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 looks again like it did coming out of the factory in Osnabruck, Germany, in late 1963.
"So, what do we have here?" I muttered 2½ 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-
BEFORE. Actually, midway in the restoration, showing windshield, bumpers, and trim removed, dents pounded straight, but still the godawful holly-
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-
So what if it only had a 4-
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 you just did it, because it’s still warm.”
The Ghia has many such charms. The little “nostrils” with their grills in the front 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. Hot air can also come out of these vents, from four others on the floor, and from the rear defroster vent when you turn (and turn and turn and turn) a knob next to the gear shift. The knob pulls cables that run to the rear and turn flaps in heat-
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 someone in the late 1970s seeing this early 1950s design in a dealer showroom. (Left) The only ditzy custom feature I installed is the original Karmann Ghia badge that I repurposed for spiffing up the trunk (and the steering-
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-
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: riding in a quirkily styled car, which comes from the sheet metal, and hopefully that fabulous old-
BEFORE. (Left) A front seat with original cushions and cover. (Right) Original rear seat with coir cushion and plywood frame.
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-
I swapped in five new springs—scavenged from an old mattress; who can tell?—for broken ones, which were all 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-
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-
BEFORE. Engine without exhaust manifold and fan. AFTER. Same engine after getting new cylinder heads.
MIDWAY. New flywheel and clutch. AFTER. Restored engine snugly back in place in the car.
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-
MIDWAY. (Left) Floor pan after welding shut the rust holes. (Right) Welded-
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 again 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 is still missing its beauty rings on the wheels and the chrome strips along the side. (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-
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 figure out where 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-
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-
The car originally had a 1.2-
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 did not come off. Many Ghia owners do a body-
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-
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 went back in surprisingly easily, because I learned online about the clever “wire trick”. You get 13 feet of insulated 12-
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 which 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 are a lot of leftover bolts. I look at them and shrug. I’ll know exactly where they go when I’m driving along and something goes “clunk” and there's a fountain of sparks in my rearview mirror. Hopefully, Alice will be beside me, gazing at me quizzically with those all-