The Type 34 Karmann Ghia Story

Wilhelm Karmann factory, 1965

The Type 34 Karmann Ghia is referred to by many terms. Often referred to as the "other" Karmann Ghia, it has various nicknames -- the British call it the "Razor Edge", in Germany it is known as "der Grosse Ghia" (the "big" Ghia), and in America it is sometimes referred to as the "Type 3 Ghia" -- but whatever you choose to call it, the Type 34 is a rare and unique model.

While its styling is not to everyone's taste, the Italian-designed coupe, penned just as the stylistic excesses of the 1950s were coming to an end, was arguably ahead of its time. Based on the mechanicals of the VW 1500 (more commonly known as the Type 3), the Type 34 Karmann Ghia employed the same successful combination of standard mechanicals and high-style coachwork as its forerunner, the Type 14 Karmann Ghia.

From a production total of 42,505 cars produced, there are thought to be less than 2,500 Type 34s left. Due to the low production figures, avant garde styling and difficulty in restoration, relatively few survive today. Generally considered a commercial failure, and once shunned by enthusiasts as the "ugly" Ghia, Volkswagen's most exclusive coupe has only started to see a rise in popularity over the past five to ten years.

While the Type 34 Karmann Ghia story is often told with respect to its relationship to the Type 3 model range, this does not really present the correct view of the automotive arena at the time. The Type 34 was aimed at a completely different consumer group than the Type 3 it was based on, and to truly understand the Type 34 story, it has to be read in the correct context.

The initial, and more commonly known Karmann Ghia model, the "Type 14", was commissioned and designed when Volkswagen decided to add a "flagship" car to its range. Designed by Luigi Segre and influenced to some extent by Chrysler's Virgil Exner, the hand-built coupe debuted at the 1953 Paris auto show and was well received. In its first year of production it surpassed all expectations with over 10,000 units sold. Based on Type 1 (Beetle) mechanicals, and marketed as a practical and stylish 2+2 rather than as a true sports car, the Type 14 Karmann Ghia was widely admired and is to this day heralded as one of the world's most beautiful automobile designs. Affectionately known as 'the secretary's Porsche' in Germany, the Type 14 won a place in the hearts of nearly all who saw it.

Its success is based in part to the rise in postwar consumerism. Economic stability, low inflation and high employment rates made the 1950s and 1960s an affluent era. It changed the automobile from being a toy for the rich into the defacto standard for personal transportation. The Karmann Ghia's stylish appeal also helped make it a desirable fashion accessory, and forged its transformation into a household icon.

The planned introduction of the VW 1500 in 1961, with its improved handling and increased power, also provided an opportunity to update to the hugely successful Karmann Ghia. Maintaining the construction technique of utilizing a combined chassis and floorpan borrowed from other production models, the VW 1500 platform provided the perfect basis for a new Karmann Ghia model.

The 1500's new "pancake" engine design satisfied the additional luggage space requirement. Stylists squared off the body, allowing for more interior space and comfort. A number of features were added to the list of standard equipment that were previously non-existent or optional extras on the Beetle and its low-priced competitors. The models that VW proposed for this new VW 1500 series were the basic Sedan (Notchback), station wagon (Variant or Squareback), and a sports coupe (Karmann Ghia). The plan for the 1500 series also included convertibles based on both the sedan and the Karmann Ghia.

Carrozzeria Ghia began working on the initial sketches for the VW 1500 Karmann Ghia in late 1958. Sergio Sartorelli, chief Ghia designer who was also responsible for the Type 14 Ghia's styling update in 1959, had three sketches ready only days after the contract was awarded. One design was chosen for continued work, and Ghia took it from there. Sartorelli had a completed drivable prototype ready by the end of 1959. VW agreed to produce the prototype Karmann Ghia, with only a few changes. By the September 1961 Frankfurt Auto Show, at which the entire VW 1500 range made its public debut, the final production model was featured at Karmann's display. The show featured the prototype Cabriolet as well.

The new Type 34 Karmann Ghia, launched to a very mixed reception. While the success of its forerunner guaranteed a wide exposure, it also had high expectations to meet. It was the most expensive car produced by the Volkswagen group, and at approximately £1287 was more expensive than the base model Porsche 356 for sale at the time at £1146. For the same price as a Type 34 you could also have bought two Beetles, or for only a small amount more a convertible Type 14 Ghia. The hand assembled body and unique trim and interior components were expensive to produce, and they pushed the overall cost of the Type 34 outside of its class, a mistake that was to play a major part in its eventual demise.

While the Type 14 Karmann Ghia was a fashionable icon of its time, making up for a lack of performance with classic Italian lines, the Type 34's haute couture styling was more challenging and even polarizing, and it failed to connect with much of the car buying public. Coupled with the barely adequate 1500cc engine, the Type 34 Karmann Ghia left many with the impression that it was little more than an overpriced and underpowered sports tourer. With other, better performing cars available for the same money or less, the Type 34 Karmann Ghia was fighting from the moment it was launched. This initial response was enough for Volkswagen to postpone the launch of the convertible, and the model was ultimately withdrawn early in the 1963 model year after only a very small number were produced. Only a handful of convertibles survive to this day.

After just seven years of production, and with minimal investment in styling changes, production at the Wilhelm Karmann factory finally ended in 1969. The VW-Porsche 914 soon took its place on Karmann's production line. Ironically, production of the Type 14 Karmann Ghia continued, outlasting its younger sibling by several years until it was finally replaced by the Golf-based Scirocco in 1974.

In total 445,238 Type 14 Karmann Ghias were produced over a period of 24 years, an average of 24,000 units per year, compared with a total of just 42,505 Type 34s produced over its complete 7 year production life. It is easy to see the failed expectations pinned on The Type 34 Karmann Ghia.

Today, the Type 34 Karmann Ghia is finally starting to enjoy the limelight it deserves. Previously shunned by popular Volkswagen culture in favor of the Beetle, its popularity is increasing among air-cooled Volkswagen enthusiasts. The Type 34 has become valued for its rarity and unique style, and it enjoys a new found appeal created by its acceptance by the popular press. Many magazines and websites now regularly feature Type 34s, and what was regarded by some as ugly or outlandish styling has now been accepted as a unique design that seems to have improved with age.

You can also take a look around the prototypes at the Stiftung Automuseum in the following article by Larry Edson