Thursday, January 30, 2014

1958 Karmann-Ghia Coupe

"Every flowing, graceful line  . . .  every breath-taking detail  . . .  every magic touch of luxury and comfort of the beautiful Karmann-Ghia Coupe has a truly 'Continental' accent. And with good reason: Ghia of Turin, Italy — one of Europe's most renowned designers — conceived this striking and original automobile! Karmann of Osnabrück — Germany's foremost custom-body builder, world-famous for painstaking workmanship and attention to detail — interpreted Ghia's unique, thoroughbred design! Finally, the distinctive body was mounted on a sturdy Volkswagen chassis with the rugged Volkswagen engine at its heart — the same ultra-reliable engine that's proven itself the world over in more than a million VW's! The result? Superb beauty and smartness combined with utmost comfort and dependability — the Karmann Ghia Coupe; beauty that can take abuse day-after-day, year-in-year-out — and like it!" 

Here is a good example of how looks can be deceiving: for the standards of the 50s, the Karman Ghia appears to be a very sporty car, visually playing in the same league as, say, a Porsche 356. But it isn't. 30hp, compared to 60hp and more in Porsche's 1958 models, meant merely half of the Porsche's pizzazz. Yet, under their skin both cars have surprisingly much in common, as both are based on the Volkswagen Beetle.

Incidentally, the genesis of the Karmann Ghia design is linked to Chrysler's styling director Virgil Exner, who had built several showcars in collaboration with Italian coachbuilder Ghia. When Karmann approached Ghia in 1953 to design a Coupe, based on the VW Beetle, the Italians came up with a design proposal that resembled the Exner-designed Chrysler D'Elegance showcar, shown in Paris in October 1952. Of course, the proportions were utterly different, because the Karmann had a rear mounted engine and was a much smaller car. Yet, signature design elements of the Chrysler showcar such as the cabin shape and the characteristic highlight that kicks up from the rocker into the rear fender, re-appeared in almost identical form on the Karmann Ghia when it was presented to the public in 1955. As a matter of fact, it was an usual practice of Italian carozzerie to sell similar design proposals to different clients. Reportedly, Virgil Exner never expressed negative connotations to the fact that his showcar ideas lived on in a successful commercial product, even if it wasn't a Chrysler.

And successful it was: within one year, 10,000 Karmann-Ghia Coupe left the Karmann factory, and at the end of its production run in 1974, 385,803 Karmann-Ghia Coupe had been built. Adding, 81,053 convertibles and 23,557 Coupes that were assembled in Brazil, it sums up to an impressive number, considering that the Karmann-Ghia was a partially hand-built car from a coachbuilder that until then had specialized in assembling Volkswagen Beetle convertibles. Almost two thirds of the total production went to the US, where it was well received even if Volkswagen of America never run any introductory advertisement campaign. In Europe, au contraire, the car never really kicked off, because it was pricey, and generally considered an anemic "house-wife's Porsche" rather than a serious sports car. While the Porsche could boast a heavily tuned suspension and engine, the Karmann-Ghia sported standard VW underpinnings and tipped the scales at 820kg of weight, which was quite a fair bit heavier than the 740kg of a standard Beetle. The ones who bought the Karmann-Ghia, however, were more into a fashion statement and couldn't care less if the car's gorgeous look wasn't matched by an equivalent driving experience. The others would buy the Porsche, anyway.

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