Karmann Ghia was a knock off

It is hard to believe the stylish VW Karmann Ghia was released in 1955.

The svelte coupe was a sensation back then and it remains so today. 

The smoothly styled, low slung lines have a timeless quality.

The car looks very much like a river stone that has been polished smooth by the flow of water.

What is not so well known about the Karmann Ghia is that its design was based on the 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance dream car.

The automotive legend is that Virgil Exner, Chrysler’s design boss, asked Italian car design company Ghia to style and build a fully operational dream car.

A quarter scale clay model was crafted in Detroit and shipped to Ghia who turned it into a full size car on a shortened Chrysler New Yorker chassis.

Wherever the car was shown it attracted strong attention, so Chrysler ordered Ghia to build 40 of them.

Trouble was, that for a whole lot of financial and logistical reasons — only the first one was ever built.

Meanwhile, VW decided it needed a little image boost and asked Ghia to design —wait for it — a two-door coupe using the humble VW Beetle platform.

And so the folks at Ghia had an idea: “let’s use the Chrysler design!”

With Exner’s quiet blessing the outcome was essentially a scaled down D’Elegance.

The stylists at Ghia gave it two “nostril” grilles for visual effect, the VW bosses said “make it so”, and production started in the Karmann factory in Germany in 1955.

Virgil Exner was gifted the first Karmann Ghia imported into the USA by VW, so draw your own conclusions.

Sales in the USA were double initial expectations.

It was priced keenly and advertised as a VW with style.  

Over 450,000 Karmann Ghia coupes and convertibles were sold worldwide during its 19-year production run, including in Australia. They are now highly collectible.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos


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