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Long before it was relegated to a posh trim level on Ford saloons, Italian carrozzeria Ghia was ramping up the desirability of other ordinary European family cars.
Not by adding an extra helping of velour and some ersatz dashboard tree, but by drawing on its long history of styling sports cars and race-winners for Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia to create machines that managed almost entirely to hide their humble origins, and confer a new-found cool on their manufacturers.
Volkswagen was the first of those brands to benefit, launching its Beetle-based coupé in 1953, though it didn’t dream up the idea itself.
Instead, the Karmann Ghia was conceived by the two companies that bear its name and presented to Volkswagen, which could hardly say no.
Wilhelm Karmann’s company was already building Beetle convertibles for Volkswagen and he was keen to bolster that partnership.
Luigi Segre, asserting his control at Ghia, was striving to push the company into new international relationships.
Sparked by a conversation between the pair, Segre acquired a Volkswagen Beetle and set about modifying it before presenting the finished prototype coupé to Karmann later in 1953.
By November, Karmann had presented the car to Volkswagen, which liked what it saw and approved the plan.
Two years later the model was released to a world that would, in the following two decades, buy almost 450,000 examples of the coupé and its cabriolet sister that arrived in 1957.
A huge proportion of those Karmann Ghias arrived in the lucrative US market that Renault was also keen to crack.
Looking for a way to help the French firm emulate VW’s Stateside success, North American dealers suggested to Renault at a conference in Florida that they come up with something sexy to drive showroom traffic.
And they weren’t talking about a Brigitte Bardot marketing shoot, though they got that, too, as it turned out, plus brochure photographs by Frank Horvat – a name usually on the pages of Vogue.
Fortunately for those dealers, Renault boss Pierre Dreyfus gave the green light to a sportyl-ooking two-plus-two, and by 1958 the car was ready for customers.
But the name badge differed depending where those customers were located. Cars built for Europe were called Floride, a nod to the location of the conference that started it all, and US dealers, worried about offending the other states, got the same car badged Caravelle, a moniker borrowed from a contemporary French passenger jet and one all markets would adopt after 1962.
Seeing the two side by side gives a stark reminder of how radically car design changed in the few years that separate them.
The Karmann Ghia’s integrated wings must have looked dramatically modern to Beetle owners used to separate fenders and running boards, but its swoopy rear haunches and bulbous nose date it from the immediate post-war period of modernity, rather than the crisp-edged version from the decade that followed.
There are echoes of the Studebaker Champion in its triple-peaked nose, and such a similarity to Virgil Exner’s 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance concept in the rear arch line that Segre is believed to have sent Exner an early production Karmann Ghia as a thank you.
No matter where the styling cues come from, or which of the several Ghia employees rumoured to have had a hand in the car’s styling really did create the finished shape, it’s hard not to be impressed by what Segre’s team was able to do from a Beetle base.
But there was more involved here than simply dropping a new top on the Bug’s floorpan.
Karmann’s modified chassis resulted in a coupé that was wider, longer and lower than the Beetle, while the upper body styling incorporated an aggressively raked ’screen and a bubble roof that appeared to float over impossibly thin B- and C- pillars.
Losing those pillars altogether, the Karmann Ghia convertible appeared at the 1957 Frankfurt Motor Show, again built by Karmann, and this time with no input from Ghia.
Karmann designed the conversion in-house, pinching some of the coupé’s rear luggage space but managing to retain the fold-down occasional rear seat.
Also kept was the elegant profile when the plush three-layer mohair roof was in place, meaning gripes were limited to inferior visibility and worries of scratching the small plastic rear window.
That last fear was banished with the switch to glass in 1969, the year after Daryl Collier’s superb Oriole Yellow car first fired.
Collier’s is classic KG: the perfect combination of small rear lights and bumpers that pre-date the 1970s uglification, with high-set headlamps and triple-ribbed air intakes in the nose that arrived for the 1961 facelift.
This, and not the earlier pre-’61 ‘low-light’ models, is what comes to mind when most people think Karmann Ghia.
But what springs to mind when they think Floride? Possibly only a typo on their toothpaste tube unless they’re old enough to remember these Renaults first time around.
Despite a healthy production run of almost 120,000 units, Renault’s convertible is a fairly rare sight today.
Tony Nappin certainly remembered it, and this is by no means his first Floride. In fact it is his third, and he has owned this stunning S for more than a decade. He’s so smitten by Renaults that he hasn’t owned another make since swapping a Fiat for a Dauphine in ’59.
Nappin’s current Floride was delivered to the UK then shipped from Liverpool to Nigeria, where it lived for four years in the early 1960s, hence the WAN (West Africa Nigeria) plate on its tail.
When the owners returned to Britain so did the Renault, being used sparingly for the first few years and not at all for the following 35.
What he came up with was as shockingly different from the Dauphine as the Karmann Ghia was from the Beetle.
Where the donor Renault saloon looked as sharp as a kids’ cutlery set, the dapper Floride appeared sophisticated and urbane, with its crisp lines, fins and double coves on the flanks, the lower of which must surely have been pinched by Ford for the 1964 Mustang.
That is not the only suggestion of blatant pilfering in this tale.
If you think the headlight treatment on the vaguely amphibious nose looks a little bit like the MGB of four years later, you won’t be surprised to hear Renault thought so, too.
Available as a fixed-head coupé, a soft-top cabriolet and a convertible with a removable hardtop, only the absence of a traditional radiator grille suggests the relatively long-bonnet, short-deck Floride isn’t a conventional front-engined, rear-drive sports car.
But with no gearbox, propshaft or exhaust to complicate the front-end packaging the floor is flat, though the steering wheel and pedals are slightly offset to the left.
And if the fabulously comfortable, thickly padded seats and rather upright windscreen suggest GT rather than sports car, the splattery sound of combusted fuel being shot from the non-standard stainless-steel exhaust teases that it might be good for more than touring.
The gearstick – and it really is Lowry-level stickish – is a bit of a stretch and, though the four-speed ’box had migrated from optional to standard by this point, there’s no synchro on first. But the change is beautifully light, requiring the merest of touches to move between ratios.
That’s just as well, because the 956cc in-line ‘four’ between the rear wheels is a pot that needs regular stirring.
Early Florides used the 845cc engine from the Dauphine that made 37bhp, and are marked out by functional air inlets in the lower bodywork coves that direct a cooling blast to the radiator sandwiched between the engine and the rear bulkhead.
In 1962 the Floride became the Floride S to signify the new five-bearing-crank, overhead-valve ‘Sierra’ engine inherited from the Renault 8, which, at 45bhp, promised a substantial performance boost.
That increase has long since been nixed by the rise in performance of other cars on the road. The engine feels eager, responsive and impressively smooth; you can imagine it feeling fantastic in something the size of an Austin A40.
But tasked with hauling around a body this big it feels out of its depth in modern traffic. Nappin suggests that if you like the idea of the Floride but need more zip, it’s worth hunting down a ’64-on Caravelle with the 55bhp, 1108cc upgrade.
But no Floride or Caravelle ever claimed to offer genuine sports car performance. Neither did the Karmann Ghia, Volkswagen even poking fun at the car’s torpidity in adverts.
Ghias might have looked twice as fast as a Beetle, but with the same engine and around 200 additional pounds to lug it was smoke and mirrors.
The 34bhp 1192cc flat-four in early Ghias received a boost to 40bhp in 1962, before becoming a 50bhp 1300 in 1966, and a 53bhp 1500, such as the one in Collier’s car, a year later.
The engine is surprisingly quiet, more so than the stainless-piped Floride, and like other air-cooled Volkswagens the gearchange is light, its gate as vague as a fairground tarot reading.
But the big difference compared to the Renault is the amount of torque the 1500 offers: 78lb ft at just 2600rpm, compared with just 54lb ft in the Renault.
Even the final 60bhp 1.6 Ghias struggled to break 20 secs to 60mph (1200s took nearly 30), so that torque never makes this Ghia feel truly quick. It does at least lend an effortless quality that fits perfectly its laid-back nature.
Laying back in this US-market Ghia’s driving seat means sitting on the left, though like the Floride it was available in both left- and right-hand drive configurations.
The seats are less comfortable than the Renault’s, and the high-set, floor-mounted brake pedal requires some ankle dexterity.
Those brakes comprise a disc-front and drum-rear set-up, though early models came with drums all round. So did the first Florides, but by the time Nappin’s was built Renault was fitting discs at all corners – advanced stuff for the early 1960s, and probably rather belt-and-braces given the modest performance.
But it’s the steering that separates these cars.
The Ghia’s worm-and-sector system feels breezily light, giving the entire car a similar feel and the quick-ish gearing feels surprisingly modern.
Yet it is also disconcertingly non-committal around the straight ahead, only really connecting you with the front wheels once the torsion bar-sprung front end has started to push the weight to its outside front tyre.
The Floride, with its double-wishbone front end and a more sophisticated rack-and-pinion set-up, tries harder to convince you that you’re in a sports car.
The steering feels weightier at low speeds, and better keys you in to what those tiny 135-section front tyres are doing.
But it absolutely lacks the ultimate poise and enthusiasm for changing direction that characterises the real sports car of the age.
No, the Floride’s strengths lie elsewhere: its superior ride quality, impressive turning circle and the fact that, with so little performance, you’re probably never going to be going fast enough for the swing axle’s rear-wheel camber changes to get you into trouble.
Caravelle production continued until 1968, by which time around 117,000 Caravelles and Florides had found homes.
But the Karmann Ghia soldiered on into the 1970s, far outliving the other Karmann Ghia, the razor-edged Type 3-based T34 that joined it in 1961.
In total, more than 364,000 Ghia coupés and almost 81,000 convertibles left the Osnabrück factory.
Karmann would go on to build cars and bodies for the likes of BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche – and Renault and Volkswagen again – before filing for insolvency in 2009 and being swallowed into the VW empire.
And Ghia? Following Segre’s death the company eventually fell into the hands of Alejandro de Tomaso, and survived long enough to work on his Pantera before being sold to Ford in the early 1970s.
Today, the VW’s bigger production number helps explain why, if anyone recognises these cars at all, it’s the Karmann Ghia that registers most.
But there’s also the Volkswagen factor to, well, factor in. Old Volkswagens are generally considered cool and desirable in the way old Renaults aren’t, with the result that you could buy a great Floride for £15-20k, but might pay half as much again for a really top-drawer Karmann Ghia.
That you could buy a fine, and much faster – but far less exotic – MGB for thousands less shows just how far these slow but sensual pseudo-sports cars really have come from their humble roots.
Images: Will Williams
Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
- Sold/number built 1955-’74/444,300 (Type 14)
- Construction steel platform chassis and body
- Engine alloy-crankcase/head, iron-barrel, ohv 1192/1285/1493/1584cc flat-four, single/twin Solex carburettors or Bosch fuel injection
- Max power 30bhp @ 3700rpm-54bhp @ 4000rpm
- Max torque 56lb ft @ 2000rpm-87lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension transverse torsion bars, parallel trailing arms, telescopic dampers; front anti-roll bar
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes drums; front discs from Aug ’66
- Length 13ft 7in (4140mm)
- Width 5ft 4in (1630mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1325mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½in (2400mm)
- Weight 1782lb (810kg)
- 0-60mph 28.8-21.3 secs
- Top speed 73-85mph
- Mpg 30-40
- Price new £1166 (Coupé, 1960)
- Price now £10-30,000*
Renault Floride S
- Sold/number built 1959-’68/117,113 (inc Caravelle)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine rear-mounted, iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 956cc ‘four’, with single Solex carburettor
- Max power 45bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 48lb ft @ 3300rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear swinging half axles, radius arms; coil springs, auxiliary rubber springs f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs all round
- Length 14ft (4260mm)
- Width 5ft 2in (1570mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1310mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 5½in (2267mm)
- Weight 1645lb (746kg)
- 0-60mph 17.6 secs
- Top speed 89mph
- Mpg 45
- Price new £1168
- Price now £6-17,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication