When the opportunity came around for Keith Chetty to own a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, he didn’t hesitate. “This is my dream car. We had to buy it.” The seller, he reckons, was probably flogging the four he owned because he saw his own end in sight. He would die one month after handing it over. “When I first bought it, it was smoking a bit; I overhauled the engine,” Chetty explains. “It came with biscuit tyres — very, very thin tyres. I put on wider tires.”
The VW fanatic would also soon discover an annoying snag of owning a vehicle that largely consists of a single, hand-crafted body.
“We had to buy a complete car. The fender was too expensive at the parts store. We bought a complete car for R7 000, cut the piece I needed, welded it and resprayed the whole car.”
Nearly eight years later, he has no regrets; his 1961 model supplies a smooth drive on Sundays and when he takes it out for car shows.
But there is really only one reason to buy a Karmann Ghia. “Just look at its style,” he says, referring to the slick, curvy design. “I’ve had plenty Beetles. If you look at a Beetle, it’s just a Beetle. The Karmann Ghia? People mistake it for a Porsche. The Porsche 356 that looks very similar to it.”
The sexy, seminal looks are remarkable for giving birth to the concept that you can slap a sporty design on your car without it being very sporty.
The 40 to 50 horses pumped out of its rear engine in no way keep up with a Porsche. VW even made light of the fact by producing a self-deprecating ad campaign that mocked its slowness but emphasised the built quality. “The most economic sports car you can buy,” the narrator of one TV commercial enthuses before the car stutters at a paper wall. “It’s just not the most powerful.”
Even Chetty happily admits that the 1 200cc engine in his model is not getting him anywhere particularly fast on those Sunday drives.
But, again, that’s not why you buy this car. You buy it because you know a little bit of history leaves the garage with you on every drive.