No Volkswagen story would be complete without reference to the Osnabruck coachbuilders, Wilhelm Karmann GmbH. Over half a century older than VW itself, Karmann was founded in 1874 and taken over by Wilhelm Karmann on August 1, 1901. The company manufactured its first car bodies, for Diirkopp, Opel and Benz, the following year. The association with Volkswagen began in 1949 with production of the Cabriolet version of the Beetle, Type 15A. Eventually, Karmann made 330,000 of these cars and one of the very first now resides in the VW Auto Museum in Wolfsburg. Karmann continued to produce specialized low-volume cars based on Beetle running gear for many years, introducing the famous VW Karmann Ghia coupe in 1955. That same year, Beetle production passed the magic 1,000,000 figure, an achievement never before recorded in German car-manufacturing history.
The entry of Volkswagen into the Brazilian market with a factory’ producing the Beetle and variants of it prompted Karmann to expand its own facilities and, in 1959, Karmann Ghia do Brazil was set up to meet VW’s needs in that potentially huge market. The links between VW and Porsche helped Karmann gain business from the latter and they began to make some of the bodies for the 356B in 1961, beginning with the short-lived hardtop coupe version and then continuing with the standard coupe shape until the end of the 356 series. The 901 prototype was presented by Porsche at the Frankfurt Show in 1963, and when it went into production as the 911 and 912, Karmann were again able to provide Porsche with much-needed additional capacity, assembling and trimming bodies in parallel with Porsche’s own Stuttgart plant. For the mid-engined 914, the joint VW-Porsche project launched in 1969, the bodyshells were all made by Karmann. In 1974, Karmann employees assembled the first of the new-generation VWs, the Scirocco.
A striking design study shown by Giugiaro at the Frankfurt Show in 1973 was a clean-cut coupe called Asso di Picche (Ace of Spades), interesting because it was based on the Audi 80 which shared its floorpan with the first Passat and provided the engine from which the GTI power unit was derived. Had this car been productionized, it would have been ahead of its time – and right in the Scirocco class. The Ace of Spades was built for Giugiaro by Karmann and now rests in the latter’s museum.
Giugiaro and Karmann co-operated again, on officially VW-sanctioned Scirocco Mk2 prototypes in 1977. A wooden study was made first, with no interior, followed by a realistic metal mock-up. Both, had the same overall shape, differing only in details like bumpers and lights. The wheelarch shapes, bumpers, and the crease in the flanks of the car echoed the Maserati Quattroporte prototype that Giugiaro showed at the Turin Motor Show the year before, under-lining how designers tend to use certain aesthetic motifs on more than one prototype before moving on. The wraparound bumpers and front indicator lights from the Scirocco II Study were adopted by VW on the production Mk1 for the 1978 model year showing how a completely different design proposal may influence a current model.
The most significant Volkswagen on the company’s stand at the 1979 Geneva Motor Show was the Golf Convertible. Just as the GTI started a new trend towards hot hatchback cars, the Golf Convertible was the first in a line of drop-top versions of modern front-wheel-drive cars. It was an entirely new species; cars like the Fiat 124 Sport Spyder or the Alfa Romeo Spider no doubt had the same mechanicals as their saloon and coupe brethren and, in the case of the Fiat, the same floorpan and suspension as well, but they were sporting two-seaters with little or no rear-seat accommodation. The Golf featured a modified hatchback bodyshell and thus retained the full four-seat capability of the original car. The prototype was produced by Karmann in 1976. The company was so well entrenched in producing Cabriolet Beetles and Karmann Ghias that it was a natural progression for them to build the first Golf Cabriolet for presentation to VW’s Board, and undertake the subsequent production.
A variation on the same theme rolled out of the Osnabruck prototype shop a year after the Golf Cabriolet production line started rolling. The Jetta Cabriolet in some ways actually looked better proportioned than the Golf which had a high, stubby tail in production form. The Jetta never made it to production; the yellow prototype now sits in the Karmann Museum just sixty feet from the Golf Cabriolet study.
Karmann are coachbuilders rather than manufacturers. They may build prototypes of complete cars for manufacturers and indeed undertake the difficult transition from prototype to production for that manufacturer, but they still rely on their client for all mechanical assemblies. Thus the engine, gearbox, suspension and some interior components come from Volkswagen to be built into the Golf Cabriolets, Sciroccos and Corrados that roll out of the Karmann factories. Small-volume production is their speciality, and to give some idea of why Volkswagen sub-contracts the building of these models to Karmann, a comparison of Golf and Scirocco production figures is interesting. In 1988, VW in Wolfsburg announced that they had produced the 10 millionth Golf, 13 years after the launch of the first car. Between “1974 and 1981, Karmann produced 504,100 Scirocco Mk1s, and up to September 1989, they had made 272,000 Mk2 cars. From 1979 to September 1989, 267,000 Golf Convertibles were built. The first year of Corrado production totalled approximately 17,000 cars.
Coachbuilders like Karmann, however, do not always wait around to take their cue from major manufacturers like VW, Ford or BMW. With major resources at their disposal, it is today possible for them to build one-off prototypes or even just present their ow n interpretations of how they see a particular model evolving. The latter case is more the norm and at major international motor shows, Karmann usually takes a stand not far from Volkswagen. Over the years, they have exhibited show cars with different spoilers, special paintwork, non-standard alloy wheels and invariably custom interiors in leather and fabric. A prime example is the red Scirocco 2 with colour-coded bumpers, Ronal alloy wheels and special half-leather interior that did the 1987 show circuit. The 1988 theme was a two-tone Scirocco and Golf Cabriolet pair, painted silver with metallic anthracite grey applied from bumper level down, extending to the wheelarches. 6J x 14in eight-spoke flat-faced alloy wheels from RII were used. The Scirocco 16V show car also had a colour-coded rear spoiler and wing mirrors, and had its rubber side protection strip removed. A different front grille with just three large horizontal slats was used. Inside, black leather with grey fabric inserts gave the cars a classy but still sporty feel.
The Frankfurt Show in 1989 was the first showing of a Karmann interpretation of the new Corrado, and the silver car that took pride of place on the revolving platform was tastefully and luxuriously appointed. The exterior was standard save for a set of attractive 7J x 15in Centra five-spoke alloy wheels which helped to fill out the arches and give the car a better stance. But the interior was upholstered in light tan and brown hide which complemented each other beautifully both in colour co-ordination and the way the two leathers were used to highlight facets of the car’s interior sculpting. This is the sort of work that a coachbuilder like Karmann excels at and it would be a shame if VW missed the opportunity to commission limited runs of such cars.
©Ian Kuah. This article was published with explicit permission from author Ian Kuah