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.