A 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia landed in my lap in late 2013. I've been restoring it since then and documenting my steps along the way. Well, in the spring of 2016, I declared it "done", as in 98% done―are things like this ever really done, though? I was aiming for a stock restoration, so the Ghia now again looks more or less like it did emerging from the factory in Osnabruck, Germany, in late 1963.
"So, what do we have here?" I muttered 3½ years ago as the car marked its territory with oil spots on the garage floor. Well, the engine is in the back. That was the first thing I learned, or maybe I kinda knew that; and it has four wheels. I exaggerate my former lack of VW knowledge only slightly. The other cars unfortunate enough to have been owned and tinkered on by me have all been American and, later, Japanese. The most mind-altering aspect of that earlier transition was my need to learn metric tools. “Yeah, that looks like a 13-, 12-, or 11-mm nut … [pause to walk back with three wrenches]. Dang, whadaya know; it’s a 14.” That learning curve was gentle in comparison to transitioning to an old German car with the engine in the back, the gas tank in the front under the hood, and no radiator. Things could get still weirder if you think about it: imagine if you had a Ghia in a right-hand-drive version, like in Australia. You'd be down under, driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car with its engine in the back, shifting with the left hand ... I get vertigo and nausea just thinking about it.
BEFORE. Actually, midway in the restoration, with the windshield, bumpers, and trim removed and dents pounded straight but still with the godawful holly-red paint job.
A Ghia is a whole phylum and class separated from anything else, like a trilobite is to an impala, the former being an extinct rock-hugging bug and the latter being the gracefully leaping mammal one sees on safari in the Serengeti. The Ghia was produced from 1955 to 1974. I think VW gave up on it when American drivers pushing it to its top speed of 75 mph were constantly getting their doors blown off by Corvettes, Camaros, Mustangs, and little old ladies stuck in 2nd gear in their Nash Ramblers.
So what if it had only a 4-cylinder engine. It was air-cooled! What a feature: no need to top off the radiator; you just need to carry extra fan belts in the trunk―which is in front―because if a belt breaks, your engine goes Chernobyl in less time than it takes my dog to run into the kitchen when I fiddle with the plastic bags in the refrigerator’s cheese drawer.
There’s an old tale―involving someone driving an old VW through a heavily guarded border checkpoint somewhere in the Middle East―that goes something like this:
Guard: “Step out and open the trunk.”
The driver walks to the front of the car and begins to open the trunk.
Guard: “No, I said the trunk!”
Driver: “But that is the trunk.”
Guard: “What do you take me for, an idiot? I’ll do it myself.”
The guard walks to the rear and opens the lid over the engine and gasps.
Guard: “Aha! You stole an engine. And it's obvious you just did, because it’s still warm.”
The Ghia has many such charms. The little “nostrils” in the front with their grills are actually functional, I discovered. Fresh air comes through them and out the defroster vents on the dash after you pull on two little levers near the steering wheel. One lever adjusts the driver side, and the other, the passenger side. For heating, hot air will emerge from these defroster vents, from four other vents on the floor, and from the rear defroster vent, after you turn (and turn and turn and turn) a knob next to the gear shift. Turning the knob pulls cables that run to the rear and open flaps in heat-exchanger boxes that surround the exhaust manifolds, hopefully without giving you a lungful of carbon monoxide and sending you, asleep, into a tree and Ghia heaven. I jest. I’ve read no reports of such things, only fuel filters falling off and sending Ghias up in flames. I've yet to try the heater in cold weather, but it’s been said that the heat from the tiny floor vent feels like a mouse panting against your ankle.
AFTER. (Above) So much easier on the eyes. American industrial design guru Walter Dorwin Teague included the Karmann Ghia in his list of the world’s most beautifully designed products, ever. Good luck telling that to a shopper in the early 1970s viewing this early 1950s design in a VW dealer showroom. (Left) The only two ditzy custom features I installed are (1) the original Karmann Ghia badge that I repurposed for spiffing up the trunk and (2) a gray vinyl steering-wheel cover: the original steering wheel feels too slender in my hands. VW provided owners with a toolkit in case you needed to do an every-3,000-mile valve adjustment while on the road.
The dial next to the speedometer is, rather than a tachometer, a big clock. This clock probably quit about the same time the last hippie awoke in a drug-induced haze and wandered away from Woodstock, and I had to dismantle the clock and learn the inner workings of the mind of some Jules the German clockmaker. The clock now ticks and gives off a satisfyingly loud “Click!” about every 40 seconds as it sucks a bit of battery power, winds its tiny coil spring, and sends its two analog hands spinning at the speed of reptilian evolution. It gains an extra 5 minutes per week, which I understand is respectable timekeeping, all things considered.
BEFORE. The original interior after 5 decades of sun and abuse.
The seat cushions were made of coir (coconut fiber) or some other smelly fibrous plant (or animal?) derivative. The car had, and still has, enough cardboard, coconut fiber, wood, wool, and other animal fur to fill four Afghanistani market stalls. What you get with a classic car is that whole 60s experience: the ride in a visually interesting car, thanks to the sheet metal, and hopefully that fabulous old-car smell, thanks to the liberal use of products of nature in the construction. So, while rebuilding the seats, I kept five of the six original cushions in the hope that whenever I plant or wiggle my ample rear, I’ll get a whiff of eau de market stall.
BEFORE. (Left) A front seat with original cushions and cover. (Right) Original rear seat with coir cushion on plywood structure.
I constructed the seat covers to duplicate the originals, which looked like the hippies had partied on them the entire time at Woodstock and which were hidden beneath brown (black?) aftermarket vinyl reproductions that were equally torn and duct-taped together. Here (left) I am sewing the piping, using a special piping foot that I MacGyvered myself, on my wife’s grandmother’s 1922 Singer. Hey, I love old stuff, and it worked. Granny had it retrofitted with one of them thar fancy eelecteric motors, and the foot-operated cast-iron treadle now just holds an ugly vase and shields the rapidly multiplying dust bunnies underneath from the vacuum cleaner.
I swapped in five new springs—scavenged from an old mattress; who can tell?—for broken ones on the driver's seat, the one getting the most abuse. One can actually sit in it straight now rather than contorting into one of those bent-sideways-like-an-S Gumby people depicted in a chiropractor's brochure with the caption "This person really needs our help".
AFTER. The restored interior. The rear "emergency seat"—not big enough for a kindergartner in a fetal position—is intended to be folded down most of the time.
I dropped the engine in early 2014—no, not accidentally. Drop is the correct term, in the clubby air-cooled-VW world, for what you do first to the engine to work on it: you lower it out the bottom of the car. You haven’t been paying close attention: everything is backward or upside down. I installed new cylinder heads (which were cracked) and valves, piston rings (which were actually in decent shape, but they’re cheap), and pushrod tubes. The only thing I had the pros do was replace the flywheel, because doing that requires that a large gland nut be untorqued and retorqued to some ungodly 220 foot-pounds. You could hurt your gland nuts working on a gland nut. I installed a new clutch.
I welded up holes in the floor pans and welded in a few tiny patches of sheet metal where the body had rusted through. I was extremely lucky that this was a California car and not a Michigan rust-bucket: it had lived its entire life among the flakes, beach bums, and other if-it-feels-good-do-it locals, and during both the Jerry Brown I and II administrations―yet it survived(!) thanks to the dry climate. If cars could talk.
MIDWAY. (Left) Floor pan after welding shut the rust holes. (Right) Welded-in patch in the right rear fender.
This one regained its voice after I tinkered extensively with the horn: dismantling, rewiring, installing a new relay, and so on. All it said, though, was “meep, meep.” Evidently, that’s German autosprechen for “take me on a long cruise now, please, even though my fuel filter will very soon clog up tight in some desolate valley without cell phone service.” The car knew me well by now: I could fix just about any little thing, even if it might take me 93 hours. Naturally, on our first long cruise, I brought no spare fuel filters. But I did happen to figure out that I could backflush the clogged filter by flipping it around and attaching the PCV hose. Alice the Chorkie waited patiently inside while I backflushed once while on the back side of Mt. Hamilton and again on Interstate 580. And one last time on Interstate 680 not far from home, where, of course, I had a plethora of fuel filters.
APRIL 2016. (Left) Stuck on Del Puerto Canyon Road with a clogged fuel filter. The Ghia was still missing its chrome beauty rings on the wheels and trim strips along the sides. (Right) With a turn of the key, a few cups of the nastiest brown sludge left the fuel filter.
The paint job returned the car to its original two-tone anthracite and pearl-white combination. I used some leftover pearl-white paint to recoat the steering wheel and control knobs and achieve interior matching. I repainted the dash the original anthracite, but not the inside of the glove box door, so that admirers can puzzle at the factory sticker there. My dad, being native to Europe and conversant in autosprechen, translated for me: “Use the handle to shut the door … never [use] the window.” There are no frames around the tops of the roll-down windows: yank hard enough on a window and … I don’t want to imagine. This and two other design strategies achieve the so-called hardtop style, as in “hardtop convertible”, which was trendy in the 1960s. The B pillars are slender (fragile) chromed struts that seemingly vanish if you squint; at least the designers thought so. Finally, paint the roof a contrasting color, and voila: the semblance of a convertible. The little rear windows hinge at the B pillars and swing out in the rear. Purists would argue that a B pillar is cheating―you don’t have a true hardtop―but genius designer Luigi Segre of Italian carrozzeria Ghia settled on a fixed B pillar anyway.
The main grill―where the engine gets its cooling air―is on top, in the back. There it is in the photos. Volkswagen had to design a way to route the rain that fell through those cracks. I still haven't figured out exactly how they managed that.
MORE "AFTER" PHOTOS. Obviously, I hope.
The strange layout creates a huge storage compartment behind the rear seat. In that sense, the car does have a sort of trunk in the rear. It’s big enough to hold Hillary’s Hitlarian, win-at-all-costs, unbridled ambition and naked corruption with a bit of room left over for Donald Trump’s hair and ego. There, I tucked two 6 x 9 speakers with wiring going under the carpet to an Alpine CDA-9807 audio head unit. Someone on Ebay provided me with a cable whereby I can plug in my Ipod Nano. That way, I need listen to the news only sparingly. The tomcat yowling in the backyard at 3 a.m. sounds better than “Democrats have enacted new legislation to give free health care, clothing, cars, college, crayons, and Corona to anyone who cannot recall any of the fathers of their seven kids, especially if they want to bring their Third World collectivist culture in with them, and they’ll pay for it with just a new low-interest credit card from the Chinese with a $60 trillion spending limit.” In related news, “Santa Claus, now unemployed, will go sign up for his own free stuff as soon as the elves can repair a runner on his sleigh that he mangled going into a 3-ft pothole while dodging a 5-ft pothole on a California freeway.”
My Ghia dodges potholes nicely. The front end, sans engine, is so light that the handling feels like power steering. Never having driven a hippie-era VW before, I expected to get the calloused hands of a farmworker driving a tractor. No, the Ghia was pleasantly surprising. Going over Mt. Hamilton, it was like driving an automatic. I scarcely had to shift.gears. It handled grades in 3rd gear that would have had me constantly shifting between 3rd and 2nd in my Isuzu Trooper with its 5-speed V-6.
The car originally had a 1.2-liter, 40-hp engine, hence the Ghia nickname The Poor Man’s Porsche. Some time in its past, it was given a big-bore kit, which raised the displacement to 1.4 liters. Also, the previous owner, my brother-in-law Mike Blaylock, gave it an upgrade from 6 to 12 volts. That way, while sitting at a stoplight at night, the lights don’t dim. The wipers, however, now zoom past your eyes at the rate of the national debt counter under the Obama administration. To slow down the wipers when desired, I installed a resistor and a toggle switch in discrete locations behind and under the dashboard, respectively.
Amazingly, this little car, which sold for $2,295 in 1963, emerged from the factory with a windshield washer system, albeit a low-tech one. When I got the car, among the rotting blankets, spare tires, dust, and a few copies of the U.S. Constitution redacted and torn up by Obama and his minions, there was the original washer fluid bottle and some hose. The bottle had a crack, which I widened with a red-hot screwdriver tip and plugged with hot-melt glue. The bottle mounts onto the spare tire, which is under the front hood. After filling the bottle with water, you screw your bicycle pump to it (see the nipple in the photo?), give it a few strokes, and press a button on the dash, which opens a valve. The first time I tried it, I must have been overzealous with the bike pump, and spray shot over the roof. That must have been an enormous relief for the Ghia after all the months of rubbing tires with the cute young Mazda parked alongside. The photos in the owner’s manual, however, don’t show a spare bike pump in the trunk, so I guess Gerhardt and the boys at VW intended for you to flag down a passing bicyclist if you’ve driven through one too many clouds of butterflies on the way to granddad’s farm.
I kept the original antenna, bumpers, lights, etc., all of which had to come off before the paint job and go back on afterward. Only the body didn't come off. Many Ghia owners do a body-off restoration because of extensive rust. My Beetle in a Cocktail Dress got to keep its modesty intact (gender is a fluid, subjective concept in the car scene).
There might have been another factory sticker somewhere warning “Don’t even think about restoring a Ghia unless you’re the sort who likes gargling with gasoline while standing barefoot in broken glass”, but I never saw it. Nearly everything about this project was indescribably tough. The “towel bars” on the bumpers were a soap-in-my-eyes-where’s-the-towel jigsaw puzzle. Getting the gear-shift lever back in was one of many tasks that took two people. “Honey, yes, you do need to put your slippers on. Now push here while I ....” “Will this take long? Bachelorette is on in 5 minutes.” Getting the reupholstered seats back in and on their rails was like birthing a set of hippo twins.
Cutting the carpet sections and sewing on the binding around the edges were easier and more pleasant than I expected. The new beauty rings, those flashy wide chrome doughnuts on the wheels, popped on with just strategically placed smacks from the palm of my hand. The windshield and rear window with their gaskets went back in surprisingly easily because I learned online about the clever “wire trick”. You get 13 feet of insulated 12-gauge electrical wire, …. Heck, just go to www.thesamba.com to learn this and many similar tricks. The chrome side trim popped on every few inches with a satisfying “pppht”. Those were the times I could set a chair on the lawn afterward, gaze at my project, let the dopamine trickle down naturally through my frontal lobes, and just go “ahh”.
There were times when I nearly gave up. Eventually, I would resume after a few months of pondering how to do some big task like the paint or upholstery or choosng the type of window trim to install. The tiny mustard seed of faith that kept me going was remembering all the little tasks I’d accomplished. There were parts and more parts―on bookshelves and baker’s racks under tarps alongside the house, in drawers in the garage, and in a discarded clothes chest in the potting shed―that I had already restored and were awaiting reinstallation on the car: vents, cables, thingamajigs, whatzits. Through all that, I lost only the original little black Karmann side badge, which set me back $30. There were also a lot of leftover bolts. I look at them and shrug. I’ll know exactly where they go someday when I’m driving along and something goes “clunk” and I see a fountain of sparks in the rearview mirror. Hopefully, Alice will be beside me, gazing at me quizzically with those all-black-no-white eyes, and remind me of how foundlings―pets and cars―squirm their way into your heart.