VW’s Other Karmann Ghia Put a Memorable Face on Luxury
Old VWs are great because they’re inexpensive, super easy to work on, hugely versatile and plentiful—at least out here on the West Coast. Karmann Ghias in particular are especially attractive, their sleek, coach-built lines serving to highlight their Porsche DNA while at the same time underplaying their more common ancestry. Slow and ungainly through the twisties in stock form, Ghias are such pretty little things that neither really matters—besides, at least one of those attributes can also be used to describe the 356, too.
Built in large, VW-like numbers, the average Karmann Ghia isn’t an especially rare car, but given their people’s sports car vibe, that’s no bad thing. The Type 34, however, is an entirely different animal. With only some 42,000 built between 1962 and ’69, they’re roughly ten times less common than the car most commonly associated with the KG name, the internally-coded Type 14.
Built on VW’s then-new Type 3 platform, the 34, or “der große Karmann” (the big Karmann) as it was called at home was slightly larger, quite a bit more powerful, and featured a more sophisticated chassis than its Beetle-based stablemate. Pitched as a more luxurious variant of the standard car, the 34 had an available electrically-operated sunroof from day one—the second car ever to offer such an option. Other high-end features included standard fog lights, an electric clock, and a larger, more generously appointed interior. With nearly 60 HP and an 85 MPH top speed, the 34 was comfortably the fastest VW ever sold to that point.
It’s been speculated that less than 2,500 remain, much of which is probably attributed to the mixed reaction the car drew throughout its production run—even today, many consider it to be a less attractive car than the 14. I, for one, think the “Euro Ghia” is a lot more interesting looking than the standard car, which has always seemed a bit tensionless, a bit soft-boiled to me. Though maybe not pretty in a classically defined way, the 34 nonetheless featured a handful of very strong and well thought out design elements, particularly in the strong belt line, delicately finned rear deck and fenders, and airy, BMW-like greenhouse. The headlight treatment might’ve not been to everyone’s taste, but I think designer Sergio Sartorelli nailed it—unique and upscale in appearance, it literally put a face to the 34’s raison d’être.
Replaced by the Porsche 914 in 1969, the 34 was seemingly destined to be eclipsed by other VW family machines. Their legacy then is one of a controversial orphan; not exactly the stuff of legends, but as demonstrated by the beautifully restored ‘65 model featured here, which belongs to Cyril and Fanny from Belgium, they’re absolutely worth a second look.
Photography by David Marvier