The body and nose of the Karmann Ghia were handcrafted and significantly more expensive to produce than the assembly line produced Beetle, which was reflected in the Karmann Ghia's higher price. Instead of being bolted together, like the Beetle, body panels were butt welded and smoothed prior to English Pewter being applied and hand shaped and smoothed. No auto manufactured today uses such a time consuming and expensive approach to building automobiles.
Indeed, even at the time the Ghia was built, only the manufacturers of the finest cars took such care when building a car.
The design and prototype were well received by Volkswagen executives, and in August 1955 the first Karmann Ghia was built in Osnabrück, Germany. Public reaction to the curvy Karmann Ghia was excellent, and over 10,000 were sold in the first year, exceeding Volkswagen's expectations. Since the first Karmann Ghias used the same Volkswagen air cooled engine as the Beetle, the car was not suitable as a true sports car, but the car's styling and "Beetle reliable" parts compensated for this shortfall.
The Karmann Ghia also shared engine development with the Beetle as the Type 1 engine grew larger over time, finally arriving at an engine displacement of 1,584 cc which produced about 60 horsepower. In August 1957 a convertible (cabriolet) version was introduced. Although this version is often called the "1958 model" by some, the Detroit automakers' trend of calling models manufactured in August of a year as the next year's model wasn't adopted by Germany until at least 1965. In August 1964, the Vehicle Identification Number on VWs started showing the last digit of the year as the 3rd digit of the VIN. All through production, multiple changes were also made to VWs without regard to the "model year" concept.
Especially for these earliest Ghias, "September 1957" would be much more useful as a description of production model than the elusive "model year" that was only used for marketing by VW of America. The car was redesigned for the 1960 model year. The most notable exterior changes were the car's front "nostril" grilles (replaced with a wider, multi-finned grille that is considered generally less elegant), the headlights (which were moved up the fender), and the rear taillight lenses (which became taller and more rounded, sometimes referred to as "cats-eye" lenses). Cars made from 1955 to 1959 are referred to as "lowlights," due to the lower placement of the headlights, and are much sought-after by Karmann Ghia purists and collectors.
In 1970 larger tail lights were fitted with integrated reverse lights, as well as squarish wrap-around turn signals, versus the "bullet" style used earlier. The taillights were revised again in 1972, becoming taller and wider, with better visibility from the side. Large safety bumpers were added for 1973. Additionally, 1973 saw the removal of the unusable back seat as a means of skirting new seat belt regulations. Where the seat was once located, there was now a simple shelf with no back rest. In late 1974, the car was discontinued mainly due to increasing safety regulations and sluggish sales, in favour of its water-cooled front-drive replacement; the Rabbit/Golf based Volkswagen Scirocco.
One interesting option introduced in 1963 was an electrically operated sliding steel sunroof a feature copied from its Porsche cousin, which introduced it in 1961. The styling was more squared-off, versus the curved appearance of the original Karmann Ghia, offering more interior and cargo room.
Until it was replaced by the VW-Porsche 914, it was the most expensive and luxurious passenger car VW manufactured in the 1960s back then you could have purchased two basic Beetles for the price of one Type 34 Karmann Ghia in many markets. The comparatively high price meant it never generated high demand, and only 42,505 (plus 17 prototype convertibles) were built over the cars entire production life between 1962 and 1969 (roughly 5,000 a year). Today, the Type 34 is considered a semi-rare collectible.
Although the Type 34 Karmann Ghia was available in most countries, it was never officially sold in the USA VWs largest and most important export market another reason for its low sales numbers. Many still made their way to the USA (most via Canada), and the USA has the largest number of known Type 34s left in the world (400 of the total 1,500 to 2,000 or so remaining).
Like its Type 14 brother, the Type 34 was styled by the Italian design studio Ghia. There are some similar styling influences, but the Type 14 Ghia looks very different from the Type 34. The chassis is also a major difference between the cars: the Type 14 Ghia shares its chassis with a Beetle, whereas the Type 34 body is mounted on the Type 3 chassis and drive train (the same as in a Squareback/Notchback/Fastback) all distinguished by a flattened pancake engine that provides a front and rear boot. The Type 34 is consequently mechanically the same as other Type 3s. That, however, is where the similarities end. All bodywork, interior, glass, bumpers, and most of the lenses are unique to the Type 34. Restoring a stripped or heavily damaged Type 34 is consequently close to impossible when you consider there are only 1,5002,000 cars left in the world (including salvage cars).