorpan slightly widened to take the sleek body.

The Beetle mechanicals may be seen as a down-side by those sports car buffs who like to talk about double overhead cams and other spotted-scarf Fangio-era esoterica.

The up-side is that you can pop into your local Midas and order plugs, points and condensers for any Ghia, any day of the week.

And let’s not forget that the original Beetle mechanicals were designed by one Ferdinand Porsche!
In 1962, Volkswagen introduced the Type 34 Karmann Ghia. Whereas the original Luigi Segre design was all flowing curves, the square-back-based Ghia was all knife edges, heralding the 1960s obsession with the three-box look.

Not nearly as pretty as the original Ghia, the Type 34 is today highly-prized for its rarity. There are only about a dozen examples left in South Africa and less than two-thousand in the world. Yet the Type 34 has very real, period charm.

Its mechanicals are totally different from the Beetle, as it uses the horizontal fan layout for its air-cooled motor, rather than the traditional Beetle upright fan.

Its charm centers in the very narrow roof pillars, period sixties instrumentation, and rear-end bias to the styling.

It’s a smoother-running car than the classic Karmann Ghia, but because the Type 3 VW and its Type 34 Ghia variant were only produced for a few years, spares can be a problem.
The amazing aspect of the original Type 1 Ghia is that it was in continuous production for 19 years.

Like the Beetle, it was improved constantly between 1955 and 1974, but the essential design remained, proving that Ghia and Karmann were a match made in …well… if not Heaven, then Wolfsburg, which was a sort of heaven for VW fans, then and now.

This particular Ghia is a 1967 fifteen-hundred, a big year for change in Ghias as the car progressed to disc brakes, a bigger engine and all sorts of interior changes.
This is a very early Karmann Ghia, probably a 1958 model. It features tiny sergeant’s-patch rear tail-lights, the headlights are mounted lower than on the later model, and the fresh air intake "nostrils"in the nose are smaller.

These pre-1960 cars had beautiful Ghia-specific steering wheels unlike the Beetle items fitted to later models.

A real pain in the you know what to find, if you are attempting a restoration job.

In 1958, Volkswagen gave the world a special treat in the form of a cabriolet version, of what was becoming everyone’s favourite sporty car.

A total of 366 000 thousand coupes and just under 80 000 convertibles were produced between 1955 and 1974, making the Karmann Ghia one of the world’s most prolific sports… okay, sporty cars.


The cabriolet was beautifully built with a sophisticated top that could stand scrutiny even by 2005 standards.

A real convertible is probably worth R50 000 in tatty condition and R100 000 in concours shape.

Within the Ghia clan there’s a movement which adheres to the California Look.

These cars, like this 1958 model owned by Ishaam Begg runs a hot Golf motor, big rims and a wild orange paint job. It has that clan, mean racy look, and this truly qualifies as a sports car.
Once you get into Karmann Ghias, it’s a natural progression to get into all sorts of air-cooled VWs.

For a car that first saw the light of day in 1937 and continued in production in Mexico to the end of the twentieth century, there are thousands of arcane model distinctions to discuss.

It may be interesting to note that the Volkswagen was never officially called the Beetle in the early days.

Before World War Two it was known as the KDF Wagen, or Strength-Through-Joy vehicle, conceived as part of a social empowerment programme in Germany.

But only a few prototypes were produced prior to 1939, and a few thousand staff cars were produced for the military during the war years.

Production resumed at the end of World War Two, ironically under British occupation. Hitler’s dream of a people’s car finally came to fruition a year of Der Fuerer committed suicide in April, 1945.
A British Major of the Royal Marine Engineers named Ivan Hirst was given the task of resurrecting the bombed out factory in Wolfsburg near the East german border, mainly to provide employment for the starving local populace.

In 1948 the operational factory was given back to German management. Incredibly, by 1955 the millionth Beetle – still an unofficial name if you check out old Car Magazine price lists – had rolled off the production line.
By 1950 the Volkswagen company introduced what is generally acknowledged as the world’s first MPV.

Built on a standard Beetle floorpan, what South Africans have come to know and love as the Kombi was yet another variation on an amazing theme.

Today, the first-generation split-screen Kombis are highly sought-after, particularly in the UK, where they fetch serious money.

These were on sale in South Africa until the mid 1970s, known as the Fleetline Kombis which had their origin in Brazil.
The variations on the original Beetle theme seem endless.

From fun-filled promotional vehicles to semi-serious kit cars with supercar-like bodies, the Volkswagen Beetle has spawned more creative automotive ideas than any other car.

South Africa probably has one of the world’s most active Beetle populations, as they are still a daily occurrence in virtually any town or city throughout the country.

But none was more beautiful than the original Karmann Ghia
The variations on the Volkswagen theme were endless. Following the Karmann lead, many smaller companies sought to build low-cost sports cars using the ubiquitous Beetle floorpan.

One of these was the fiberglass-bodied Eagle, with its unique canopy roof that spoke of a much more exotic car .
The Eagle was produced here in the 1970s. It was actually a Southern Californian design and was built here under licence, even appearing in a local detective series in the very early days of SABC.

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