The styling firm that outfitted Volkswagens in sharp Italian suits…

German cars don’t generally do beautiful. Functional, reliable, well-engineered and imposing perhaps, but when it comes to drop-dead gorgeousness, it’s usually best to look elsewhere in Europe.  And in particular, Italy.

In the early 1950s, both Volkswagen and its favourite body builder, Karmann, felt there was potential for a ‘halo car’ – a flagship model to demonstrate there was more to the Beetle than just looking like a Bug.  But for all its skill in chopping the roofs off saloons, Karmann had little experience in designing sleek, sexy sports cars.  However, Carrozzeria Ghia did.

The design and coachbuilding firm was founded in Turin in 1915 by Giacinto Ghia.  Originally known as Ghia & Gariglio, to reflect the partnership Giacinto entered into to launch the business, its sports car creations mainly used Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia chassis, and it had soon forged an enviable reputation for stylish machines.  But in 1943, during World War 2, its factory was destroyed.  Then the following year, while supervising its rebuilding, Giacinto died of a heart attack, aged just 56.  The company was then sold to his friend, Mario Boano, along with Giorgio Alberti.  Luigi ‘Gigi’ Segre was its chief engineer and main designer.  However, after a 1953 disagreement between Mario and Luigi, Mario departed and Luigi took over completely.  It was under his custodianship that Ghia started seeking more design work abroad.

” Its origins could be traced back to 1950, and work by Mario Boano and Luis Segre “

Luigi is credited with coming up with the Karmann Ghia, although car design in those days was a rather grey subject.  Because cars built for one country often wouldn’t be seen in another, a lot of ‘recycling’ of ideas went on.  Pininfarina was especially prone to this, with its BMC Farina / Peugeot 404 and Fiat 130 / Rolls-Royce Camargue / Ferrari 365 GT4 all displaying an uncanny resemblance.  Similarly, the Karmann Ghia concept had distinct overtones of previous blueprints for Chrysler and Studebaker.  In fact, Chrysler’s US designer, Virgil Exner, with whom Ghia was collaborating at the time, claimed the car was little more than a smaller version of his Chrysler Coupe D’Elegance. He had a valid point, for the two curvaceous cars are similar in all but size.  Ghia, of course, disputed this, asserting that its origins could be traced back to 1950 and work by both Mario Boano and Luigi Segre.

Whatever the truth, the Karmann Ghia was a very good looking machine, even if the Beetle bits underneath meant it couldn’t quite deliver the oomph its svelte looks promised.  Nevertheless, when it was shown to Karmann in autumn 1953, the company was very impressed, and somewhat surprised, too.  It had been expecting a convertible rather than a saloon.  An al fresco version would not come along until 1957, two years after the tin top. Volkswagen too liked what it saw, although boss, Heinz Nordhoff, was initially concerned that it was too radical (his word, we’re sure), and was also concerned about its cost.  He needn’t have worried.  The Type 14 Karmann Ghia became a big global seller.

The automotive Lennon and McCartney spent some years apart until 1961, when they teamed up again for the Type 34 Karmann Ghia.  Surely the magic would work again?  Er, no.  This time, Sergio Sartorelli was the man behind the pen, and what he sketched up was very different.  It was undoubtedly distinctive looking, but much more angular than its predecessor, with somewhat slabby styling.  And while the 1.5- and 1.6-litre engine options gave it much better performance than any other Volkswagen, and it came with considerable luxury, including an electric sliding sunroof, it was also practically twice the price of a standard Beetle.  Sales were much poorer than hoped for, and it wasn’t even officially available in Volkswagen’s biggest export market, the USA.

As for Ghia, it ventured (not terribly successfully) into building cars like the 1500 GT and 450SS under its own name, as well as designing vehicles like the Renault Floride.  After Luigi Segre’s death in 1963, the firm eventually passed to Alejandro de Tomaso – of Pantera fame – before he sold it onto Ford in 1970. From 1973, the name became little more than a trim level used to decorate posh Fords.  And a Fiesta 1.1 Ghia is, sadly, a very different beast to a Karmann Ghia…

Words: Richard Gunn

Further reading: Here’s an interesting piece regarding seven of the best cars from Carrozzeria Ghia