Karmann Ghia: The Pussycat
Thumb through a 1967 issue of Playboy magazine and you’re likely to stumble across the humble European starlet that got American men salivating. Amidst page after page of pinups and centerfolds, lay unrepentantly the curviest silhouette of all. The raw, stark image of her sculpted body commanded attention and provoked lust. And it should have—it was hand-inspected to be 100% blemish-free.
But just when you were ready to pounce, the caption would catch your eye: You’d lose.
The risqué model that graced the pages of this magazine—simultaneously challenging men with her sporty figure and undercutting them with her brutal honesty—wasn’t the flirtatious Nancy Chamberlain, buxom Fran Gerard, or the ever-popular Playmate Patti Reynolds. She was a Type 14 Karmann Ghia. And she was boldly photographed, without apologies or embellishments.
You’d lose. The ad admitted the Karmann Ghia’s lackluster performance, but…you’d be driving the best-made loser on the block, it consoled. For many, that was enough.
The Karmann Ghia certainly had reason to be proud. It brought together a unique combination of reliable VW engineering and fine Karmann craftsmanship, all housed within a fashionable Italian wrapper. (Did the Italian sports jacket fool you? The ads taunted.)
What the Karmann Ghia lacked in performance, it made up with a genuine sense of humor. There, the Karmann Ghia excelled. In an era of muscle cars with outrageous tail fins, larger than life bumpers, and blinding chrome, Manhattan-based ad men Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach had the anti-sports car to sell.
With an unimpressive economy engine and yet those amazing curves that defied logic, the Karmann Ghia was essentially a dressed-up Bug in fine couture. Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach had no choice but to take an unconventional route. They opted for open honesty—and a dash of lampoon.
And so, the advertisers openly confessed Karmann Ghia’s shortcomings while they touted its reliability and economy, its sculpted elegance and Italian style. In one ad, the Karmann Ghia appeared alongside higher-priced Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Mercedes, Maseratis and Aston Martins and challenged its audience: Can you spot the Volkswagen?
This was pure Mad Men genius in the making: Some cars are big on looks and others are built for economy. Then there’s the Pussycat. Were it to race toward a huge sheet of paper, it would simply bounce off—TV spots further ridiculed its power.
But Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach were building their market. They targeted sensible fathers, stylish women, the druggist from Toledo and everyone else who had felt intimidated or marginalized by expensive, exotic sports cars and yet wanted in on the game.
After all, there were those who craved an elegant European tourer that could rival the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider Veloce without rusting out. Or those who yearned for a Porsche but couldn’t afford one. And then there were those—the Sue Ann’s of the world—who wanted stylish sports cars but couldn’t handle the speed.
For them, the Pussycat was perfect.
While the Karmann Ghia was controversial in its ad campaign, tradition was at the very core of the car. And that tradition was embodied by a single man: Heinz Nordhoff, who stood at the helm of Volkswagen as its managing director. Steadfast and conservative, Nordhoff held stubbornly to the unattractive Beetle for twenty years while other automobile manufacturers were looking to build their signature dream cars.
Enter Wilhelm Karmann Jr., coach-builder extraordinaire. Karmann dreamed of building a sleek and sensuous sports car on a standard Volkswagen Beetle. He understood that the postwar market was changing: With the economic boom, desires grew beyond bland and austere utilitarian cars. Demanding consumers wanted more than ugly Beetles and Buses. And Karmann wanted to bring sports car styling to the masses.
After a series of rejections from the unfaltering Nordhoff, Karmann approached Luigi Segre at Turin-based Carozzeria Ghia to design the body. Nordhoff finally gave the green light.
The car was an immediate world sensation, so much so that no one could guess its simple origins. Autosport praised it for its purity of line and perfection of proportion that almost takes one’s breath away. It was graceful and timeless and named one of the most beautifully designed products in the world by Walter Dorwin Teague. Car and Driver would compare it to the eternal classic Porsche Speedster. The world over gawked at its curvalicious design and applauded its affordable reliability.
The crowds lined up. Buyers exceeded supply. Within a year of its launch, production figures more than doubled. And the Karmann Ghia quickly galloped to the top of American import charts, making it the most popular foreign-produced car. During the Karmann Ghia’s 19-year production run, nearly half a million buyers wanted a sporty, little beast. Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach made sure it was a Pussycat.