VOLKSWAGEN KARMANN REVIEW

VW karmann.jpg

The combination of VW reliability with Karmann's curvaceous hand-built bodywork has been turning heads ever since its launch at the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show. 

Although the original coupe looked like a sports car it was coupled with an 1192cc Beetle flat-four engine mustering just 30bhp. Its top speed would barely nudge 80mph. For some, this earned the Karmann Ghia the sobriquet 'economy Porsche'. 

Italian design company Ghia styled the car and the first sleek body panels were fitted to Beetle platforms on Volkswagen's production line, before returning to Karmann for finishing. They are often referred to as 'low-lights' because of the headlight position.

Sales were sluggish at first, with just 500 models sold by the end of 1955. But 10,000 had left the production line by the end of the following year.

The original left-hand drive coupe was known as the Type 143, with the RHD version that followed in August 1959 dubbed 'Type 144'. Volkswagen introduced a left-hand drive convertible from August 1957 ('Type 141'), with the right-hand drive Type 142 cabriolet following two years later.

Predictably there were a large number of detail changes over the years, while the engine increased in capacity and power. From 1961, the Ghia featured an upgraded 34bhp 1192cc Beetle engine, together with all synchromesh transmission. A 40bhp 1285cc engine, a 44bhp 1493cc and - finally - a 50bhp 1584cc engine followed. Developments from 1967 included disc front brakes, a 12V electrical system and a stabilizing bar to improve handling.

The so-called 'razor edge' Type 34 Karmann Ghia coupe, used the Volkswagen 1500 saloon's drive train, but did not repeat its sister's success. The Type 34 was only made between 1962 and 1969. The Type 3 was the only air-cooled Volkswagen to have foglights built into the body as a standard feature, while also offering an electronically operated steel sliding sunroof as an option.

Karmann Ghia production continued until June 1974, when it finally made way for the Scirocco.
 

VITAL STATISTICS

Engine 1584cc/4-cyl/OHV

Power 55bhp@4000rpm

Torque 78lb ft@2800rpm

Top speed 86mph

0-60mph 18sec

Economy 32mpg

Gearbox 4-speed manual
 

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. Those air-cooled engines are generally reliable but will always be better off for evidence of regular servicing with oil changes every 3000 miles (30-grade oil being the popular choice) and checking of valve clearances. Don't forget to check the oil level in the gearbox. On pre-1968 cars the gearbox oil also lubricates the wheel bearings. Minor oil leaks are not uncommon but a bigger leak from the rear crankshaft seal might need a rebuild or a replacement engine block. The fuel system on the early models had a reserve tank and tap with a filter that can clog and break up. Check for fuel leaks from the carburettor. Vague steering on early cars is often down to worn king link pins, the later ball joint front suspension being an improvement.

2. Bodywork is this car's Achilles Heel. Allow no area to escape scrutiny, as factory rust-proofing was negligible. Places to inspect include the front wings - especially around the headlamps - front and rear wheel arches, inners wings, door bottoms and rear quarter panels. It is difficult to replace body panels because they have welded-on wings with lead loaded seams, so amateurs often resort to bodging with filler. Panels, brightwork, early-style bumpers and rear lights are difficult to obtain in good condition. Some reproduction items are available and you will find items at swap meets. Even a small amount of collision damage could result in substantial expense. Too many signs of corrosion may mean the car is a no-no. 

3. The brakes on early models were large drums and are relatively easy to maintain. From 1967, disc front brakes were introduced which give a worthwhile performance improvement. If a car has stood for a long time, check for seized calipers. Early calipers are not easy to find. Also check for brake pipe corrosion. If there is a lot of travel in the brake pedal, there's a possibility the seals of the master cylinder might have perished or split.

4. A damaged soft-top and its supporting framework can be expensive to rectify and a poor one will have let in the elements to do their worst in the sills and floorpan. Sills on convertibles will have been strengthened to improve the rigidity of the body and if the sills have rotted, a lot of expensive work lies ahead. Check the gap between the doors and rear quarter panels - it should be level. On a coupe, even replacing the headlining is not a straightforward task as it involves taking the front and rear windows, quarterlights and seals out.

5. Before you look under the bonnet, take a good look at the bonnet itself as they are rarely properly aligned. The same applies to the doors and the all-important gap around them - get the car jacked up and hope that you don't find too many discrepancies as a result of sill corrosion. Complete new doors are no longer available, while secondhand ones often don't fit properly. UV light, rain and wind will have taken their toll on the rubber seals, allowing water and dirt in that eats away at the metalwork. It's the same story withthe interior board door panels, which leads to giveaway paint bubbles forming on the outside. Replacing the relatively inexpensive rubber seals can potentially work wonders for the longevity of preserving large areas of these cars. Lift the bonnet lid and inspect the condition of the inner wings, spare wheel well and battery tray.

6. The constant exposure to sunlight - especially on US cars - can cause the dashboard to crack. Water can rot the carpets, too, while the seats inevitably split as a result of overall wear and tear. Interior trim specialists such as Newton Commercials or parts providers VW Heritage can help. It is not unknown for the platform beneath those far-from-practical rear seats to completely rot away.Lift the carpet to check the condition of the floorplan. 

OUR VERDICT

Original and well-restored pre-1959 'low-light' cars are scarce and carry a hefty premium. Many have lowered suspension in an attempt to improve handling, and aftermarket wheels and hubcaps are commonplace. But 'stock' is usually best. An early 1970s 1600cc coupe is the practical choice, yet still very stylish.

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