The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was introduced in 1955 but it was previewed by a concept car that debuted at the 1953 edition of the Paris Motor Show. Over its 19-year production run, the Ghia helped boost Volkswagen sales in Europe and abroad by giving buyers a much-needed alternative to the Beetle.
Coachbuilder Karmann was familiar with the Beetle because it started producing the convertible variant of it in 1949. The car was sold through Volkswagen dealerships as a more upmarket alternative to the regular sedan, but Karmann executives imagined a more expensive convertible that mixed the Beetle’s chassis and drivetrain with a sleek and sporty body would be a hit among buyers, especially those in the United States. The firm contacted Ghia designer Luigi Segre and asked him to start working on a prototype.
After several months of work, Segre discreetly showed the car to Karmann in a small garage in Paris in October of 1953. Karmann was initially shocked because the car was a coupe and not a convertible as it had initially commissioned. Why the convertible body style was dropped is not known, but the result was stunning nonetheless and displayed for the first time at the 1953 Paris Motor Show. The public’s response was mixed – some liked the shape of the body, but many pointed out that it looked like a copy of the Ghia-designed Chrysler d’Elegance.
Volkswagen boss Heinz Nordhoff personally inspected the car several weeks after its sdebut but he immediately wrote it off as too expensive. When Karmann proved to Nordhoff that the car could be profitable, the project was green-lighted and development of the production-bound variant began.
The first regular-production Karmann Ghia (called type 14 internally) was built in January of 1955 in Karmann’s Osnabrück, Germany, factory. Powered by a rear-mounted 1.2-liter air-cooled flat-four engine that made just 30 horsepower, it was nearly identical to the concept that bowed in Paris three years earlier but it gained front air vents, different bumpers and a new decklid that didn’t have Volkswagen lettering below the license plate.
A lot of the Ghia’s basic parts were sourced from the Beetle but many small trim pieces inside and out were specific to the coupe. The steering wheel was the same as the Beetle’s but the Ghia offered a lower seating position that period journalists said was reminiscent of the Porsche 356.
The Karmann Ghia’s success in Europe convinced Volkswagen to sell the car in the United States starting in 1956. That year, a regular Beetle cost $1,495, a Beetle convertible retailed for $1,995 and the Ghia carried a base price of $2,395 before options such as a radio and leatherette upholstery were factored in.
The convertible variant that Karmann had initially envisioned was introduced at the 1957 Frankfurt Motor Show and made its way to the United States a year later. A larger 34-horsepower engine was introduced in time for 1960.
The car went through many changes over the following decade, including larger and more powerful engines, a host of aesthetic upgrades and several interior updates.
Outlived by the Beetle Convertible, the Karmann Ghia was phased out in 1974 after 362,601 coupes and 80,881 convertibles were built.
All photos were kindly provided by Volkswagen’s archives department.