The Italian conection
Established in 1915, the Torinese firm of Ghia began life as a traditional carrozzeria but found itself increasingly involved in concept production and styling work for Chrysler after a postwar agreement between the US firm and Fiat which exchanged Chrysler’s production know-how for an introduction to the Italian styling houses.
Ghia’s skills in prototype construction saw ties with Chrysler strengthened and designer Virgil Exner was soon sending prototype styling models from Michigan to be turned into sheet metal reality by the skilled artisans at Ghia. During the early ’50s a whole series of Ghia-built show concepts was shipped back to the USA for exhibition, the idea being that these futuristic creations would allow Chrysler to shake off its dowdy image.
In 1953, Ghia accepted a commission from Volkswagen to create a coupe on the Beetle floorpan and although the resulting car is commonly regarded as the work of Ghia boss Luigi Segre, as David Burgess-Wise pointed out in his 1985 work Ghia: Ford’s Carrozzeria, that’s not the whole truth. In 1952 Ghia had built the K-310 show car styled by Exner and a brief glance shows the VW to be very much a scaled-down version of the K-310.
With volumes predicted to be around 40,000 cars a year, Ghia lacked the capacity to produce the car and so production was handled by Karmann. Unlike the Beetle though, the Karmann-Ghia is more like a handbuilt car, lacking the simple bolt-on wings and with a widened version of the Beetle’s platform chassis. The running gear was pure Beetle though, despite the Porsche looks: initially the 1200cc, 34 bhp unit and later the 1584cc, 50 bhp unit. A convertible model was produced alongside the coupe and the original ‘Type 1’ Beetle-based Karmann-Ghia would be produced until 1974.
Meanwhile, an all-new Karmann-Ghia was produced from 1961, based on the VW 1500 saloon and this time using a standard production chassis.