Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was the dream of designer and builder Wilhelm Karmann. He had built the Volkswagen beetle cabriolet, and wanted to design a unique and stylish body for the VW beetle chassis. Wilhelm and his son, also called Wilhelm, approached Heinz Nordhoff in 1950 about the idea of a cabriolet sports car on the beetle chassis, but reportedly did not get much interest. Volkswagen was producing all the beetles that they could make, and a new car with a questionable future didn’t make much sense. Karmann persisted, and eventually Nordhoff agreed to allow designs to be submitted to Wolfsburg. They were rebuffed there as well. Refusing to accept defeat, Karmann eventually made an Italian connection which made all of the difference.
Luigi Segre was Director at Carozzeria Ghia. After listening to Karmann’s idea at the Turin show, he arranged to get a VW beetle from a connection in France. And here is where the story starts to get a little bit mysterious and bizarre. The origin of the design of the Karmann Ghia is disputed in many circles even today, but it is clear that there were a number of connections which must have had some influence. Major design duties were handed to a relatively new designer at Ghia who is said to have introduced some novel rounded and swoopy lines. Then, the French connection, Charles LaDouche, was involved with the production of a car called the Coupe D’Elegance, which was being produced by Ghia, and which predates The Karmann discussions, but which has some resemblance to The final Karmann Ghia. Lastly, LaDouche was a Chrysler agent in France, and both he, and Luigi Segre had prior conversations and idea discussions with Virgil Exner in the US. Exner was head of exterior design for Chrysler, but was famous for the Studebaker Champion styling. Many believe that the car looks a lot like a mini Studebaker. The nose has a dose of Porsche with the nacelles and the nostrils. Lastly, there was a significant and perhaps unprecedented level of secrecy that was maintained around the project. Not just in keeping things from Volkswagen, as Ghia seem to have gone out of their way to keep Karmann away from Turin where the Coupe D’Elegance was being built. Parts of models and prototype cars were shipped around locations in Europe and hidden from notice while development was taking place.
In 1952, Wilheim senior died, but his son continued to bring the dream to fruition. After a lot of back and forth, and detail design by Karmann, the Coupe project was shown to Nordhoff in November 1953. He agreed to produce it, and the beetle chassis was widened and strengthened at the longitudinals to adapt to the new body style. This provided a very different interior than the beetle, and combined with a lower overall profile to accentuate the sports car styling. A front anti-roll bar improved handling, and the more powerful 1192 cc motor combined with a four speed synchromesh gearbox to provide some enhanced performance. The Ghia had a top speed of 77mph (compared to the Beetle’s 66mph). The end result was that Volkswagen Type 143 was deemed to be the most beautiful Volkswagen ever produced. It was to be built at the Karmann factory in Osnabruck beginning in 1955. Because the Karmann factory did not have the large-scale mass production capabilities of the Volkswagen plant, many of the Karmann Ghia panels were in fact constructed from smaller component pieces and then put together. A number of interesting ideas such as the over-centered hinge, were employed as a result of working through production challenges.
Another twist developed at launch. Volkswagen was producing DKWs at full capacity, and had no place to store the new Ghia around the original launch date. The solution was to move the launch date forward, and ship cars directly to dealers. Brilliant ! Despite its looks and pretentions, the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was no sports car. The early reviews pointed that out, and sales were initially slow. However, to a customer moving up from a Beetle, the car was indeed a lot more sporting. Sales grew rapidly, and eventually out-stripped production by 1956. This was true even in the US, where there was little to no initial advertising. A cabriolet followed in 1957, and the car went on to great success in the US and of course in Europe, selling over 400,000 units.