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Hagerty
Hagerty Employee

The secret agent who created the Karmann Ghia | Hagerty Media

It is late September, 1943, and the Nazis are destroying Naples. With the Allies advancing from the south and Mussolini set up in Northern Italy as a mere puppet of the Reich, much of the Italian population is being terrorized by a German occupying force.
https://www.hagerty.com/media/automotive-history/the-secret-agent-who-created-the-karmann-ghia/
46 REPLIES 46
RokemRonnie
Detailer

According to Virgil Exner, C.B. Thomas, head of Chrysler's export division had a dinner with Pinin Farina and the two agreed that the Pininfarina shop would build a custom body on a 1950 Plymouth chassis. Apparently the car was nothing special but it cost a lot less than having a union shop in Detroit fabricate it. That persuaded Chrysler to look into having their show cars made in Italy. Chrysler had a business relationship with Fiat and when Thomas asked about coachbuilders, both Pininfarina and Ghia were suggested. Two chassis and drawings were sent to Italy for a competition. While Pininfarina kept close to the drawings, Boano at Ghia had revisions made that borrowed lines from the Cisitalia, which impressed Chrysler, along with the low cost and high quality of the work. (Source: Chrysler Concept Cars 1940-1970, Fetherston & Thacker)
BrendanMc
Intermediate Driver

Boana's influence is a little downplayed here because I wanted to keep the focus on Segre, but he was a really interesting character too. It was he who drove the "secret" VW down to Turin, using his connections to make sure nobody knew Ghia had it.
johnmarianmarks
Intermediate Driver

What a wonderful article, thanks.
MI1800es
Pit Crew

Great tale! I think the word "commended" is the best for this sentence... "Allied Command recommended Segre for his actions during WWII," Thanks for the little known history too!!
ThumperUSMC
Intermediate Driver

Personally, I would have used the word recommended, as it used as the Army recommending Segre to the University. Just my thoughts.
wdb
Intermediate Driver

The US military probably gave Segre a letter of recommendation. It would have opened a lot of doors post war I'm sure.
OldFordMan
Detailer

Great true story and big salute to this man!
Reinhold_Weege
Advanced Driver

Not one photo of any of the Chrysler Ghia cars (since several had lines similar to the Karmann) in the body of the article? That might have saved those interested enough some image-search time.
BrendanMc
Intermediate Driver

I think you have to appreciate that sourcing historical photos is a bit of a minefield in terms of publication permissions. There's a great shot of Exner and Segre with one of the Ghia Chryslers, but this stuff isn't old enough to be public domain yet, so you kinda have to work with what you can get your hands on. I thought my editors did a great job with photos here - the '54 MM car-to-car shot is amazing.
sego
Intermediate Driver

Thanks for a great read!
Numberscruncher
Detailer

Renaissance man, sweet little car. 🙂
win59
Detailer

Great story and a nice glimpse of history. An ubiquitous car becomes interesting with the fascinating back story of how it came to be and who made it happen!

Thanks Brendan!
golfnut53083
Pit Crew

A friend of mine in high school (early '70's) used to buy these as basket cases and rebuild them to drive and sell. We used to laugh at him with our V8 Fords and Chevrolets. Who's laughing now!!
topside
Detailer

I remember that as a child - already smitten with automotive design - that the KG looked a lot like one of the Chrysler show cars. And later, when I saw a Type 34, the styling cues borrowed from the '61 Plymouth, yet put to arguably better effect. Apparently homage was something Mr. Exner appreciated. In the decades since - especially the '70s through 2000 - European design features have tended to show up on cars from Japan & Korea. One wonders about the connections between those design communities, or whether it's simply plagiarism.
JohnnyD
Intermediate Driver

The Turin (Torino) automotive museum had one on temporary display a couple decades ago and as I recall , and signage mentioned the Italian, German, and Exner connection. Good article.
chrlsful
Instructor

Thank you. History and its effect is important. Well done Mr McAleer.
As an aside (another us ofa connection outside of chrysler) it spawned the falcon - 1 of the attempts to stem the tide of our own auto manufacturing decline. We know how that 1 vehicle created the SUV (bronk) & muscle (stang) eras we still live in somewhat today.
The KG s a great car (I see the corvair reflect its lines) and like the word 'Kleenex' used for facial tissue I use it as referent (The "chevy karmen giha" - corvair, chevy II; ford - EXP, probe; fiat - 850 spyder, etc). Long may the idea live (easy expansion for manufacturers of models offered). Show more pic of it's variations when possible K-310, Type 3, 14, 34, and even the Chrysler d' Elegance. That's the nice thing bout the net/digital. You don't have to worry bout length (like hard copy).
Tim
Instructor

You know a car was a winner when there is never a time that it isn't loved. These cars were sought in my high school years even though they were definitely "old" cars by then. The Italian styling of the late '50s through the '60s has left us with so many gems that the real shame is that they weren't produced in greater numbers to make them more accessible to those of us who don't have six-figure budgets. The Karmann Ghia is probably the lone exception of these Italian-designed classics.
FloridaMarty
Pit Crew

I was lucky enough to have owned 2 of them in my youth. A '63 and a '64. I kept them mostly stock except for surf racks and select a drop. These are truly beautiful cars. It's a shame something like this can't hit the showrooms these days. I wish VW (or anyone for that matter) could bring it back like they did the bug.
MustangJim
Intermediate Driver

Thank you for the great story. Very interesting.
bobarooski
New Driver

Great story! Thanks for sharing. Should definitely be made known. Might make a great movie, seems to have everything.
RichH
Intermediate Driver

TOO funny. Just TODAY I was looking at a 1st gen Twingo and wondering if they would become classics as I once predicted the Ghia would be.
toy83h2ssj53
Pit Crew

Sorry for the ignorance, but what is a "Twingo"??
Sajeev
Community Manager

Air_and_Water
Detailer

I'm well-versed in VW lore, but had not heard the story here to any great detail. It was mostly told that "Ghia built a car, rather than merely had drawings", and "VW liked it enough to go into production." Little else was said.

Thanks for expanding on that. It makes for a great story, fleshes out the history of the Karmann Ghia, as well as the histories of Ghia Studios and Karmann. Nicely done!
SDBDMD
New Driver

I had a 1964, Pacific Blue convertible. Loved that car. Bit of a money pit. My wife called it the "blue bomb", hated it, and made me sell it. Should have kept the car.
Patrician
Intermediate Driver

When I read the headline I thought this was going to an article on Maxwell Smart and his Karmann Ghia. I guess the key word is "created".
JohnK3
New Driver

In the late 70's I bought a 66 Karmen Ghia convertible to drive to night classes at Anne Arundel Community College. I was hoping to save some gas money by leaving my 68 Buick GS 400 parked. My Ghia was beige with a brown convertible top. The beige had faded to a pinkish color, while the top faded to a burgundy. I had patched the inevitable rusted rocker panels with screen and Bondo, followed up by zinc chromate primer. So I was driving around in a pink, green, and burgundy beater. The heater of course, didn't work, so I wore my Air Force issue parka, wool hat, and gloves to drive it at night with a blanket over my lap. Ah, good times......
roadio55
Intermediate Driver

What model is in the photo with the woman leaning on the roof? I occasionally see one of those and don't know if it's a Karmann Ghia variant or some other type of VW. In the photo, the rear looks exactly like a Corvair. I never noticed that before. Wonderful history lesson!
BrendanMc
Intermediate Driver

That's one of the sedan-based Type 34s.
ThumperUSMC
Intermediate Driver

Great story about Segre and the beginnings of the Karmen-Ghia. I always liked them, back in the mid 60's but never wanted to buy one. By 1965 I had bought my first Corvette after being a passenger most of my life by then in my fathers 1953 Corvette and have been hooked on them ever since. If I could find one in good shape today, at a reasonable price, I probably would buy it.
ckaletta
New Driver

Took my first road trip vacation in a 70 Karman Gia Convertible solo from SF to Minnesota to visit my brother who lived there at the time. One of the greatest experiences of my life. The car ran like a champ the whole way. From Grand Canyon thru Carlsbad Caverns to Rocky Mountain National Park, to the Badlands of South Dakota, Devils Tower, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Yosemite. Just possibly the greatest time of my life. Top down the whole way.
KG74
New Driver

My first new car was/is a Saturn Yellow 1974 cabriolet. I replaced the shocks with Bilstein's, replaced the front anti-roll bar with a heavy duty unit, added a rear anti-roll bar and replaced the antiquated muffler with a modern ceramic unit. I handles like a dream and has no trouble in traffic. Few people know what it is and assume it is an exotic Italian sports car. Well, it sort of is, right. Oh, the original convertible top is insulated and it gets 28 mpg and never overheats.
Cobraal01
New Driver

Great story on what we called “the poor man’s Porsche” back in the day😃
Maestro1
Instructor

I've only had the chance to drive one, belonging to absolutely one of my greatest loves, for a year or so in San Francisco traffic, a long time ago. I loved the car, life interfered, and I went shopping for one years later when prices started to inflate. I still don't have one. As soon as I have more room........
Thanks for the memories. Wonderful cars. Stunning design.
Rider79
Instructor

I thought of Maxwell Smart, when "spy" and Karmann Ghia" were used in proximity. Never could understand how someone who had been driving a Sunbeam Tiger, could possibly be happy with a Ghia (or an Opel GT, for that matter).

I always wanted a Ghia convertible, until I drove one ( a 1974); it was like sitting in a bathtub - a tall-sided bathtub, at that. A few years later, I bought a new 1979 Beetle convertible; not as well-styled, perhaps, but a much better car to drive.

I saw a Type 34 once, back in the 1970's; when told it was a Karmann Ghia, I thought it must have been a very old one. Now, I find out they were not Beetle-based. Interesting, indeed.
Djway
New Driver

My little Dolphin Blue 59 Lowlight Ghia gets lots of looks and comments where ever she goes. The Dolphin Blue is my favorite color for 59 Coupes. Won best of Class Stock Ghia at the VW de Elegance hosted by Rare Air a few years back. One of the few in the world that has the correct materials in the interior and the panels are heat seamed.
I have since added a rather large engine but it appears like something an enthusiast would have done back in the day as it sports dual Zenith 32 ndix carbs and the Knecth air filters and still has a double pipe exhaust out back. Sits slightly lower than stock and has 4 wheel disk brakes. Lots of little added features to make it more drivable.
I would add photos if that were an option.
She is a beauty.
Great story above
BrendanMc
Intermediate Driver

Ooh Dolphin Blue would be such a beautiful colour on a Lowlight. Sounds like a great build.
MR
Intermediate Driver

I feel I know a lot of Karmann Ghia History and was well aware of the Segre / Exner partnership in the development of one of the worlds most beautiful car designs. I did not now Segre's bio and very interesting life history. He really was a very interesting figure.
Thank you Brendon. I have read much about KG's. My ownership history dates back to the mid 70's when I first earned the privilege to drive. Since then I have owned four, two 1970's and two 1967's. My all time favorite is "Sophia" (named after the Italian actress). She is my 1967 Coupe. I have owned her for 24 years. Sophia underwent a body off restoration and was finished to a high driver/show quality condition in 2006.
You cannot be shy driving a Ghia. They draw flocks wherever they go!
Thanks for writing one of the better article's on the history behind the Karmann Ghia.
And thanks to Heinz Nordhoff for giving it the green light!
TonyMcGarry
New Driver

I bought a 1957 hardtop in 1972 for about $400. Drove it through college then first several years on the job. Probably put over 70,000 miles on it. Only did routine maintenance to it. Sold it in 1977 for $450 and thought I was making a killing on the deal! Now, I think, not so much! I should have kept that darn car!*&^%$#@
Waterboy1KHY80
Intermediate Driver

Wow, if that second to last picture doesn't look "Corvair-ish" Ill eat my hat.
Imperialist67
New Driver

Great story - I had no idea of the Luigi Segre connection, what a life he led. I drove a 1974 KG droptop during my "collegiate sports car" phase in the early-mid 1980's, initially for the simple reason that being based on the reliable VW Beetle, it would (presumably) be more reliable than the English & Italian sports cars of the time (not their best time period). It was painted that same green Porsche 911's often were. With this, and deluxe wheel covers (with Wolfsburg crest) it easily masqueraded as a Porsche. I just told people "oh, it's a '74 Speedster" and kept smiling.....

Acceleration wasn't exhilarating, but I didn't mind as it NEVER let me down. Great fun on windy roads, and with that rear-engine traction, graceful on slippery/snowy ones too. After many miles, and many more smiles, I have a life-long affinity for them, and other rear-engined cars too. Of all the cars I have owned/sold, it is the one I missed the most. THANKS for publishing this.
Gary_Bechtold
Instructor

Very cool story about the car and it's designers. The Karmann Ghia is definitely a looker.
TripleCrazy
New Driver

Great bit of history which I did not know.
I had a '69 KG coupe, bought from the original owner in 1987. I had the original sales receipt and owner's manual. The manual said, "Top speed, 82 MPH." They did not lie! It liked to cruise at 70.
It had a '74 dual-port engine, which I had rebuilt just after I bought the car. Say what you will about being down on power, I spent a lot of time tailgating guys on rice rockets around the North Georgia mountains in that car.
brb
Advanced Driver

Nice article and a great piece of history.
audiobycarmine
Advanced Driver

Molto bene, e mille grazie!!
Fantastic article. I'm half-Napolitan in origin, and never knew this story. Thanks.
But: "Chrysler executives planned to fly over the head of Ghia..." Holy Icarus, Batman!
JonMiller
Intermediate Driver

An excellent article about a wonderful car!
As a Ghia owner, I still bristle at comments regarding the KG as being a 'poor man's Porsche'. The sentiment is alluded to in the article ("If you’re looking for a sleek, air-cooled 2+2, but can’t swing a Porsche 911, maybe a slightly hot-rodded Karmann Ghia will fit the bill.").
The Karmann Ghia stands on its own merit and occupies its position in the marketplace because it is an interesting and enjoyable automobile.