The thing about being a designer is that it’s more a way of life than just a job. It permeates through everything from the choice of house to shoes and cars. Yes cars. I just love cars. Apart from most built in the 1970’s which I’d happily make into a pair of earrings with one important exception…
I started my design life as a graphic designer and it was a bit of a cliché that my favourite car was the VW Karmann Ghia. However, when in 1996 my every day car bit the dust, I was talking to a friend about what to buy. “What do you really, really want?” he asked. “Well, I’d really love a Karmann Ghia but…”
“Why not get one then?” “Really, can I buy one?” I’d somehow assumed they were from the same place as unicorns and no mortal had a chance.
Anyway after scrutinising a few copies of VW World, I’d circled a couple of options and having been given a stern warning not to buy the first one I saw, I rounded a corner and saw this little beauty sitting in dappled sunlight and promptly bought her, the first one I saw!
This white Karman Ghia was being sold by it’s one and only owner. Mrs Florence Merrel-West had bought the car while living in New York. She’d ordered it straight from the factory in Germany.
After a little negotiation; less than £2,000 and a handshake, I jumped into the Karmann and drove her home to Bath, smiling all the way, studiously ignoring the red warning dynamo light. I couldn’t decide what I loved the most: the smell that reminded me of my first car, a Triumph Spitfire; the huge, but elegant, steering wheel with its Wolfsburg castle and wolf logo; the fine pinstripe crease disappearing down the centre of the bonnet; the Blaupunkt radio; the simple knob for the windscreen wiper; the sprung seats; the gentle purr as we sped over Salisbury Plain or the single pearl hat-pin tucked into the foot well carpet (more of that later) – I decided it was pretty much everything. This was just as well really because, as every classic car owner knows, they try the patience and wallet of a fairly well-off saint.
“Miranda”, as she became known (Karmann Ghia, Carman Miranda…) I would forgive for introducing me to virtually every AA man in the South West and for dripping oil onto my Georgian Courtyard cobbles, because she is, quite simply, beautiful. The last coach-built Volkswagen production car (the production line was switched to building the grim Sirocco), her elegant compound curves are complimented by chrome towel rail bumpers.
The two most special things about her though, are that the interior is original (many Karman’s suffered makeovers by boy racers in the 80’s) and that I am the second ever owner.
Built on 16.03.1970 and dispatched to the USA on 26.03.1970. Mrs Florence Merrel-West ordered this expensive sports car in New York in April 1970. At $2,917.64 it compared to a 3 litre Capri or Morgan Plus 8. Extras included white walled tires, heated rear window, semi-automatic gear box and Blaupunkt radio.
“The Bug” as Mrs Merrel-West called her, joined the AAA (The American Automobile Association) – the sticker is still in place, upside down for some reason, on the dashboard, and the enamel badge sits on the bumper rail. Two years later when she and her husband moved to the UK, she brought her “Bug” with her. She continued to drive her well into her 70’s adding a 70’s National Trust badge to the dashboard and her pearl hat-pin tucked into the carpet of the drivers foot well. When I purchased her she had 80,000 miles on the clock.
As mentioned, an unusual feature of Miranda is that she has a Fichtel & Sachs semi-automatic gearbox. (Sportsmatic to Beetle and Porsche fans.) In some ways she’s a bit like driving a dodgem, three speeds forward and a reverse with no clutch.
One of the reasons I bought a VW is that even I, a designer with painted nails, could understand the engine. Something I’ve had to explain to the many AA recovery guys, who never having seen such an exotic beast as a Karmann Ghia would go white when they turned up, until I explained that the engine was a 1600 air cooled flat four, as found in every Beetle.
Even so, she has tried my patience – breaking down on the way home on Boxing Day at about 9.30 pm was the moment I loved her the least. Dropping a con-rod returning from Bournemouth with no phone signal at 11pm on a Sunday night was another occasion. But she did manage to skip a small brass throttle butterfly screw through her entire engine without so much a hiccup – only a rattle in her exhaust that alerted us that anything was amiss.
Shabby garages have been her main problem- one fitted a new petrol tank without flushing out the rust from the old, resulting in about 3 blockages, therefore breakdowns. Another garage painted her wheels: I was slowly cruising down Milsom Street in Bath wondering what the rattle was when the front wheel fell off. So she’s not to blame all the time. The Karmann Ghia Club have been fantastic over the years and how lucky was I to have its secretary, Derek Frow living just around the corner and very keen to help in any way.
In fairness I used to regularly blast up to Stamford to see my partner Peter without any hint of a hitch, and countless trips up the M4 to London. Given the right TLC she is reliable.
I think Karmann Ghias are a fabulous, stylish classic car. Keep your nerve and the mechanics are simple, easy to track down and affordable. After all these years, she still makes me smile as much as those who see her drive by.