New Zealand Classic Car - - 1968 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Coupé -

can trace my pas­sion for cars — my wife might call it an ob­ses­sion — back to a cer­tain Christ­mas Eve. It was just be­fore mid­night, and my mother was march­ing my­self and my sib­lings to church. She led the way, light­ing the dusty farm road ahead with a small torch. Cars and trucks car­ry­ing other church-go­ers passed us one by one. None slowed down, and no one stopped to give us a lift. Even­tu­ally, I had to ask, “Why do other peo­ple ride in cars and we have to walk on foot?” My mother replied, “Don’t worry; if you work hard enough at school, you will be able to buy any car you like.”

That was South Africa in 1959. The near­est town with elec­tric­ity and tar­mac roads was 120 kilo­me­tres away.

Twenty years later, I was in prac­tice as a bar­ris­ter, and I was able to buy my first good car — a Mercedes 230. I had driven VW Bee­tles be­fore, and, af­ter that, ex­actly as my mother had pre­dicted, I could buy any car I liked, so I did. The ve­hi­cles I owned in­cluded a 1984 Alfa Romeo Spi­der, still the nicest car to drive; a 1980 Porsche 911SC; an­other Mercedes, a 260E; and all man­ner of SUVS. We brought a BMW Z3 to New Zealand when we set­tled here in 1999 and ac­quired more Porsches — a 1996 993 Cabrio 4, fol­lowed by a 2007 Boxster S, and, later, a 1996 993 Targa Tip­tronic. And that’s with­out count­ing my wife’s car pref­er­ences, mainly BMW 3 Se­ries and Honda.

My dream car? Well, I’m driv­ing my dream car — but maybe a Porsche 356C cabri­o­let?

Kar­mann Ghia — the ev­i­dence

The coach­builder Wil­helm Kar­mann per­suaded the di­rec­tors of Volk­swa­gen to al­low him to put a cabri­o­let top on their VW Bee­tles. VW pro­vided the bod­ies, sans roof, and Kar­mann added the soft tops. Af­ter Kar­mann’s death, his son, also named Wil­helm, had a chance meet­ing, at a mo­tor show, with Luigi Se­gre of the com­pany Carozzer­ria Ghia of Turin.

While there is some in­trigue be­hind the true ori­gins of the de­sign of the car that Kar­mann Jnr planned

to build and VW would name the ‘Kar­mann Ghia’, the end re­sult was that VW launched its VW Kar­mann Ghia sports car in 1955. The mod­els of the first few years — up to 1959 — are known as ‘low­lights’, be­cause the headlights are si­t­u­ated on a slightly slop­ing nose. From 1959 un­til the Kar­mann Ghia was re­placed by the Scirocco, its ba­sic shape and con­fig­u­ra­tion re­mained un­changed.

The Kar­mann Ghia is built on a slightly wider Bee­tle chas­sis, has a stan­dard VW air-cooled en­gine driv­ing the rear wheels, and uses many of the parts and com­po­nents of the Bee­tle and, in­deed, other air-cooled VW mod­els, such as the Kombi and trucks.

The sim­plic­ity of the en­gi­neer­ing of the Kar­mann Ghia, cou­pled with the ready avail­abil­ity of most parts, makes it a rel­a­tively easy car to re­store. That is un­til you get to the bodywork!

My Ghia was built on June 5, 1968, at Osnabrück in Ger­many and left the fac­tory on June 12 that same year, des­tined for de­liv­ery to the port of Yoko­hama on con­sign­ment to Yanase Inc., the im­porter of VW into Ja­pan. Its orig­i­nal ex­te­rior colour was Lotus White with red leatherette up­hol­stery, but, by the time I bought it, a prior owner had painted it blue and re­placed the up­hol­stery with a sandy-beige– coloured vinyl.


In Au­gust 2013, on our way to Ro­torua in our 993 Targa, my wife and I drove past the V-dub Shoppe out­side Hamil­ton and glimpsed what would be­come our Kar­mann Ghia on the side of the road as we swept past. We stopped on the re­turn jour­ney to check it out. I felt sorry for the Ghia, stand­ing next to a Bee­tle and a VW Kombi, as all of them were in bad shape.

Later, in Oc­to­ber, we went to look at a 1972 Bee­tle in Tau­ranga. I wanted to re­store a car. I had re­tired from le­gal prac­tice and, not to put too fine a point on it, I was bored. I had by then pub­lished three nov­els, the last two of which fea­tured cars. I de­cided to re­store a car

and to use it as the back­bone of a novel in my pre­ferred genre, cre­ative non-fic­tion.

The Bee­tle turned out to be left-hand drive, so I let it go. On the way home, how­ever, we stopped again at the V-dub Shoppe — the Ghia was still there. Weeds were com­ing up though its floor pan.

Still feel­ing sorry for it, I de­cided to buy it. The owner turned out to be Tony Mccall, a cham­pion off-road rac­ing driver, and I bought the car on an as-is-where-is ba­sis. Tony had im­ported it from Ja­pan, but, be­cause it was se­verely rusted in so many places, it could not be com­plied. The NZTA note said, “Rust un­der body … re­pair cert re­quired for un­der-body cor­ro­sion, dam­age kick-up panel … and struc­tural dam­ages and rust all round …”

I men­tioned ear­lier that I was bored. I needed some­thing to do, and wanted to work on the car my­self. There were ob­vi­ously go­ing to be aspects of the work that would be be­yond my abil­ity. That, cou­pled with the fact that I work to dead­lines — and my dead­line for this pro­ject was two years — meant I would have to get pro­fes­sion­als to do the most im­por­tant parts of the work.

Ac­cep­tance of ser­vice

The first thing we did was to de­cide on a restora­tion pol­icy.

First, we would use as many parts that came with the car as pos­si­ble, even if they had slight blem­ishes. Se­condly, I would record ev­ery­thing we did in a blog on The Samba (the­samba.com) in the Ghia fo­rum. Thirdly, I would in­clude the out­line of the novel I in­tended to write — which would in­cor­po­rate the restora­tion of the Ghia as the non-fic­tion com­po­nent of the novel — in the thread of my restora­tion on The Samba.

The pro­ject started in my garage as we stripped the car of all parts that could be taken off it: the seats, car­pets and up­hol­stery, all rubber, door cards and quar­ter pan­els, all chrome and an­odized alu­minium strips, the dash and in­stru­ments, ra­dio and ra­dio aerial, mir­rors, wiring, lights, bumpers, top-of-en­gine com­po­nents, hoses, fuel tank, door and quar­ter win­dows, door han­dles and quar­ter-win­dow latches.

Ev­ery­thing was cleaned, with small parts bagged and la­belled. I made a note of ev­ery item that needed to be re­placed and kept aside all parts that we could re­pair or re­fur­bish our­selves.

When there was noth­ing fur­ther to be taken off the car, we sent it to Ted Ir­win of Hen­der­son Clas­sic Car Restora­tions. Ted took the body off the chas­sis and ‘skinned’ the body: the in­ner and outer body pan­els on a Kar­mann Ghia are welded to­gether, and the car had to be split at the welds in or­der to get at all the rust. The body parts were sent for me­dia blast­ing and Ted re­placed the floor­pans with new pans that I had sourced from Ger­many.

At this point, with the pro­ject ap­pear­ing to be much larger than I had an­tic­i­pated, we brought ev­ery­thing back to my garage. For a pe­riod of about six months, we cleaned and re­paired many of the smaller com­po­nents, while pon­der­ing what to do about the body re­pairs. Parts were or­dered, along with re­place­ment body pan­els, on a month-by-month ba­sis.

Dur­ing a visit to South Africa, we bought a com­plete wiring loom from a VW Kombi for about $15 — this pro­vided wires of the cor­rect colours and gauge for the re­fur­bish­ment of the orig­i­nal wiring loom.

We fin­ished off items big and small, tack­ling one job

at a time. This in­cluded re­uphol­ster­ing the seats with new seat cov­ers from TMI Prod­ucts in the US, clean­ing and re­seal­ing the fuel tank, sand­ing the chas­sis and floor­pan back to bare metal, seal­ing all welded seams and paint­ing with POR-15. The car’s steel wheels were also stripped and re­fur­bished.

The in­stru­ments and switches were re­fur­bished too, along with the win­dow-win­der mech­a­nism and en­gine an­cil­lar­ies. We cut and shaped our own New Zealand pure-wool car­pet set and made up a front trunk liner, while the re­pair and re­uphol­ster­ing of the dash pad — com­plete with spe­cial French stitch­ing — was un­der­taken by South­ern Up­hol­stery of Takanini.

Body of ev­i­dence

While all this was go­ing on, we pon­dered what to do about the bodywork. It was ob­vi­ous from the time that the body came back from me­dia blast­ing that the rust dam­age was far worse than we had an­tic­i­pated. It also be­came ap­par­ent that the car had been in a col­li­sion, and the dam­age ex­tended into the right door-hinge pil­lar as­sem­bly.

The first step was to source and buy re­place­ment sec­tions for the rusted parts — ef­fec­tively, for the bot­tom 20cm of the body, all round. Th­ese were read­ily avail­able from the US, Den­mark, China, and Ger­many. A re­place­ment door-hinge pil­lar as­sem­bly was cut from a Ghia in Wash­ing­ton State; stain­less-steel bumpers came from Viet­nam, at about a quar­ter of the cost of re­pair­ing and re-chroming the orig­i­nal set.

The next step was to find a panel beater who would be pre­pared to al­low me to do the me­nial, un­skilled work that would oth­er­wise be nec­es­sary and costly, even at min­i­mum-wage rates. We found one in the ad­ver­tise­ments in New Zealand Clas­sic Car mag­a­zine. I phoned Phillip Broad­bent of Ngatea Pan­el­beat­ers and ex­plained what I had in mind. He agreed that I could help work on the car, on con­di­tion that my work would be done un­der his su­per­vi­sion and that I would have to com­ply with all the safety reg­u­la­tions ap­pli­ca­ble to his work­shop.

The re­sult was an education and an ex­pe­ri­ence that com­bined to make the last year one of the hap­pi­est of my life. I watched in awe as the work­shop toiled on other projects — farm im­ple­ments; buses; big trucks; small cars need­ing wind­screens; camper­vans; a mo­bile crane; har­vesters; and, of course, some clas­sic cars, in­clud­ing my own.

The work on my car pro­gressed slowly. The work­shop was busy, and Phillip in­sisted on do­ing the metal work him­self, one sec­tion at a time. The ac­ci­dent re­pair took quite some time, with the re­place­ment door-hinge pil­lar as­sem­bly fa­cil­i­tat­ing that part of the re­pair con­sid­er­ably. Some re­place­ment pan­els were not to Phillip’s lik­ing, so he fab­ri­cated pan­els that fit bet­ter by cut­ting, shap­ing the metal on var­i­ous ma­chines, and ham­mer­ing away un­til he was sat­is­fied with the re­sult.

The doors were rusted so badly that I had to buy new door skins from a Ger­man sup­plier. Phillip needed to do some mi­nor re­pairs to the door frames. The re­place­ment of the heater chan­nels and rock­ers con­sti­tuted a huge struc­tural re­pair to the body. Braces had to be welded in to keep the door spa­ces uni­form, and of ex­actly the right di­men­sions. When we fi­nally fit­ted the doors and found that the door gaps were within the man­u­fac­turer’s spec­i­fi­ca­tion, the whole work­shop sighed with re­lief.

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