The Last Speedster Ever Made Is...
Ya Gotta be Kiddin'...
A Karmann Ghia '?'
By Bob Brown
No car ever inspired such
fierce loyalty as the Porsche Speedster, and no speedster owner
ever looked on a Karmann Ghia but with utter disdain. Well,
look again, Marque Chauvinist Pigs, a Ghia just went by
No one who ever owned Speedster escaped coming down with a dose of Marque Chauvinism. To the Speedster freak, there is simply no other car... a Healy was no more than a rude assemblage of principles better left to agricultural applications... a Triumph was the same, but more emphatically so... an Alfa came closer, but all its sophistication had been lavished on the engine- and it was overly temperamental for that... a Corvette was patently a case of Detroit-inspired cubic inch overkill. Plus they all shared one Great Drawback- the engine was stuck up over the steering wheels, a long driveshaft away from the driving wheels. How rudimentary. How uninspired. How... quaint.
|'You have to admit the Speedster and the Ghia kind of look alike, and they feel alike, and they perform the same. But more importantly, they even handle the same - and handling was what the Speedster was really all about when it came down to the final analysis'|
For every other car made,
the Speedsterphile had only varying degrees of disdain. Every
car... even the Porsche 356 Coupe from which the Speedster had
sprung was not exempt- it was a "nice" car, but with its
watertight fastback roof and heavily padded seats, it was
relegated to the faint-praise category. It was condescendingly
"more of a touring car than a true sports car." A little too...
uh ... all-purpose if you know what I mean.
But while the Speedster owner merely disdained all other cars, there was one in particular that was held in blackest contempt. Not just because what it was-which was a standard Beetle trying to pass itself off as a sports car - but because of what too many people thought it was - which was a Speedster being sold by VW. The Karmann Ghia!
Foul poser. Pretender! Defiler!
It was very much an emotional hatred, because in general, the Speedster had an uncomfortable similarity to the VW.
After all, it was rear-engined, it had, that small light, quick steering feel. It had even been designed by Porsche himself. It certainly was no "Porsche," but it was undeniably closer than anything else on the road. And even if they didn't actually like the car, collectively the Speedster clan knew more about it than any comparable group of VW owners. They had to because of a fact that was kept well suppressed to all but insiders... there were a hell of a lot of VW parts that could be used as low-cost replacements for Speedster parts. Almost the day the first Speedster arrived, an underground telegraph sprang up to spread the word that, say, a VW transporter clutch would bolt right in at a third of the cost of a replacement clutch bearing the "Porsche" stamp. Or in a pinch, a $17.00 VW steering box could be used in place of the $80.00 real thing. Maybe that's why all Porsche owners of the time got slightly shifty-eyed when someone would innocently ask "A Porsche? That's the Volkswagen sports car, isn't it?"
"No! It isn't! The Karmann Ghia is a VW!" would be the foam-flecked denial-even if the denier had just spent an afternoon hanging over a VW service desk to read the parts manual upside down.
The worst part about this strain of Marque Chauvinism is that it is chronic. As with malaria: time and medication can lessen the severity of the attacks, but no one ever completely shakes it (See Steve Smith's accompanying biography if you doubt this fact). Even now, 13 years after the last Speedsters rolled off the line, former owners recall their Speedsters as the most enjoyable car they have ever owned... and still detest the Karmann Ghia.
All right, all you guys, we'll get it over with right away... the 1972 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia is the Speedster re-incarnate. It does nearly everything the original did just as well - and many things it does better. ,
And don't think that we came by that decision easily... several members of this staff are former Speedster junkies who have had to face up to the fact too. And the fact is: All of a sudden after all those years, the goddamn Karmann Ghia doesn't seem so bad. Look at it! After 17 years in production, the Ghia has become such a familiar sight that hardly anybody ever really looks at it anymore. But, when you do look you see that its once galling similarity of silhouette is as close as any 1972 car dares come to the simple sheetmetal drape that Porsche laid over its 356 chassis to create the discount-price Speedster (sold in 1956 for $2995). Even with the addition of Department of Transportation-mandated chunky tail lights and sidemarkers, the Ghia, like the Speedster, gives the impression that it is wearing a size-too-small body... that the sheetmetal had to be stretched to cover the skeleton underneath. The result is an appreciated air of bulbous functionality rather than the extremes of neo-Thirties automotive classicism or ersatz Group 7 sculpturing that predominates elsewhere today.
And better than just being visually reminiscent of the Speedster, the Ghia feels similar to sit in. And you do sit in it, which, as any Speedster owner will admit, was one of that car's greatest attractions. When you got into a Speedster you sank damn near out of sight. The car was low enough to begin with (most magazines of the time reported its overall height as 51 inches. Actual height was three inches less), but it felt even lower because of the very high door sills that meant you stepped over and down into the car. And once the door shut behind you, you found yourself eye level with a seven-inch high windshield and your shoulder just about level with the scantily cushioned top of the door. There was never any doubt that you were in the car - it was almost impossible to avoid the feeling that you were in command of a very mobile pillbox from which you could view the world perfectly over the twin bulges of the front fenders, while still remaining almost invisible yourself. The feeling of isolation naturally became even more pronounced with the top in place, and may have more than a little to do with the Speedster. (There are all kinds of stories of what went on inside top-up Speedsters parked on busy streets that have absolutely nothing to do with any of their intrinsic qualities as cars.)
The Ghia creates very much the same environment, even though it comes equipped with a full-size windshield. You twist sideways through the narrow door openings and drop into the seat, and suddenly it's 1956 all over again. There's that same giant steering wheel an arm's length away and a vista of sheet metal rolling away from you in all directions. Even the wand-like shift lever is there with its long third-gear throw maybe three-quarters of an inch too far way. So too are the tightly grouped foot controls that allow you to accomplish the heel-and-toe maneuvers required of all sports car drivers. And from behind you comes the only slightly subdued sound of a small air-cooled motor, thrashing and-whirring-occasionally throwing in a syncopated clacking. It's all so familiar... but something just isn't right. It's the seat It's one of those VW straight-back chairs, mounted on hijacker seat rails that's throwing everything off. But even without going to new seats, it's possible to drop the OEM seats almost an inch and give the seat back some additional rake with a drill, hacksaw and some wooden blocks. Then try to say it's different.
About all you can point to is the dashboard, and there we'll have to agree. VW doesn't even supply a speedometer marked off with shift points anymore, not to mention a tach. How the hell could any Speedster owner drive a car so remiss in supplying basic information? What happens when the clutch cable breaks (which it did about every 850 miles on every Speedster ever built)? With a tech all that would mean is the inconvenience of a push start until you got around to threading a new cable...but to be asked to risk a gearbox solely on the sensitivity of your ear is too much even for a Speedster driver. On the real thing the only gauge you could see without shifting hands was the tach-and for that you barely had to shift your eyes. Searching through the local Pep Boys for a tach is going to be required, if a Ghia is to be seriously considered as an ersatz speedster, only if the Ghia does more than feel like a Speedster. It has to do more than that - a lot more. It has to perform the same, certainly, but most importantly, it has to handle - that was what a Speedster really was all about.
When it came time for the head-to-head confrontation at New York Speedway, the staff of Car and Driver had laid enough personal bets to have been able to open one of New York's Off Track Betting offices right on the sixth floor of One Park Avenue... and almost every one of them on a purely emotional basis as to what every bettor wanted to happen. We've tested VWs, we've tested, driven and owned Porsches, but we must have contracted a collective case of Speedster Marque Chauvinism because we've never tested a Karmann Ghia. (in fact, it was hard to find a staff member who would admit to having driven one in the past 18 months.) And the outrage of the premise we were testing out was seemingly verified just in acquiring proper test cars. We had expected trouble in finding a 1600 Normal Speedster that would be representative of the over-the-counter version sold in 1956-58, but we finally located Don Yuhas, about 22 miles from our office. His car, aside from a rollbar and an Abarth exhaust (both of which he felt necessary for his occasional participation in autocrosses) was strictly as sold in 1956, for $2995. For its rival, we selected a Karmann Ghia Convertible (what else?) with no options, which currently has a suggested list price of $3099-certainly a reasonable cost-of living increase over more than a decade should it match up.
It does. Despite its rated 10 horsepower deficit to the Speedster, smog gear and 130 extra pounds, the '72 Ghia didn't let down its backers by much in the acceleration tests (where the Speedster group was expecting a TKO). It proved to be just over a second and 4 mph slower than the Speedster at the end of the quarter-mile. (To prove that we weren't using a Speedster with a wet fuse, Yuhas' car ran 18.6 sec., which compares more than favorably with contemporary road tests of the car in 1956, which claimed 18.8 for a 1600N and 19.2 for one, equipped with a 1500cc engine.) We would be less than candid however, if we didn't state that the Porsche certainly felt and sounded better. Part of the difference undoubtedly came from the VW's puny one-barrel, carburetor and exhaust system that requires spent gases to travel through a Victorian maze before exiting the car through two chromed pipe stems, but at least as much of the lack of performance feel is the fault of the transmission. The Porsche smoothly climbs its way through its four gear ranges with no drastic drop-offs. In undeniable contrast, the Ghia rears up on the line. (there is virtually no anti-squat in the suspension) and sails up to top rpm in first and second nearly as quickly as you can shift. But there is a tremendous gap between second and third (see data panel) that ruins it all, It's like you've driven into an invisible wall of elastic Saran-Wrap and the Ghia has to struggle forward. Unfortunately, it never bursts through that boundary, as fourth-as in the Speedster an overdrive range-is more of the same. The answer to this problem is getting better over-3000 rpm performance from the VW engine-not just for extra performance but to increase drivability. The solution isn't free, but it's readily available from one of the multitude of manufacturers specializing in VW speed equipment-like carburetor/manifold kits and extractor exhaust systems and-Speedster fans will particularly love this-different transmission ratios.
In the all-important handling test the Ghia devastated the Speedster. It was able, even on its standard-issue tires, to duplicate the Speedster exactly. VW's double-jointed rear axles and semi-trailing arm suspension (adopted in 1968) are what make the difference. It works better than the Speedster's rear suspension. On the skidpad both cars generated identical 0.73 G lateral acceleration- with the Ghia exhibiting less understeer than the Speedster below that maximum, and neither prone to making the transition to oversteer without giving forewarning. (Tire technology has certainly improved the Speedster in this aspect.) But the VW uses a slower steering ratio along with more conservative spring rates and, consequently, has an unwanted softer feel with more body roll than the Porsche. Where this was particularly noticeable was on the handling loop rather than the skidpad. Here the Ghia's softness would allow the inside power-transmitting wheel to go light on acute turns; and its skinny tires were simply not enough to permit power to be fed back in smoothly. That was probably the essence of the difference-the degree of smoothness with which the cars could be driven hard. In terms of absolute handling performance, the cars were very nearly equal - even to the extent of sounding alike as both- produce the same reassuring whonks and thumps as the suspension works to keep the wheels on the pavement-but the Speedster does it without straining while the VW seems a bit unfamiliar to its role as a sports car
However, under braking, just the opposite is true. It is the Ghia, which stops as if it were second nature, while the Porsche is uncertain and in this case the Ghia not only-feels better, the test results show that it was significantly more capable. The VW would consistently generate perfectly controllable 0.86 G stops from 70 mph while the best the Speedster could do was 0.73 G. Moreover, as the Porsche's all-drum brakes heated up on repeated stops, it became increasingly difficult to prevent lock-up and subsequent surrender of directional stability.
The damn Karmann Ghia. Once again it's a thorn under the saddle of every Speedster fan. And this time 'round it may even be worse. Right now the Ghia sells for just over $100 more than a new Speedster did. But there aren't any more new Speedsters. The Karmann Ghia is the closest thing to the genuine article that you can find - only if you lust after what the Speedster represented, rather than what it did, will you be uneasy. Not only that, but there are enough aftermarket parts available (including quick- kits and stiffer shocks) to make the Ghia's performance and feel identical with a good Speedster's and they're cheap enough to do it for well under the price of restoring a decade old car that has probably been raced (and certainly has rusted out around the fender liners and bellypan). Even if the Karmann Ghia isn't sold in silver gray, or ivory' white or that instant-oxidizing blue or red that the Speedsters wore for identification, and even if it means you'll have to live with roll-up windows and a watertight padded top that doesn't drum on your skull when it's in place, it isn't that much of sacrifice. You just have to accept the fact that the last Speedster built is a Karmann Ghia.