Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Buying Guide
The simplicity and fun of a Beetle – with added style! Here's how to buy VW's curvy hand-made coupé and convertible sports car
How much to pay
• Project £4000-12,000 • Good £20,000-48,000 • Concours £50,000+
Running costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★
The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia may have been little more than a reclothed Beetle when first injecting the showroom with style, therefore never over-endowed with power (the peak was just 55bhp), but with such pleasing aesthetics, it didn't take long for customers to fall in love with Volkswagen's curvaceous 2+2.
Launched in 1955, this shapely Volkswagen was designed by Ghia and built by Karmann – and while it was a lot more costly than the car on which it was based, the curvy coupé (and later convertible) proved a steady seller for almost two decades.
Today, the Karmann Ghia makes for a brilliant classic buy. Well served by clubs and specialists, coming with a great social scene and a hoot to drive, even though it's not all that quick the grin will be ear to ear – guaranteed. Prices are variable and so is the quality of the cars available, but when it comes to classics that are perpetually desirable and attainable, the Karmann Ghia has few peers.
Your AutoClassics Karmann Ghia inspection checklist
All Karmann Ghia engines were borrowed from the Beetle, which means parts availability is generally good and there are lots of tuning options, too. Keep on top of the valve clearances and change the oil every 3000 miles and you should get 100,000 miles between rebuilds.
Expect oil weeps from the rocker covers and pushrod tubes, which you can see under the engine. Oil leaks from the rear crankshaft seal might be down to excessive crankshaft end float, which means a full rebuild is due – although some owners just fit a used engine.
If the cabin fills with fumes, the exhaust heat exchangers are probably rotten; the fumes permeate the interior via the heater. If you’re looking at a 1584cc engine check the twin-port cylinder head as it can crack, while valves have been known to drop on any Beetle engine, leading to a clattery top end. The symptom for both of these maladies is misfiring or uneven running.
Poor running can also be due to fuel system blockages, usually because of a build up of sediment. Pre-1961 cars have a reserve tank and tap instead of a fuel gauge. The tap include a filter which gets blocked, leading to erratic fuel delivery.
No Karmann Ghia engine is powerful, which makes life easy for the transmission. As a result the gearboxes and differentials last well. First-gear synchro was fitted from 1961 and these later gearboxes are especially durable, but wear is inevitable, so make sure the transmission doesn’t jump out of gear and look for leaks from the casing.
If the gearbox (the casing incorporates the diff too) is allowed to run dry the noise levels will rise, and while everything is available to effect a rebuild, fitting a decent used unit is cheaper, which is why many owners take this route.
The gearbox oil also lubricates the wheel bearings on pre-1968 cars, so maintaining the oil level is especially important. Later Karmann Ghias have independent rear suspension, so check for split boots on the driveshaft CV joints.
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Suspension and brakes
Kingpins were fitted at the front until 1965, while later cars have balljoints which are much more durable and cheaper to fix. A lot of Karmann Ghias feature lowered suspension and if you want to return things to standard you’ll probably have to fit a new beam at the front, unless an adjustable beam has been fitted.
Returning the rear suspension to standard can be fraught with problems as you can end up with a lop-sided car, so it’s generally best left to someone who knows what they’re doing.
Wear in the steering box is likely but new, used and reconditioned replacements are available. The various ball joints and linkages also wear, but none of it is expensive to replace.
Front discs were fitted from 1967 and while any Karmann Ghia braking system is up to the job, calipers can seize on the later system. Swapping from drum to disc is cheap and easy, but bear in mind that drum-braked cars have four-stud hubs while disc-braked editions got a five-stud set-up – so you'll need different wheels.
Karmann Ghias were pretty much hand-made, so the panel fit should be very good, although bonnet shut lines are sometimes ropey. Because the rustproofing was poor, most cars have had some remedial work by now. Convertibles can rust to the point where the structure is weakened, so jack the car up and see if the door gaps close up.
You won’t find any original panels, but there are high-quality repro items available. Some aren’t quite the match you would hope for, as they don’t replicate the compound curves very well, so be wary of a car that’s been restored on the cheap.
Also look for accident damage as the bumpers don’t protect the car very well. Start your inspection with the front panels as they’re the ones most likely to be suffering from corrosion and impact damage. Home in on the wheelarches and wing bottoms along with the bonnet’s leading edge and the vents around the headlights.
Also scrutinise the rear wheelarches, quarter panels and valance, door bottoms and the trailing edge of the boot lid. More problematic is rot in the sills as they’re structural. Things are complicated by the fact that these also act as the heater channels to duct warm air into the cabin. Check for rot in the sill closing panels (from inside the wheelarches); there should be a circular plate at the back of each sill. This gives access to the torsion bars, but if the car has been bodged it’ll be welded over.
There should also be a set of fixings visible where the sills and floorpans meet. These are also welded over sometimes and while this doesn’t necessarily cause problems, it does prevent the body being separated from the chassis.
Finish by checking the footwells, under the rear seat, the front inner wings and spare wheel well along with the battery tray, in the engine bay.
New interior trim can be sourced on a repro basis, which is just as well because dashboard splits are common, after years of exposure to the sun. Carpets rot due to water leaks, while the seat trim tends to split or tear.
Much of the exterior trim is also available on a repro basis; you’ll be doing well to find any original parts unless it’s used. Be wary of a damaged multi-layer convertible roof because while decent replacements are available, they’re not easy to fit.
Until 1968 there was a six-volt electrical system fitted, and changing this to the later 12-volt system is popular. It’s easy enough to do and very much recommended.
- 1955: The Type 14 Karmann Ghia coupé is launched.
- 1957: The Type 14 convertible arrives.
- 1959: The front wings are redesigned, with higher and larger headlights. The rear lights are also updated and right-hand drive cars become available.
- 1960: Engine power is increased to 34bhp and there’s now synchromesh on first gear.
- 1961: The unloved Type 34 is launched, with a 1493cc engine and razor edge styling.
- 1965: The Type 14 engine is enlarged to 1285cc and the Type 34’s engine is enlarged to 1584cc; it also gets disc front brakes.
- 1966: The 1493cc engine is now fitted to the Type 14 and there are front disc brakes. A woodgrain dash is now fitted as is a rear spring compensator to combat oversteer. The Type 34 gets 12-volt electrics.
- 1968: The Type 14 gets 12-volt electrics and a three-speed semi-auto gearbox becomes an optional extra
- 1969: The final Type 34 is built and larger rear lights are fitted to the Type 14.
- 1970: A 1584cc engine is now fitted to the Type 14.
- 1971: Bigger bumpers, front indicators and rear lights are fitted, along with a matt black fascia and padded steering wheel.
- 1974: The last Karmann Ghia Type 14 is made.
We’ve only really dealt with the Type 14 Karmann Ghia here, although we’ve acknowledged the Type 34 alternative. While the latter used a Beetle floorpan and running gear the Type 34 was based on the Type 3 platform and used that car’s mechanicals. Much rarer than the Type 14 and offered in coupé form only, these razor-edged cars are generally unloved but have a following because of their rarity.
Most Karmann Ghias were exported to the US, so if shopping there you can expect few supply problems. A lot of cars have been brought back to Europe which is why there are so many left-hand drive examples; it’s possible to convert to right-hand drive but few owners bother.
Predictably, Karmann Ghias with the bigger engines are more usable so they’re more in demand; convertibles are also more sought after than coupés. Whatever you buy you need to check it very carefully for rust and bodged repairs as these are rife, but if you find a good one and look after it, you’ll own a cast-iron investment – and one that will bring immense pleasure.
Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics
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