VW Kar­man-Ghia

This knock­out coupé sat in a garage for 20 years as an un­fin­ished pro­ject .


It was while writ­ing about a 635CSi for a BMW mag­a­zine that I first heard the joke “What’s Ger­man for rust..? Kar­mann!” and any­one who has been in­volved with the Osnabrück coach­builder’s prod­ucts will prob­a­bly chuckle wryly in agree­ment.

Al­though it’s been a part of the gi­ant Volk­swa­gen Group since 2009, Kar­mann has pro­duced body and tool­ing for VW, Audi, Porsche, Mercedes-- Benz, Re­nault, Bent­ley, BMW and Saab.

but de­spite its Teu­tonic her­itage, not all its prod­ucts have been as ro­bust as we’ve come to ex­pect from the Ger­man car in­dus­try, mean­ing restora­tion of its prod­ucts can of­ten be a big task.

One of the firm’s ear­li­est col­lab­o­ra­tions with a ma­jor car man­u­fac­turer was the con­tract to pro­duce a Bee­tle coupe for Volk­swa­gen which lacked the ca­pac­ity for the smaller-vol­ume niche model. The car had been styled by Ital­ian car­rozze­ria Ghia in its pre-Ford years but the Ital­ian firm couldn’t build the car in the vol­umes re­quired by VW, so it was Kar­mann which got the job. The firm had been build­ing the fac­tory ver­sion of the Bee­tle con­vert­ible for some time al­ready, so was well con­nected within Volk­swa­gen.

The VW Kar­mann-Ghia as the car was known, was an ex­otic-look­ing car with a del­i­cate Ital­ian style which belied its hum­ble Bee­tle run­ning gear and among VW en­thu­si­asts it’s some­thing of a holy grail. Some­thing which was played on in the mar­ket­ing of the day is the car’s rel­a­tive lack of power, with the ad­verts sell­ing it as a sports car with­out the run­ning costs.

As any­one who has ever owned one will know though, they do like to rot and restor­ing

a Ghia can be rather more in­volved than the reg­u­lar Bee­tle with its sim­ple bolt-on wings.

For most en­thu­si­asts though, it’s the car’s style which is the at­trac­tion and Dar­ren Tip­pett, the owner of the car you see here, was no ex­cep­tion. Thanks to a car en­thu­si­ast dad, Dar­ren grew up im­mersed in the world of cars and had al­ready owned all kinds of things be­fore he ac­quired this, sell­ing a self-built MK Indy kit car and a Mini Cooper to fund the pur­chase of a Kar­mann-Ghia.

This was back in 2012 and Dar­ren quickly dis­cov­ered that Kar­man-Ghias aren’t ex­actly thick on the ground, many of the UK-sup­plied ex­am­ples hav­ing sim­ply dis­solved dur­ing the ’70s.

That ex­plains why he found him­self mak­ing the five-hour trip from his Devon home to the Not­ting­hamshire base of K-G spe­cial­ist Martin McGary Mo­tor­works (www.kar­man­nghia.co.uk).

“I looked at var­i­ous mod­els

and ages of left­hand drive cars. I re­ally wanted an orig­i­nal right-hand drive one, but when I couldn’t find one I agreed to buy an Amer­i­can im­port,” says Dar­ren. “My only stip­u­la­tion was that it had to be a Coupé in red with a white roof. How­ever, just be­fore I went to leave, Martin took me to an­other garage where the ex­act car I had just de­scribed was sit­ting: an orig­i­nal RHD early ’60s Kar­mann Ghia in the colour I wanted. Martin ran me through the car’s his­tory and then we agreed on a price. I went away very happy.”

The car had been de­liv­ered to its first owner in 1962 and changed hands a cou­ple of times be­fore its third keeper ac­quired it in 1989 and promptly sent the tat­tered body­work for restora­tion.

Back in 1989 it was still pos­si­ble to buy new nose pan­els, front wings and most of the other ma­jor pan­els which ex­plains why long-es­tab­lished VW spe­cial­ist House of Hase­lock in Coven­try (the firm closed in 1995) was able to take the job on. Since then the im­por­tant pan­els have be­come no longer avail­able and even back then the dif­fer­ences be­tween Bee­tle and Ghia meant much fab­ri­ca­tion fo re­pair pan­els.

To point out just one cru­cial dif­fer­ence, the Ghia was built on a 12-inch wider ver­sion of the Bee­tle’s floor­plan chas­sis and this meant Bee­tle floor pan­els had to be mod­i­fied to fit.

As sup­plied new, Dar­ren’s Ghia had been a strik­ing sight, in Manila Yel­low with a black roof but dur­ing the restora­tion the de­ci­sion was made to have it painted in an­other pe­riod-cor­rect colour, Ruby Red.

After much work and pay­ments to­talling some £15,000 – and this was back in 1989 re­mem­ber, when that would have bought a brand new Golf GTi and a ba­sic Polo – the body­work was com­plete and the car was re­turned to its owner for the fi­nal fit­ting up. Rather

strangely though in view of the hefty out­lay, it seems it was driven just a hand­ful of miles be­fore be­ing driven into the garage and locked away for the next 20 years.

Luck­ily, said garage must have been pretty dry as the lay-up didn’t re­duce it to its pre­restora­tion state and by the time Dar­ren en­tered the frame its paint­work still looked good and the body­work was sound.

Time had taken its toll on things like the rub­bers and chrome­work plus the brake and fuel sys­tems, mean­ing a full recom­mis­sion­ing was still re­quired and even though no body restora­tion was re­quired, it still took the best part of a year.

Just one ex­am­ple was the fuel tank, which it turned out had rot­ted from the in­side, while ev­ery part of the run­ning gear needed to be checked. While they were at it, Dar­ren threw some­thing of a curve­ball into the process by ask­ing the team at Mo­tor­works to re­trim the in­te­rior in the orig­i­nal hound­stooth check cloth.

The re­trim­ming it­self wasn’t a prob­lem but the fab­ric had been un­avail­able for years and was sim­ply nowhere to be found even in the air-cooled VW world. Un­de­terred, Dar­ren spent six months hunt­ing for the right cloth and even­tu­ally found a roll for sale in Aus­tralia, con­firm­ing via a sam­ple that it was what he wanted be­fore com­mit­ting to the postage. It turned out to be suf­fi­cient for re­trim­ming the en­tire in­te­rior, which was given the fin­ish­ing touch with a pe­riod Blaupunkt Frank­furt ra­dio.

While the car was still at Mo­tor­works, Dar­ren also de­cided to re­in­state the two-tone colour scheme, hav­ing the roof sec­tion painted in Pearl White, which was a pe­riod op­tion with the Ruby Red lower.

By then the Ghia was ready for the road, but al­though the run­ning gear was all-orig­i­nal, that meant a 1200cc, 34 bhp en­gine. With the Ghia weigh­ing in at 100kg more than the 1200 Bee­tle, it­self no rocket, this can be hard work in modern traf­fic but thank­fully the ease with which air-cooled VW com­po­nents can be mixed and matched made it easy to up­grade.

Dar­ren went for a 1600cc sin­gle-port ver­sion of the Bee­tle en­gine which is good for 50 bhp but which is vis­ually sim­i­lar to the orig­i­nal unit.

After two decades and two restora­tions, the Kar­mann-Ghia was fi­nally ready to hit the road again and Dar­ren has no re­grets about tak­ing on some­one else’s half-fin­ished pro­ject. He’s only spent a ferw hun­dred pounds on main­te­nance since the car was recom­mis­sioned and has even picked up a hand­ful of tro­phies too. Sec­ond time lucky then.

En­gine is vis­ually iden­ti­cal to the orig­i­nal 1200 unit but now boasts some 16 bhp more.

As you can see the rot had re­ally taken hold! You couldn’t even f it an in­di­ca­tor or head­light as there wasn’t any metal left!

Body was re­built us­ing new gen­uine Kar­mann pan­els, as these were still avail­able from VW in 1989.

Floor­pan was toast. The wider Ghia floor­pan half re­pair pan­els were not avail­able in 1989, so Bee­tle ones had to be mod­i­fied.

All four wings had rusted, in fact, ev­ery­thing from the roof pil­lars down had gone.

Kar­mann-Ghia is all about style: un­der­neath, it's pure Bee­tle run­ning gear.

The freshly-painted body just after the top coats were ap­plied by House of Hase­lock.

Here’s the car as it looked when the orig­i­nal restora­tion was com­plete.

Ghia as de­liv­ered back to Dar­ren, be­fore the roof was re­painted white.

The orig­i­nal 1200 en­gine was up­gunned to a 1600cc unit.

Get­ting the in­te­rior spot-on in­volved track­ing a roll of cloth down in Aus­tralia. Blaupunkt ra­dio is a pe­riod unit.

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