Thursday, October 11, 2012

Better than a Bug!

In 1948 the Hebmüller and Karmann companies were each engaged by Volkswagen to construct open top cars based on the Beetle, Hebmüller a two seat and Karmann a four seat version. Volkswagen approved both prototypes and ordered 2000 Hebmüllers and 1000 Karmann cabriolets. From these figures, the Hebmüller was expected to be the bigger seller but, as is well known, a fire destroyed the Hebmüller factory only a month after production began in 1949. Only about 700 were ever completed, with the factory struggling to rebuild on the pay-out from its inadequate insurance. At least a dozen Hebmüllers were known to have been completed by Karmann after Hebmüller finally succumbed to bankruptcy in 1952!
The Karmann design fared much better. Production began in September 1949 on the brand new "Export" Beetle chassis. The first order was filled by April 1950, and VW ordered more. 10,000 were produced by August, 1950 and the car's place in an expanding VW range was now secure. 1949 cabrios are actually considered to be rarer than Hebmüllers!
The Karmann Beetle cabriolet used the chassis, nose section, fenders, and front and rear lids supplied by Wolfsburg from the Beetle parts bin, with the rest of the body being either fabricated by Karmann or modified by them from standard Beetle panels. The reinforcement rails required due to the lack of a turret section were incorporated into the body below the heater channels. They were not part of the chassis. The cars were largely hand made and it has been said that no two were ever entirely the same, in that the body was built in two halves, a front and a rear, each being manoeuvred on the floor pan to achieve the best door gap before final welding together.
As the Beetle evolved, so did the cabriolet. It was considerably dearer than the sedan and was always a "de-luxe" model with the most powerful engine in the range. About 330,000 were made before the model was discontinued on the 10th January 1980, the last of the Beetle models to be produced in Germany. The production figure makes the Karmann Cabriolet the biggest selling convertible car ever, echoing the success of its world champion cousin from Wolfsburg.
Wilhelm Karmann died in 1952 at the age of 88 and was succeeded by his son, Wilhelm jnr. The younger Karmann, a highly qualified engineer, was good friends with an Italian by the name of Luigi Segre, who was owner and chief stylist of Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin. Volkswagen had earlier asked Karmann to design a sports car on the Beetle chassis, but had rejected all of the prototypes put to them. Wilhelm had casually mentioned this to Segre, who had some ideas of his own! Without the knowledge of either Karmann or Volkswagen, Segre procured a standard Beetle, removed its body and built on it a design study. It was shown to a surprised Wilhelm Karmann in 1953.
Karmann arranged for Dr. Nordhoff and his vice-president Dr. Feuereisen to inspect the car. Both were highly impressed, and production prototypes were soon ordered and built. The chassis had to be widened at the front on the four or five test cars and this feature carried over into the production version.The car was launched in mid 1955 and was an instant world sensation! The Karmann Ghia was born.
The Karmann Ghia, while certainly not the first small two door coupe, popularised the body style. Soon there were the inevitable imitators. One has only to look at such cars as the Renault Floride/Caravelle coupe and convertible of the late 50's and early 60's to see evidence of this. This car was based on another rear engined swing axle design, which evolved from the original 4cv 750 Renault, a prototype of which Dr. Porsche was said to at least have "advised" on when he was a prisoner of the French after the war.
During the initial period of Karmann Ghia production, Karmann GMBH surprisingly had no presses large enough to bend the sections for the Ghia body. The assembly was therefore hand welded from many smaller pieces. Anyone who has undertaken a bare metal restoration even on a later Ghia will tell you that there are some welds in some very unlikely places!
The lower frontal area of the coupe enabled the heavier car to reach a higher top speed more economically than a 36hp Beetle, but the acceleration was even slower! A Wolfsburg in sheep's clothing? The convertible version which followed in 1956 was an in house modification of the coupe design. These earlier coupes and convertibles are very beautiful cars, and very, very rare.
The Karmann Ghia range was face-lifted in 1958. The "nostrils" were re-shaped and the tail lights enlarged. The headlights were also raised slightly, and right hand drive models were introduced. From now on, the range was slightly more "mass produced".
The Ghia received chassis and engine improvements in line with the Beetle until it was discontinued in 1975, looking little different to the 1958 version. Its place on the production floor at Osnabruck was taken by the Scirroco, after about 283,000 coupes and 81,000 cabriolets were built.
A Karmann Ghia version of the Type 3 was built from 1961. The styling is loved by some but hated by others. Let's just say that it does not have the universal appeal of the Type 1 cars. They were, however, fine motor cars, with very respectable performance for a car of its time. The model evolved alongside the other Type 3 models until 1969, when it achieved the dubious honour of becoming the first model ever dropped from the VW range! Only 42,000 were ever made. The Porsche/VW 914 took the place of the Type 3 Ghia on the line at Karmann.
In 1960, Karmann established a branch factory in Brasil, at Sao Bernardo do Campo. At first assembling the Type 1 Ghia coupe from CKD kits sent from Germany, this plant later produced models of their own design. These were known as the TC Karmann Ghia.
Throughout the 60's and 70's, Karmann put many proposals to VW for a Ghia replacement, but none saw the light of day. Some of these designs were extremely good looking cars, such as the Ital-designed Cheetah of 1971.
The Ghia company had become part of the Ford empire by the late '70s. The Golf and Scirroco were styled by Ital Design, but the Golf convertible was an in house modification of the sedan, in much the same way as the Beetle Cabrio.
There is little doubt that the Golf Cabrio will become a classic; every other VW with that little black badge on the side has. Although their products are rare in this country, Karmann built Volkswagens represent one of the few things life has to offer that is at once a great investment and loads of fun!

No comments:

Post a Comment