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Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia (1955-1974)

German cruiser combined cutting-edge styling with tried-and-tested mechanicals – but rot is the buyer’s biggest enemy

VW Karmann-Ghia buyer's guide

VW Karmann-Ghia buyer's guide

 
It doesn’t matter that the VW Karmann Ghia is slow and has indifferent handling: for those million-dollar looks you’d just forgive it anything.
INTRODUCTION

It doesn’t matter that the VW Karmann Ghia is slow and has indifferent handling: for those million-dollar looks you’d just forgive it anything. This rebodied Beetle – or, to give it its official title, the Type 14 – was first seen in coupé form in 1955, with just 30 rear-mounted horses from an 1192cc Beetle flat-four. The car was expensive and the convertible that followed in 1957 was pricier still – but hey, what price style?

In 1961 an alternative Karmann Ghia arrived, called the Type 34 or ‘Razor Edge’. The new model was based on the recently-introduced Type 3 which marked the company’s move away from the long-running Beetle, but unlike the earlier car the fresh offering didn’t prove very popular. In seven years of production just 42,500 Ghias found buyers – although it wasn’t sold in the US, which didn’t help. Whereas the Type 14 was all curves, the Type 34 was very angular and relatively ungainly; nowadays they rarely come up for sale and only a small number in the UK are in roadworthy condition.

In 1974 the Karmann Ghia handed over the baton to the Golf-based Scirocco. This may have been a rather more modern machine, but it never matched the style of its predecessor. In total, 364,401 Karmann Ghia coupés were made and 80,899 convertibles. But most of them have since rotted away, and it’s now getting very hard to find a decent example.

ENGINE
The engines used in the Karmann Ghia would all be familiar to any Beetle fan. The 1285cc boxer four entered the fray in 1964 and four years later the 1493cc powerplant arrived. The final incarnation of the car used the 1584cc motor with a heady 55bhp, but it could still manage only 86mph.

Sharing engines with the Beetle means good news and bad – indifferent performance is tempered with plentiful parts availability, as well as the chance to embark on some easy tuning. The motors are straightforward and don’t need masses of attention to keep them running happily. Many VW enthusiasts will tell you that this reliability is the cause of the unit’s reputation for noisiness, since they’re so very often neglected and left unserviced for high mileages. Changing the oil and checking the valve clearances every 3000 miles is worthwhile. If looked after properly, a Karmann Ghia’s engine will last 100,000 miles quite happily.

Check the level and condition of the oil – don’t be surprised if there are minor leaks from the rocker covers or pushrod tubes, which are visible on the underside of the engine when you look beneath the rear of the car. But if there’s oil leaking from the rear crankshaft seal it could be because it has failed due to crankshaft end float. Once this happens the only answer is to rebuild or replace the engine, but the parts are available from any Beetle specialist and you can pick up a complete replacement unit for just a few hundred pounds.

Exhaust systems are generally long-lived, but rotten heat exchangers will lead to fumes getting into the cabin via the heater. Also, if any of the cooling fins that stop the engine from cooking itself are missing, it could be bad news. Top-end problems are rare with normal use, but can include valves dropping (usually number three), while the twin-port cylinder head of the 1600 engine can suffer from cracking. Both will lead to uneven idling and misfiring, and the former will also manifest itself in clattery valvegear.

If the engine runs badly it could be because there’s a blockage in the fuel system. Sediment has a habit of building up in the tank, which then blocks the outlet. Things are worse on pre-1961 cars which, instead of a fuel gauge, were fitted with a reserve petrol tank and tap. These incorporated a filter and small pipe – but over the years many will have become blocked up and even rusted away, causing petrol leakage and erratic ‘dirt in the fuel line’ problems.

TRANSMISSION
First gear had no synchromesh until 1961, but the later gearbox was even more reliable than the earlier unit and it was also more refined. The transmission and differential share a common casing and both of them are pretty tough. The first sign of trouble is the transmission jumping out of first gear, although
oil leaks are also pretty common.

If the box runs dry, things will get pretty noisy and it’ll start jumping out of gear. Fitting a decent used unit is normally more cost-effective than having your duff one rebuilt – you should be able to get something for around £50.

On pre-1968 cars the gearbox oil also has to lubricate the wheel bearings so it’s especially important that the level isn’t allowed to drop too far. Post-1968 cars featured semi-trailing arm rear suspension, and you need to check the driveshaft CV joints for split boots.

SUSPENSION, STEERING AND BRAKES

Until 1965 the front suspension used kingpins, on which the hubs swivelled. These can wear, so check for play in the system; later cars were fitted with balljoints instead, which are less prone to wear and both easier and cheaper to fix. Dropping the suspension is popular, to make the car look sportier as well as to improve its handling. But this is not to everyone’s taste, and if you want to return the set-up to standard it may mean a new beam at the front because the original one will have been cut down – unless you’re lucky enough to acquire a car with an adjustable beam.

At the back it’s just a case of turning the torsion bars on their splines – but this isn’t a job for the faint-hearted as you have to de-tension the spring bar itself and a great deal of care is needed since the torsion bars have a ‘vernier’ arrangement and no reference marks. It has been known for the suspension to be reassembled with one spline different from side to side, with a correspondingly unequal ride height. The bushes that support the front axle beam wear out eventually, and although it’s a bit fiddly to replace them, it’s not too pricey or tricky to do it yourself.

Check the steering for play, as there’s a good chance that the steering box will have some wear, as might any of the various linkages that make up the system. New, used or reconditioned boxes are all available – expect to pay upwards of £75 for something decent. All the balljoints and linkage arms are also available at low prices and they’re easy to swap – so there’s no excuse for having a Karmann Ghia
that drives like a bag of bolts.

Pre-1967 cars were fitted with drum brakes at the front, then discs arrived. Either system is up to the job, but they don’t take hard use – and if a caliper has seized, which happens, they’ll be decidedly below par. Converting from drum to disc is easy enough, and it’s also affordable as the whole thing costs under £200.

All models left the factory with pressed-steel wheels as standard. Five-stud fixings were used until the introduction of disc brakes, when they were superseded by four-stud hubs. The standard tyre size is 165x15, which isn’t a common size any more, although you can still buy new rubber at reasonable prices. Many cars had the optional chrome trims fitted, and these are still a popular aftermarket accessory.

CONCLUSION
Although the Karmann Ghia is less practical and harder to restore than the equivalent Beetle, and tracking down parts that are unique to it is more difficult, people will happily pay a hefty premium over its stablemate. But those Bug mechanicals make it a practical proposition for the daily driver.

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1 Comment

The secretaries' Porsche

I love this car, although in Germany was known as "the secretaries'Porsche". It is more than a Beetle, it is almost a Porsche 356, al least, looks like one!

By mamina on 17 November, 2009, 2:06pm

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Specialists
» Big Boys Toys, Essex. +44 (0)845 2300101, www.bigboyztoys.co.uk
» Cool Air, Kent. +44 (0)1322 335 050, www.coolairvw.co.uk
» JAVA – John Abbott VW Accessories, Birmingham. +44 (0)121 558 9135, www.vwjava.com
» German, Swedish & French. +44 (0)870 60 60 153, www.gsfcarparts.com
» Karmann Ghia Centre, Herts. +44 (0)1442 236 333, www.kgcentre.co.uk
» Status VW, Lancs. +44 (0)1524 272 915, www.status-vw.co.uk
» VW Heritage, West Sussex. +44 (0)1273 495 800, www.vwheritage.com

Clubs
» Karmann Ghia Owners’ Club, www.kgoc-gb.org

Books
» Karmann Ghia by Malcolm Bobbitt. Veloce, ISBN 1-903706-05-X
» Essential Karmann Ghia by Laurence Meredith. MBI, ISBN 1-870-979-524

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