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The Karmann Ghia owned by William and Victoria Rutherford of Dundas, Ont., “is not perfect,” William says, but the pair are researching the car’s history and finding the parts needed to fix its flaws and apply new paint.
The Karmann Ghia owned by William and Victoria Rutherford of Dundas, Ont., “is not perfect,” William says, but the pair are researching the car’s history and finding the parts needed to fix its flaws and apply new paint.

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William and Victoria Rutherford were looking for a Volkswagen camper van - its interior space holding particular appeal for Victoria, whose childhood memories include holiday trips during which she and three siblings shared the back seat of a Beetle - when they first heard about their 1958 Karmann Ghia.

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But all it took was a drive-by viewing for her to decide: "I want it."

The car, which was sitting beside the garage it had been stored in for a decade after being rear-ended, was still there a week later when they made a return visit. And after a little cash changed hands, the Dundas, Ont., couple became its new owners a year and a half ago.

After a more thorough inspection, the busted-up back end, which had been thought to involve some structural damage, actually proved only to require some bumper and cosmetic repairs to put right. And the car, which had been restored at some time in the not-too-distant past, also turned out to be mainly mechanically sound and rust-free. In fact, it looks good enough that it recently won a second-in-class award at a VW car show.

"It's not perfect," says the 48-year-old Rutherford, a heavy equipment operator, oval track racer (he grew up near the Flamboro Downs track, in a racing family) and long-time VW fan. He drove a Super Beetle in his late teens and currently owns a 1974 Beetle. "But it's not bad for a car that's been around for 51 years."

In fact, only somebody who was overly bugged about the details would notice it has been fitted with a later engine and a few non-original interior fittings.

And some of those will be dealt with in the months ahead as the Rutherfords continue to research the car's history, find the parts needed to fix its flaws and apply new paint.

The Karmann Ghia is a rather rare bird these days, particularly early examples such as the one the Rutherfords have. Like all early VWs, despite going for a $1,000 or so price premium over the basic Beetle back in the day, they were still relatively inexpensive cars. They became even less expensive as the years and the inevitable rust accumulated. Because they didn't have the cachet attached to higher-performance cars, most enthusiasts weren't interested in preserving them.

In fact the Karmann Ghia was always a bit of an odd duck. Mixing entomological, amphibian and fairy-tale metaphors, you could say if the Beetle sedan was the ugly frog, the Karmann-Ghia was the stylish, if rather ineffectual, prince that emerged after an Italian princess, in the form of Carrozziera Ghia styling studios, had given it a little peck on the cheek.

It had quite elegant and sporty bodywork, originally in coupe and later convertible form, but very basic Beetle bits underneath. It looked like a sleek sports car, in other words, but was far from it in performance terms.

The Karmann Ghia's story began following the departure of the Brits from Wolfsburg after getting VW back on its wheels following the Second World War. The company began offering a Beetle cabriolet in 1949, built by body specialists Karmann. Karmann wanted VW to go one better and offer a touring type car, which it would build, but the idea was rejected.

Undeterred, Karmann turned to Ghia in Turin, which came up with a prototype coupe in 1953 that caught the fancy of legendary VW chief Heinz Nordhoff. What became known as the Karmann Ghia, built in Karmann's Osnabruck factory, was eventually revealed in 1955.

They were built on a widened Beetle floor pan and provided two-plus-two seating thanks to a small rear bench. Suspension was pure Beetle - independent suspension with torsion bars, but with a front anti-roll bar added to give it better front-end bite. The small drum brakes were the same, too.

The early Karmann Ghias were powered by the 1,192 cc air-cooled horizontally opposed four found in the tail of the Beetle.

Its 36 hp could generate 0-60 mph (96 km/h) in just under 29 seconds, which was actually a bit slower than the Beetle as, at 798 kilograms, it was about 55 kilogram heavier. But top speed was about 10 km/h faster at 122 km/h. As with the Beetle, top speed and cruising speed were considered to be identical, so you could hammer along at that speed all day if you liked.

Later versions benefited from the upgrades that were appearing on the Beetle, including engine increases to 1.3 litres, 1.5 litres and 1.6 litres, the latter giving the car just shy of 160 km/h performance.

VW, which was to become famous for its novel North American advertising approach in later years, actually made no bones about the fact the Karmann Ghia was something of a slug, boasting of its reliability, low fuel consumption and operating costs instead.

That approach worked, with some 10,000 sold the first year, and it kept on working. The car remained in production for two decades, with about half a million produced between 1955 and 1975 (the last were built in Brazil).

In 1961 there was a major addition in the form of the Type 34 coupe, which was built on the much more up-to-date Type 3 sedan platform, but its unusual styling didn't go over very well and only 40,000 or so were built, while the Type 1 soldiered on.

The first tolling of the Karmann Ghia's death knell came with the arrival of the VW-Porsche 914 in 1969, sold only as a Porsche here but with a VW badge in Europe. It was eventually superseded by the sporty VW Scirocco of 1974.

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