September 24, 2008

Karmann Ghia

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for sometime in my callow youth---

Go on... pull my paw and I'll show you what the middle ages smelled like.

---back in the Midwest, in a small Illinois town of about six thousand, right in the middle of farm country. And there I was, in High School trying to figure it all out. Okay, not really. I wasn't trying to figure anything out except for maybe girls, but as I've learned nobody understands them. However, being male and a teenager in the Midwest I was also into cars. My first car was a gold '67 Chevy Caprice Classic (a high-end Chevy Impala), that was a hand-me-down from my Grandparents.

Hellooooo Goldie!

That Chevy was one sweet ride. It was in mint condition. Big engine, tons of power, bench seats... ah, what a road machine. Perfect date car too. But alas, the Caprice was not to be mine for long. After I'd been driving the Caprice for about a year, that was when my younger brother was starting to drive and my parents felt that since the Caprice was an automatic that it would easier and safer for him to drive while I drove something else. I was not happy about this at all, but I had no choice. Of course whatever I'd be driving next would be newer, safer, and a better car than this old Chevy. Ah... no it wasn't.

It was a rusty, '73 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia that my dad paid $200 for. Yeah, that's a FAIR trade.

Dad figured the Karman Ghia would be a good "beater car" for me to learn how to drive a stick-shift. In retrospect he was right, because ever since I've only owned manual transmission cars and I like driving a stick.

Sadly I have no "before" pictures of the Karmann Ghia when I first was given it. It was green (where there wasn't rust) with a white hard-top - no heat and no air-conditioning either. It took me a few weeks to get the hang of changing gears, but once I was comfortable with driving, the Ghia was a ton of fun to zip around in.

Factoid: The plate was the title of the first
ill-fated attempt at doing a sequel to the movie "2001"

Being an old Volkswagen, this car also required plenty of "special attention". I replaced at least two starter motors, several fuel pumps, one generator, etc. It was always in need of work. But I loved that little car dearly.

One day I noticed a large pile of leafy tree branches stacked near the street where the city had done some trimming. This gave me an idea. I grabbed some twine, picked up the branches and tied them all over the outside of the Ghia (took me most of the afternoon to complete). Once I was done, the Ghia was unrecognizable as a car and looked like a big bush. My friend Greg had stopped by and he was amused by what I'd done, so we decided to take her out for a drive. It was difficult seeing through the window, but I was able to see enough to navigate the street, so we headed off through town. Thinking back on this now, I guess it was kinda' irresponsible, but I was a teen - in my defense I wasn't racing through the streets, I was lumbering along at the pace of a parade float. A motorcade of drunken Shriners could have easily passed us.

Nobody drives shrubbery in our town and gets away with it!

Greg and I drove around for about a half-hour before the inevitable happened, we got pulled over by a cop. He was totally cool, and amused by what we'd done, but he said we had to get it off the road or he'd give me a ticket since my plates and tail lights were not visible. Otherwise he said it really didn't pose a threat, but he didn't condone driving a vehicle covered in branches. The cop allowed me to drive the car back to my house. He followed along behind then watched us remove the branches from the car. Once he saw how rusty the old Ghia was he said he could understand why I'd want to cover it up.

This whole experience gave me an idea - why not paint over the rust.?.. and if I'm going to paint the car, let's make it camouflage - inspired by the tree branches of course. And by paint, I mean just that - with a bucket and a brush. I had no cash for any fancy-ass paint job. So I ran to Farm and Fleet (local farming goods store - Walmart type of place).

Everything we sell is made right ch'er in America!
'Cept for that which is made in China... and that's most everything.

I got some tractor paint and brushes and went to town on the Ghia.

Painting inspired me to do more work to the car. Another trip to Farm and Fleet netted me some running lights that go on semi-trailer trucks... so I wired up the Ghia for lights, putting them along the sides. Then I added amber lights to the front, and blue lights inside the nose grills.

Strangely, everything in the interior could only be seen in black and white.
Must be a German thing.

All of these lights were on their own switches so I could control them. The Ghia had been missing a radio, so I just used the open hole in the dashboard to put the switch box for the lights. I mounted an under-dash stereo to make up for the missing radio.

Launch control, we're ready for lift off.

And then I got my hands on some carpet pieces and shagged out the inside of the car. In order to make sure the carpet stayed in nice n' snug, I used bolts with big washers to hold it in place on the floor. So this took some drilling, and was a lot of work, but I didn't want the pieces to come unglued while I was driving. Finally the Ghia was all tricked out and ready to go.

Green on the outside... fuzzy on the inside! Like my underwear.

But after my first fill-up I could smell gas inside the car. Turns out that when I was drilling the holes for the carpet bolts, I accidentally drilled into the gas tank (it's in the front of the car). Considering that the gas tank wasn't full of fuel when I was drilling, but instead full of dangerous fumes, I was extremely lucky that I didn't cause a spark while drilling, because---

Ground control to Major Tom... you're majorly screwed!

--- that gas tank probably would have exploded. So I ended up having to pull out the gas tank and patch up the hole. Once this was done, the Ghia was at last ready to roll!

Highway to the danger zone BABY!

Man, I had a blast in that car. My friends and I would pile in and drive all over the place. Being a small town in the middle of nowhere there wasn't anything to do so we'd "shoot the loop", which is just another way of saying we'd go cruising. That was BIG fun back in small town Illinois.

Amazingly, I got a ton of use out of that little Karmann Ghia, I drove it my senior year in high school and my first three years of college. Remember, that the car had no air conditioning or heat. In the winter I'd have to bundle up. I recall leaving to head back to the University of Iowa after Christmas break. Mom made me a thermos of cocoa for the trip and in addition to all my winter wear, I was wrapped up in a sleeping bag too, all squeezed into that little drafty car. The things you do when you're a poor college student.

I ran out of relevant pictures for this post,
but I found this nifty picture of a cat in a space suit! Ain't it neat?

The Ghia was always having problems, and despite this I still loved the car. At one point the starter motor went out for a second (or maybe third) time. I didn't have the money to get a rebuilt one to replace it, so I had to drive it without a starter motor... which you can do with a manual transmission car. What you have to do is, put the car in neutral, then push it to get it rolling. Once you've got a decent amount of speed, you jump in the car before it can stop, press down the clutch, slam the stick into 2nd gear and then let out the clutch. This will cause the engine to turn and consequently start. I drove this car for two semesters having to start it in this manner. I got good at it too. I started parking creatively, pointed down hills and such so I'd have an easy starting roll.

See what I mean? No more pictures.

My junior year at the University of Iowa was when I said good-bye to the Ghia. I was living in a house just off campus with five of my buddies (all of us crammed into a tiny house). Tom Grant, one of my roommates asked if I'd consider selling the Ghia. I thought about it, and said that I might. He said he didn't have much money but offered me $250 cash.


And I made $50 more than my dad had paid for it. Ha take that!

Listing all the troubles I had with this car, you'd think that this would have put me off Volkswagen's - not at all. My next vehicle was a '77 VW Bus. And THAT was a hell of lot of fun to drive.... and "no", I didn't paint it camouflage.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Great story about the Ghia! Really are lucky you didn't blow yourself up, though. Any Ghia, even in camo,is a better car than a a Caprice...well maybe. :)