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Buying A Karmann Ghia

So you're intrigued enough to seriously consider buying a Karmann Ghia. Good for you. A Ghia, like any other classic car, can be a paradise or a nightmare. The difference is all in doing your homework and being realistic in both your capabilities and your expectations. Do not be sucked in by the fact that the Karmann Ghia is a Volkswagen and you'll be able to drive it forever with no time and money on your part. If you just want a beater to get you to school and back over the winter, stop right here and go look elsewhere. Go get yourself a Honda Civic.


Volkswagen automobiles are among the most proven on the planet. The same chassis and engine design that took the Wehrmacht from France to Libya to Stalingrad and back again is the same design that I've seen personally propel a Volkswagen to a quarter mile run in ten and change. After the war, the Allies wanted the Volkswagen for their own use, and propped up the shattered Volkswagenwerke until it could become a self-sustaining enterprise in the 40s. Technically, the Volkswagen has nothing left to prove.


The Karmann Ghia is something entirely different; a hand-built specialist automobile. They were carefully assembled by gentlemen named Horst and GŁnter, and inspected by picky men in white mittens for flaws (Karmann). Volkswagen took a product that worked very well (the Beetle), and turned it over to Italians (Ghia) to design a sexy thing that will get you all kinds of attention from the opposite sex. They also threw in a generous helping of the Porsche design philosophy that good handling is more fun than good acceleration. By today's standards, they are old and finicky and constantly require a commitment from you. These cars are made with 1930's technology - a fact with which you had better come to grips before you hand over your money.


Having said that, I don't want to scare you off. These are very solid, reliable cars with an engine that performed just as well in Stalingrad as Tunisia. It's not like you're buying a Ferrari 250, and the relatively low cost of Ghia parts gives you almost instant equity in your car. The Karmann Ghia may very well be the cheapest way to enter and enjoy the classic collector car hobby.


What does "Type 141" mean?

Most German car companies, Volkswagen and Porsche in particular, assigned a model designation to each design. The current Porsche 911 is a model 996, and the Thing is a 181, and so on. They don't necessarily mean anything, except in internal company memos, and are most definitely not to be regarded as consecutive.

We are concerned with the four common types of Karmann Ghias. I have seen these model types reported incorrectly in reputable publications by respected authors, so don't believe everything you read or hear unless it comes from a Volkswagen source.

141 = Left-hand drive Cabriolet

142 = Right-hand drive Cabriolet

143 = Left-hand drive Coupe

144 = Right-hand drive Coupe


Is the Karmann Ghia really a  sports car?


The brochures will say otherwise, but no, it's really not. I like to call it a driver's car. You can certainly make it into a sports car, and pretty cheaply, too. All you need is some modest suspension and engine upgrades, but it will take a lot of money to really make it a giant killer.


Where to find a Karmann Ghia.

Dry dry dry. Buy a Karmann Ghia in the driest place you can. VW went on and on about the rust protection they built into their cars, but they never really expected poor high school kids to be looking after them forty years later. The rust resistant primers they used simply cannot stand up to several decades. Rust damage is the single biggest expense you will face with Ghia ownership. It makes more economic sense to buy a rust-free Ghia with a blown motor than it does to buy a perfectly running, but rusty car. I live in Vancouver, Canada, a place where the weather takes every opportunity to prove that classic cars are bio-degradable. I bought my first Ghia here, and I never will again. My second Ghia came from California, and the extra expense of the purchase price was more than justified by not having to spend thousands to repair rust. This doesn't mean you have to travel to the Southern States. Thanks to the internet, you can go anywhere virtually right from where you're sitting now. Use internet search engines to find newspaper classified ads in dry states. If the seller is willing to take photographs of his Ghia, you can probably complete the deal sight unseen. I'd rather spend $750 to have a car trucked up from Arizona than to pay $2000 for panels, welding and painting. You can also find a good selection of Karmann Ghias on auction sites such as ebay, but if you think for any reason that the seller is less than completely honest, no matter where you find the car, it's best not to get involved.


What to look for.

Any place where water can collect is subject to rust. Water will collect anywhere it can gain access to and not escape. Ultra violet light dries out your rubber seals. On the door, for instance, there's a seal at the bottom of the window sill known as the scraper rubber. This is supposed to squeegee your window dry every time you lower the glass, as well as to prevent water from rolling off your window into the interior of your door. After wind, rain and UV light take their course, this rubber strip dries out, flexes away from the window, and begins to break up. Dirt gets in the door, clogging the drain holes in the bottom, and pretty soon, your door can hold a liter or so of water. The dirt and water slosh around, wearing off the thin layer of paint in there, exposing the sheet metal on the inside of your outer door skin. Hello rust. At the same time this water is being absorbed by your particle-board door panels, which begin to swell and warp. This warpage means the window winder handle scrapes against the vinyl every time the window goes up and down, wearing through that. All the moisture inside the car fogs your windows, stains your headliner, and gets your carpets all mildewy. Meanwhile, the rust has eaten through your door, and is starting to show as paint bubbles on the outside.

This scraper rubber costs $11.95 to replace.

Imagine of the cost of a new door or repair panel (plus welding), paint, a carpet set, a headliner and a new door panel. And this is happening in both doors. You can replace your scraper rubber every two years and still save a ton of money.

The same is true of front trunk or horn boot seals versus replacing the panel underneath the spare tire. And water spraying off the tires will eventually wear away any undercoating in the wheel wells. This water will get into the heater channels under the door sill, and rust it away. Water and dirt that gets in your engine compartment will collect in the well behind the rear wheel, and that will rust away, too.

Good rubber is the key to saving a Karmann Ghia. I can't stress that enough.

If you by a dry state car, replace the rubber sooner rather than later. It very likely will be dried right out when you get the car.

If you're looking at a car from a wet climate, be suspicious of one that appears to be rust free. If the seller claims he recently bought it from a dry state, or restored it, ask for proof. He should have receipts for all the money he spent or a copy of the car's title from when he bought it from California. Never just rely on the seller's say so. It's not at all difficult to hide rust, even extensive damage. Bring a magnet to check for Bondo, and tap on the rocker panels to see if they sound "tinny" (good) or thick (bad). Look for rust bubbles anywhere below the trim line, below the bumpers, around the nose vents and headlights, the gas door, the bottoms of the front and rear glass and the lower rear quarter panels. Rust is almost always worse than it looks, and will always cost more than you think to repair. Collision damage will very often be poorly done and disguised by Bondo, even large smooth sections like the door or fender.


Take the car for a drive. Volkswagens have a very mechanical feel to them, unlike modern cars, but anything seriously wrong will be apparent. If the shifter has trouble going into any gear it's more likely (but not absolutely) in need of a shifter adjustment than a new transmission. Noises from the brakes and wheels mean problems, but generally nothing way too expensive. Try the fit of all the opening things, like the doors and trunk and engine lid. If the car has been poorly repaired from an accident, this will be evident in the fit of these things. Ask questions about electrical problems. The owner  should have an explanation, or be willing to admit he's never checked out burnt bulbs and inoperative wipers. The difficult thing about evaluating Karmann Ghias is any defects can be explained by lack of easy maintenance as much as a major failure. Even in poor mechanical condition, these things will keep going and going.


More Buying Tips Coming Soon...


What year should you buy?

That's a huge argument. The early have more classic styling for sure, but the later ones have more refinements and technical improvements (not to mention more powerful motors). A 1958 cabriolet is the rarest of all production Ghias, with the 1970 coupe being most plentiful. I personally don't go for the post 1971 models because of their huge federally mandated tail-lights and bumpers, but I couldn't drive a 1957 everyday either, with it's 1200cc motor. In my opinion, the 1969 offers the best of all options because it has the excellent double-jointed swing axles, the classic bumpers, and the stylish small tail-lights. But beauty is truly in the eye of the key-holder and I'm confident you'll be delighted with any year.

It's also important to know what you're looking at. I've known Ghia owner's who were sure they owned a 1966 until a check of the VIN showed it to be a 1968. The interchangeability of components from year to year means that almost any Ghia can use a great many years worth of Ghia parts, leading to a lot of confusion. The VIN is found by lifting the rear seat to find it stamped into the main tunnel. Never mind the number you can peek at through the windshield; that number goes with the dash, which can be replaced easily.


Model Year Production Range Chassis Start Chassis End Engine Numbers
1956 Jan.56 - Dec.56 929 746 1 394 118 1 120 615
1957 Jan.57 - Dec.57 1 394 119 1 600 439 1 678 209
1958 Jan.58 - Jul.58 1 600 440 1 774 680 1 937 450
1959 Aug.58 - Jul.59 1 774 681 2 528 667 2 156 322
1960 Aug.59 - Jul.60 2 528 668 3 192 506 3 072 320
1961 Aug.60 - Jul.61 3 192 507 4 010 994 3 912 904
1962 Aug.61 - Jul.62 4 010 995 4 846 835 3 924 023
1963 Aug.62 - Jul.63 4 846 836 5 677 118 3 942 915
1964 Aug.63 - Jul.64 5 677 119 6 502 399 3 959 304
1965 Aug.64 - Jul.65 145 000 001 145 999 000 3 972 441
1966 Aug.65 - Jul.66 146 000 001 146 1021 300 F 000 0001
1967 Aug.66 - Jul.67 147 000 001 147 999 000 H 0 204 001
1968 Aug.66 - Jul.68 148 000 001 148 1016 100 H 5 333 001
1969 Aug.68 - Jul.69 149 000 001 149 1200 000 H 5 414 586
1970 Aug.69 - Jul.70 140 2000 001 140 3100 000 B 6 000 001
1971 Aug.70 - Jul.71 141 2000 001 141 3200 000 AE 0 000 001
1972 Aug.71 - Jul.72 142 2000 001 142 3200 000 AE 0 558 001
1973 Aug.72 - Jul.73 143 2000 001 143 2212 117 AE 0 917 264
1974 Aug.73 - Jul.74 144 2000 001 144 2999 000 AK 0 239 365