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June 1967 Motor Trend

Empi's step-at-a-time 105-hp Karmann-Ghia
Poor Man's Porsche

by Robert Schilling

Coming off the line at Irwindale (right) the EMPI burned no rubber despite 105-hp engine due to suspension goodies and big rubber which give it too much bite. The hot Ghia was still much faster than standard, turned the quarter in the 17-second bracket. The Ghia looks very innocent (far right) with only the wheels and EMPI “bug” to Create suspicion that all is not what it seems to be.

67 ghia

The time was (not so long ago, really) when life held certain immutable truths; things in which a person could place his trust and faith. A Yankee victory in the World Series; Republicans always winning in Maine and Democrats always winning in the Solid South; Mae West’s bosom; Volkswagens being reliable, but slow and ugly.
    So the Yankees turned into a second division club, Re publicans and Democrats win (or lose) elections in unaccustomed climes, while time, silicon, and a new generation of uninhibited starlets have turned Miss West into a memory. So all we had left to believe in was the ugliness and sluggishness of the VW Messrs. Karmann and Ghia did in the former some years ago, and now EMPI (for Engineered Motor Products, Inc.) have put the kibosh on the latter.
    With all these homilies being laid waste before our eyes, all we had left to hold on to was the laminated wooden steering wheel in the “Named by VW, Built by EMPI” Karmann Ghia coupe that the Riverside, Calif., accessory and speed equipment firm placed at our disposal. It felt good. Then we fired up the 1677cc engine, spurred the 105 horses, listened to the sound in the bundle-of-snakes exhaust, and promptly lost interest in the Yankees, elections and Mae West. By the time we were out of the parking lot, we knew that this was going to be fun.
    Our biggest objection to hopping up most small engines is that torque, economy and reliability all go out the window in the ruthless search for power. EMPI’S chief mechanic, Dean Lowrey, was aware of this and very shrewdly prepared an engine that not only preserves these virtues, but improves them while more than doubling the 50 prancing Prussian ponies in the stock 1300cc engine (this was a 1966 car; the ‘67s are 1500cc, 53 hp). The extra cc’s aid both low-range torque and horsepower. This is accomplished by using EMPI’S own 88mm cylinder barrels and forged aluminum pistons. The camshaft, while more radical than stock, is the tamest of three offered by EMPI. Known as the ECSV-440 Sport Cam, it is meant to be a street grind. It produces very little power
below 2000 rpm, but from there on it really snaps the needle to the 5500 rpm red line.

The EMPI-Speedwell Sprint Kit with two Stromberg 1½-inch variable-venturi carbs on special 2-piece manifolds and the EMPI Extractor exhaust system do a lot for inhaling and exhaling all through the range.
    To be altogether fair, we got a 1967 standard 1500cc Ghia to drive and put it through the same paces as the EMPI.  We knew it wouldn’t be as peppy, but we got several other surprises as well. Compared to the old 1192 VWs, neither the new VW beetle (tested in the March ‘67 MT) nor the Ghia are slugs. In fact they both went and handled impressively. The MEPI version was not a better car; it was a wholly different car. How different? Well, diet cola versus sour mash seems a suitable comparison. We like soft drinks, but bourbon has the kick.
    Power was less than half the story. Handling was another chapter, and EMPI’s concern with little things that annoy even dedicated VW owners is the rest of the book.
    Lowrey had mentioned when we took the car that it had their camber compensator on the rear end and a sway bar on the front, along with heavy-duty shocks. We had already noted the Speedwell-URM wide-rim mag (no, not aluminum “mag,” real 90% magnesium alloy) wheels and Pirelli Cinturato tires (165 x 15 fronts, 185 x 15 rears) and knew they would help a lot too. How much all this helped we only discovered when we drove through the mountains just after the snow had melted.

    Does this package make the car handle? Did Errol Flynn like girls? The slight oversteer which we found present but not excessive or objectionable in the standard 1500 Ghia and hectic all but disappeared in the EMPL It would appear only if we hit a wet or sandy spot with the power on in a turn, but otherwise it was all gone. We were even able to induce a slight understeer by entering the turn well below optimum and then applying bags of power right at the entry to the bend and keeping it on all the way through. This technique also gave us optimum control at speed when entering strange turns, giving us some clue about what the bend looked like before we got in over our head.

67 ghia

Ghia goodies galore! BRM-Speedwell wheels, made special for EMPI in England, are rear snags, carry oversize Pirelli Cinturato tires. Top is a very realistic spray-on imitation vinyl. Adhesive strips simulate seam found in the real thing. Wood rim steering wheel; Slick-Shift, adhesive “wood” dash trim and additional instruments are EMPI’s cockpit additions. The sting in the tail is provided by special oversized barrels to increase displacement to1677cc, dual Stromberg induction kit, full full-flow oil filter, special all cooler, special cam. Note hefty throttle linkage

67 ghia

    Although that big rubber contributed mightily to the good handling of the EMPI-Ghia, it was a mixed blessing, as we discovered during the acceleration tests. The Pirellis had just a bit too much bite, bogging us down coming off the line. Just a wee bit of wheelspin would have permitted better times. Nonetheless, our test car got through the quarter 2.6 seconds faster than the stock version (17.9 versus 20.5) and its terminal velocity, 78 mph, was a 16 mph improvement over the tame one.
    All this performance improvement should have had the needle on the gas gauge moving faster than Dillinger leaving a bank. Surprise! The EMPI not only wasn’t a gas gobbler, but actually got better mileage than the stocker. Even in the mountains where we kept it wound up tight in 3rd most of the time and rarely used 4th seeking optimum performance, it got fully 1 mpg better than the showroom job which was driven more moderately. This economy edge was slightly improved on the expressway cruising at 65-70 mph. Part of this is due to the effect of longer gearing provided by the bigger rear tires, part by the more efficient engine.
    EMPI has also paid attention to some of the other less obvious shortcomings of the VW and incorporated many of their corrective goodies in this car. For example, we’ve always been bugged by the long throws in the shift linkage which make us lean forward to get 3rd gear. EMPI cured this with their E-Z Shift conversion. Going from 1st to 2nd we thought it was hung up in neutral, before realizing that it was actually all the way home in 2nd. Lever movement is reduced 40% and it shifts quicker than a pit boss’s eves.
    A true 100-mph-plus VW needs more than stock binders, so EMPI did something about that too. Their power brake kit with special linings is almost too effective: we found it just a bit sudden. It has a kind of “all-on all-off” sensation which made us rather careful about doing anything in a hurry that might make the car twitchy. In a straight line they stopped


things toute suite, though. Bad weather and a crowded schedule at the Irwindale Drag Strip, where we did the performance testing, foiled our plans to check actual stopping distance, but we’re sure it would be better than standard, which is saying a lot.
    A tach, oil temperature gauge and oil pressure gauge augment the usual instrumentation. The latter was quite handy as we discovered that oil pressure tended to come up quite slowly when the engine is fired up although the idiot light goes out instantly. The gauge probably saved the very unique engine one morning when we saw the pressure start up, then suddenly sag. We shut if off before the light came on and discovered that a fitting on the full-flow oil filter had broken and had dumped enough oil on our driveway to have groomed Rudoph Valentino’s hair for 30 years.
    All good things cost money, but this Super-Ghia is surprisingly moderate. The engine kit, for example, is about $600, not bad for a 100% increase. Virtually everything on the car could be duplicated for something in the neighborhood of $1500. This would make it a better performer than a Porsche 912 at less than the Porsche price. Another inducement is that this expenditure can be made in easy stages rather than in a lump sum. Also not to be overlooked is that Karmann-Ghias do not attract the gendarmerie’s eyes as readily as Porsches do.
    The EMPI-Ghia’s most impressive feature, to us, was the restraint used in setting it up. Lowrey can get even more out of a VW engine, as his dragsters attest, but this car had none of the intractability of many high-performance cars. It is clearly a street machine, and we can vouch for its traffic manners. So can its lucky owner, the EMPI Office Manager. She drives it to work, the grocery store, the laundromat, etc., every day, except the days she let MOTOR TREND use it.
    Of course, if you really want your Ghia to git, Lowrey is preparing a stroker kit to open it up to about 1900cc, plus other goodies that will raise the output to about 135 hp. Then he’s going to surprise hell out of a Porsche 911. /MT

67 ghia
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