Buying Guide How to buy a Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia Type 14 while they’re still good value
Buy a Type 14 well and you’ll reap the rewards. Here’s how to spot a good one.
Words CHRIS RANDALL
Eight steps to buying a VW Karmann-Ghia
As we said back in the summer, classic Volkswagens are hot property. And unusually for something so stylish and with such a vast support network around it, we reckon the Type 14 Karmann-Ghia has yet to truly reach its market potential. But buying one can be a confusing process. Early ‘lowlight’ cars are desirable, but so many others are modified and it’s often unusual to find one that’s completely standard.
Prices are in flux, with the top end still rising for nice early cars, while the once-cheap lower-end bangers are disappearing into the hands of restorers. To get up-to-date buying advice on this cool, reliable and practical classic, we turned to Paul Morley of Californian Classics, VW’s Heritage Parts Centre and SGS Aircooled in Hampshire.
Which one to choose?
- Initially available as a coupé only, the Karmann-built, Ghia-styled Type 14 was launched in 1955.
- These cars were retrospectively known as ‘lowlights,’ because of the positioning of their headlights.
- A convertible joined the range along with a restyle – which moved the headlights – in 1957.
- After being supplemented by another Karmann-Ghia – the ‘Razor Edge’ Type 34 – in 1962, the Type 14 received its 1584cc, 60bhp engine from 1967.
- From 1970, US regulations informed regular design updates. First larger tail-lights, larger impact bumpers from 1972 and, in the US itself, the deletion of the rear seats. The Karmann-Ghia was replaced by the new front-engined, front-drive Scirocco in 1974.
Bodywork condition is by far the most vital check to make – particularly the bottom six inches. Examine the wings, both inner and outer, along with the sills and heater channels; proper repairs here are crucial for structural integrity, especially on convertibles.
There should be visible lines where sills meet wings – have they been covered over with filler? The complex nose cone is prone to damage and major repairs can get involved and expensive.
You’ll want to examine the underside, taking a good look at the state of the floors, footwells and jacking points. Don’t assume that US imports will be in any better condition when it comes to rot and it’s also wise to scrutinise a potential purchase for evidence of poorly repaired accident damage, substandard restorations and general bodgery.
It’s well worth taking the time to step back and assess shut lines and panel alignment, which will give a useful clue to the car’s overall condition; commission an expert to check a prospective purchase for you if you’re not sure. Fully restoring a rusty body could easily cost £15,000 or more so don’t underestimate the need for caution.
Very few interior parts were shared with the Beetle. In any case, the cabin is very simple so you’ll soon spot any wear to seat trim and carpets.
That said, the cost of refurbishing a scruffy interior can soon add up; everything is still available but you could easily spend £800-£1000 on new seat covers and carpets, even before you factor in the cost of fitting. You’ll also want to check a convertible’s hood, along with signs of damaging and rot-inducing water ingress. The simple electrics are a big plus point; the main concerns will be corroded connections and bodged repairs or modifications.
Brakes and Steering
The brakes – drums all round before a change to front discs – need little more than the usual checks for wear, and for corroded or seized parts. A DIY overhaul is easy and inexpensive thanks to excellent parts availability. The steering doesn’t present any notable problems but, during the test-drive, be on the alert for a set-up that doesn’t feel as light and accurate as it should; the box may have been overadjusted to mask wear. A replacement is less than £200. The front kingpins on early cars need regular greasing; and inspect the ball joints of later models for wear and torn rubber covers.
Front disc brake conversion kits for earlier models start at £600-£700 although you can spend twice that amount on high-end systems. Consider upgrading early single-circuit brakes to a dual-circuit system. Specialist Californian Classics gives a cost of about £300 including parts and labour.
The air-cooled engines are strong and easy to maintain, and benefit from excellent specialist support. Oil and filter changes every 3000 miles will keep these power units healthy – but it’s worth checking for oil leaks from pushrod tubes, rocker covers and crankshaft oil seals (this last-named is an engine-out job to fix). Also look for signs of overheating, because issues with cooling flaps, oil thermostat or damaged/missing tinware will quickly cause a unit to get hot and bothered, as can wear or poor adjustment of the carburettor or distributor.
Remember to watch for crankshaft thrust bearing wear by checking for excessive pulley movement. Given the Volkswagen flat-four engine’s ubiquity, it’s actually sometimes more cost-effective to replace it than rebuild it, unless you’re especially keen to preserve an early car’s matching-numbers status.
Replacement engines themselves start at £3500, with another £2000 on top for fitting. However, given the huge tuning scene that exists around VWs, you can easily spend £10,000 making the car perform like a sports car with a surfeit of modifications, or even a Subaru engine transplant.
If you just want to make a standard earlier car easier to live with, you should consider an electronic ignition system and an alternator conversion. The former costs upwards of £50 and you should budget around £175 for the conversion kit.
The suspension was shared with the Beetle – including a later swap from swing axles to independent at the rear – so there’s not a great deal to worry about here. Corrosion in mounting points is the most obvious area for concern so a thorough prod here is wise, but otherwise it’s a case of inspecting components for wear and tear.
Parts aren’t expensive and it’s something that a keen DIY-er can undertake. It is worth establishing with the seller the extent of any modifications, though, because you’ll want to be entirely satisfied that the work was carried out to a good standard and that you can live with the results.
There’s no avoiding the classic Volkswagen scene’s penchant for often quite extreme modification. Given the long-established, high-quality nature of many specialists and parts suppliers, these needn’t hurt the car’s residual value and can actually increase the appeal if done well.
There’s plenty of potential when it comes to engine upgrades, ranging from minor tuning to completely new motors, so make sure that you know exactly what has been done and how well. Just about anything goes, but such an approach won’t suit those who value originality.
Check to make sure other elements of the car have been upgraded to suit any power increase – disc brakes are always a worthwhile addition. The four-speed manual gearbox isn’t inherently troublesome but time and miles will have taken their toll on synchromesh – second/third gears are usually first to go – and bearings. Parts are plentiful but bear in mind that a new gearbox, strengthened to accept power increases from tuned engines, can cost as much as £2000 fitted. More modest improvements to increase the meagre standard power output without troubling the rest of the car include upgraded carburettors and exhausts.
Lowering the suspension is popular but seek specialist advice before you go down this route. There are a number of ways to do it, but the job needs to be carried out properly to avoid undesirable effects on the geometry and ride/handling. If you can, try a modified car first to ensure that such work will suit the type of use you’ve planned.
What to pay
- You may find a late Karmann-Ghia coupé for as little as £5000, but it’ll likely be rusty and dubiously modified.
- A useable late-model Karmann-Ghia coupé starts at £10,000, with convertibles carrying a £5000 premium. Well-executed, reversible modifications don’t tend to harm values.
- The very best examples fetch £20,000-£25,000.
- Mint, original, early ‘lowlight’ K-Gs, and Sixties models in general, will likely be more than £25,000 – and prices are still climbing.
‘The top end is still rising for nice early cars; lower-end bangers are disappearing into the hands of restorers’
Unlike some classics, Karmann-Ghia values aren’t overly harmed by modification. Engine parts are plentiful thanks to Beetle basis. Check forensically for rust – rectifying a rotten Karmann-Ghia costs a lot more than fixing a Beetle.
Owning a Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia
Gordon’s lovely 1967 Coupé – which he has owned for 23 years – needed some work before he got it back on the road. ‘I’d admired these cars as a teenager and the name stuck in my mind,’ he says. ‘So it was the obvious choice when I decided on a classic. ‘This particular car was a stalled restoration that had been stripped of paint and parts, and with the bottom nine inches of bodywork missing along with its engine. Most of the parts needed were there, though, so it was relatively straightforward for the restoration specialist to complete the job, which took 18 months. ‘The only issue since has been a second respray because the original two-pack paint turned blotchy, so it’s now been done with base coat and lacquer. I use it quite a bit, with trips to Scotland and abroad, and it will be heading north again soon for the annual club event.’
Pete Morley runs Californian Classics, Europe’s biggest Karmann-Ghia specialist. ‘I restore them because I know every aspect, of them, inside and out,’ says Pete. ‘Only the original-shape Karmann-Ghia, though – I haven’t done a “razoredge” yet [the larger Type 34 four- seater version that supplemented the original 2+2 in the Sixties], I’d have to do one just to get to know the car. ‘Ownership-wise, they’re half-and-half between a Beetle, and something handbuilt and rare. Karmann changed the specification a lot, and some parts are expensive because they were used on some much more prestigious cars. It shares its rear numberplate plinth with the Aston Martin DB5, for example, and its door strikers with the Porsche 356. We make these parts ourselves because they’re no longer available and the cost of used items is outrageous because of these connections with other cars. ‘It’s got to the point now where there’s a huge price range for Karmann-Ghias. You can still find cheap ones for four-figure sums sold privately if you’re lucky, but they’re often in poor condition or have been modified. There’s nothing wrong with some modifications — a lot of buyers like them with lowered suspension and Fuchs alloys from a Porsche, and California-look Karmann-Ghias have always been popular. However, we’re noticing a trend at the top of the market for original-condition, patinated early cars making very large sums, often being bought by collectors of much more expensive machinery, as a nice useable example of a coachbuilt Fifties and Sixties coupé. We sold one to Monaco recently, where it’ll really stand out among the hordes of the usual supercars. But originality is king.’
1969 VW Karmann Ghia — £23,000
‘Selling after 32 wonderful years of ownership. 1600cc fully reconditioned engine fitted May 2022 (800 miles driven since). Extensive ‘Type 2 Detectives’ mechanical health check leading to no-expense-spared mechanical overhaul and numerous replacements last year. Full documentation available upon request. Always garaged. Structurally sound and good bodywork, towel rail bumpers, glass rear window, new carpets, radio/CD player (with USB) fitted in glovebox, rear seatbelts fitted. Chrome boot rack will be included too. Exempt from MoT and road tax. Imported from US in 1990 followed by stripdown restoration and respray prior to my purchase that year. I have all the service and work invoices since, as well as all MoT certificates. A beautiful and extremely pretty car, still a headturner. Now it’s time for someone else to enjoy.’