Karmann GMBH, of Osnabruck, West Germany, is much more than the Volkswagen
"Special Vehicles Division". It is an independent company with
a proud history of its own stretching back nearly 120 years. Today, as
in the past, they are makers of fine automobile bodies for a number of
European manufacturers, and of tools, dies, and parts for many others.
In 1901 Wilhelm Karmann purchased Klases, a coach-building firm established
in 1874, and immediately renamed it, after himself. Car body building began
the next year, and soon production was converted entirely to motor bodies.
By the outbreak of World War 1, Karmann were making bodies for Opel, Minerva,
and FN. A great proportion of these were convertibles. Such cars are never
in large demand in times of war, and so further growth was naturally slow
until the post-war German economy stabilised in 1921. In this year, a large
order was received from the AGA motor company, which required an expansion
of the plant. Throughout the twenties the firm became more successful as
each year passed, as other car manufacturers engaged Karmann to build bodies
Wilhelm Karmann, like many other German industrialists of the time,
travelled to the United States to inspect and learn the latest methods
of production. Until this time, Karmann bodies were built in the old fashioned
way by covering a wooden framework with sheet metal.
The Great Depression of 1929 sent most of Karmann's customers to the
wall, but the company was saved by a business relationship with the Adler
motor company. Adler convertibles of this period were renowned for their
beautifully made leak-proof roofs. In 1931, Karmann began to build Model
A convertibles for Ford.
By World War 2 the plant employed over 600 people. Little is known about
what the factory produced during the war, but as it was almost totally
destroyed by Allied bombing, one can only assume it was armaments or other
material of strategic importance. The newly completed KDF plant at Wolfsburg
made everything from stoves to aircraft sections to V1 flying bombs, so
things were probably little different at Osnabruck.
After the war, events were again similar to those at Wolfsburg. The
British occupied what was left of the plant for use as a repair unit. Rebuilding
was slow, as demand for special bodied motor vehicles was again non-existent.
Tools, dies and body sections for more utilitarian vehicles became the
company forte until Volkswagen entered the story in 1948. This work still
represents two thirds of the company's turnover, with tooling having been
supplied at one time or another to many European manufacturers including
VW, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Ford (Europe and US), BMW, Saab, and British
In 1948 the Hebmüller and Karmann companies were each engaged by Volkswagen
to construct open top cars based on the Beetle, Hebmüller a two seat and
Karmann a four seat version. Volkswagen approved both prototypes and ordered
2000 Hebmüllers and 1000 Karmann cabriolets. From these figures, the Hebmüller
was expected to be the bigger seller but, as is well known, a fire destroyed
the Hebmüller factory only a month after production began in 1949. Only
about 700 were ever completed, with the factory struggling to rebuild on
the pay-out from its inadequate insurance. At least a dozen Hebmüllers
were known to have been completed by Karmann after Hebmüller finally succumbed
to bankruptcy in 1952!
The Karmann design fared much better. Production began in September
1949 on the brand new "Export" Beetle chassis. The first order
was filled by April 1950, and VW ordered more. 10,000 were produced by
August, 1950 and the car's place in an expanding VW range was now secure.
1949 cabrios are actually considered to be rarer than Hebmüllers!
The Karmann Beetle cabriolet used the chassis, nose section, fenders,
and front and rear lids supplied by Wolfsburg from the Beetle parts bin,
with the rest of the body being either fabricated by Karmann or modified
by them from standard Beetle panels. The reinforcement rails required due
to the lack of a turret section were incorporated into the body below the
heater channels. They were not part of the chassis. The cars were largely
hand made and it has been said that no two were ever entirely the same,
in that the body was built in two halves, a front and a rear, each being
manoeuvred on the floor pan to achieve the best door gap before final welding
As the Beetle evolved, so did the cabriolet. It was considerably dearer
than the sedan and was always a "de-luxe" model with the most
powerful engine in the range. About 330,000 were made before the model
was discontinued on the 10th January 1980, the last of the Beetle models
to be produced in Germany. The production figure makes the Karmann Cabriolet
the biggest selling convertible car ever, echoing the success of its world
champion cousin from Wolfsburg.
Wilhelm Karmann died in 1952 at the age of 88 and was succeeded by his
son, Wilhelm jnr. The younger Karmann, a highly qualified engineer, was
good friends with an Italian by the name of Luigi Segre, who was owner
and chief stylist of Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin. Volkswagen had earlier
asked Karmann to design a sports car on the Beetle chassis, but had rejected
all of the prototypes put to them. Wilhelm had casually mentioned this
to Segre, who had some ideas of his own! Without the knowledge of either
Karmann or Volkswagen, Segre procured a standard Beetle, removed its body
and built on it a design study. It was shown to a surprised Wilhelm Karmann
Karmann arranged for Dr. Nordhoff and his vice-president Dr. Feuereisen
to inspect the car. Both were highly impressed, and production prototypes
were soon ordered and built. The chassis had to be widened at the front
on the four or five test cars and this feature carried over into the production
version.The car was launched in mid 1955 and was an instant world sensation!
The Karmann Ghia was born.
The Karmann Ghia, while certainly not the first small two door coupe,
popularised the body style. Soon there were the inevitable imitators. One
has only to look at such cars as the Renault Floride/Caravelle coupe and
convertible of the late 50's and early 60's to see evidence of this. This
car was based on another rear engined swing axle design, which evolved
from the original 4cv 750 Renault, a prototype of which Dr. Porsche was
said to at least have "advised" on when he was a prisoner of
the French after the war.
During the initial period of Karmann Ghia production, Karmann GMBH surprisingly
had no presses large enough to bend the sections for the Ghia body. The
assembly was therefore hand welded from many smaller pieces. Anyone who
has undertaken a bare metal restoration even on a later Ghia will tell
you that there are some welds in some very unlikely places!
The lower frontal area of the coupe enabled the heavier car to reach
a higher top speed more economically than a 36hp Beetle, but the acceleration
was even slower! A Wolfsburg in sheep's clothing? The convertible version
which followed in 1956 was an in house modification of the coupe design.
These earlier coupes and convertibles are very beautiful cars, and very,
The Karmann Ghia range was face-lifted in 1958. The "nostrils"
were re-shaped and the tail lights enlarged. The headlights were also raised
slightly, and right hand drive models were introduced. From now on, the
range was slightly more "mass produced".
The Ghia received chassis and engine improvements in line with the Beetle
until it was discontinued in 1975, looking little different to the 1958
version. Its place on the production floor at Osnabruck was taken by the
Scirroco, after about 283,000 coupes and 81,000 cabriolets were built.
A Karmann Ghia version of the Type 3 was built from 1961. The styling
is loved by some but hated by others. Let's just say that it does not have
the universal appeal of the Type 1 cars. They were, however, fine motor
cars, with very respectable performance for a car of its time. The model
evolved alongside the other Type 3 models until 1969, when it achieved
the dubious honour of becoming the first model ever dropped from the VW
range! Only 42,000 were ever made. The Porsche/VW 914 took the place of
the Type 3 Ghia on the line at Karmann.
In 1960, Karmann established a branch factory in Brasil, at Sao Bernardo
do Campo. At first assembling the Type 1 Ghia coupe from CKD kits sent
from Germany, this plant later produced models of their own design. These
were known as the TC Karmann Ghia.
Throughout the 60's and 70's, Karmann put many proposals to VW for a
Ghia replacement, but none saw the light of day. Some of these designs
were extremely good looking cars, such as the Ital-designed Cheetah of
The Ghia company had become part of the Ford empire by the late '70s.
The Golf and Scirroco were styled by Ital Design, but the Golf convertible
was an in house modification of the sedan, in much the same way as the
There is little doubt that the Golf Cabrio will become a classic; every
other VW with that little black badge on the side has. Although their products
are rare in this country, Karmann built Volkswagens represent one of the
few things life has to offer that is at once a great investment and loads
by Michael Rochfort