Friday April 7, 2017
No wonder that young couple is amazed by the sight of a Type 34 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia as they clearly never expected to find a car that is even more modish than they are. It is the sort of vehicle that you might expect to find being driven by the enigmatic female lead in a 60s Cold War film, as she rescues the hero from East German border guards. In actual fact, my first sighting of a Type 34 was in an episode of The Champions, that reliably daft ITC series in which a trio of agents with ‘super powers’ hurled papier mâché rocks about, but even that could not detract from its allure.
Volkswagen’s first Karmann Ghia was the curvaceous 1955 Type 14, which, as its name suggests, was styled by Ghia of Turin and by the coachbuilder Karmann of Osnabrück. The running gear and floorpan were from the Beetle and the Type 14 proved a highly successful extension of the VW air-cooled formula. By 1958 the company was planning its first ever medium sized saloon, the Type 3 1500, and it seemed logical that it would also form the basis of a larger coupe that would tempt Germany’s middle classes. The engine, suspension and transmission would be shared by both cars but the new Karmann Ghia had a 2+2 body that was devised by Sergio Sartorelli, with assistance from Tom Tjaarda, who would create the body of the Ferrari 365 GT California.
When the Type 34 Karmann Ghia was launched in September 1961 it was the most expensive Volkswagen to date, costing as much as two Beetles, about 50% more than the Type 3 1500 saloon, and more than a base model Porsche 356. However, a VW dealer could fairly claim that the new coupe’s lines were uncompromising but never flamboyant, from its distinctive nose to the flat engine bay and the slim pillars. To justify the price tag, the standard equipment included fog lamps, two-speed wipers, a clock and a cigarette lighter. The 34 was also rather practical, as the dimensions of the ‘pancake’ power plant meant that there could be a second luggage compartment above the rear engine bay. Many an owner found that this could become rather warm, so any food was best carried in the front boot.
Sadly, the 1500 Karmann Ghia, as it was officially known, never achieved major commercial success. The exquisite Cabriolet version that was also displayed at the 1961 Frankfurt Show was cancelled on the grounds of cost and even the market for an expensive hand-crafted 1.5 litre coupe with a top speed of 85 mph was always going to be an exclusive one. And while the Type 14 was at one stage the most popular imported car in the USA, the Type 34 was never officially marketed in the States.
The Type 34 remained in production for eight years, gaining twin carburettors in 1964, a 1.6-litre engine and disc brakes for 1966, a 12-volt electrical system in 1967 and the option of automatic transmission in 1968. In July 1969, it made way in the factory for the Volkswagen-Porsche 914, a completely different form of car, while the older Karmann Ghia was built until as recently as 1974. In my (deeply subjective) view, the Type 34 remains a testament to the scale of Volkswagen’s ambitions in the 50s and 60s, as they constantly sought ways to refine the brand. A small number of RHD models were sold in the UK, as import duties raised the price rather above that of an MGB. At that time, the VW always seemed to be driven by the sort of well-heeled British motorist who liked to wear black polo necks and sunglasses on a regular basis.
48 years after their demise, the razor-edged Karmann Ghia is more exclusive than many a Porsche 911 and you really have to see one in the metal as few pictures really capture its unique appeal. And to ride in the first VW with a fair claim to be considered ‘exotic’, particularly if it is fitted with an electric sliding roof is to imagine being driven through Wilmersdorf in West Berlin for a rendezvous with MI6. Or maybe that is just me…