Ron Cherry: Keeping the Karmann Ghia kruisin’ |

Ron Cherry: Keeping the Karmann Ghia kruisin’

Russ termed his Karmann Ghia’s body “decent, but not show quality.” To the casual eye, it looks great. As for the color, Russ said, “We’ll call it cappuccino.” So, will Starbucks make a new drink called the Karmann Ghia?
Photo by Ron Cherry |

Back in the day, you might hear someone say that his grandfather drove a Ford or a Chevy — and so did he.

While not as strong as 50 years ago, there is still more brand, or make, loyalty among some car owners than in any other product.

For Russ Jones, that loyalty is to Volkswagen.

He bought his first VW Bug when he was in high school.

It was one of those now rare models with the small rear window and semaphore turn signals.

Reflecting the sentiment of so many car lovers, Russ mused, “I wish I still had it now.”

But that was only the beginning of his love affair with VW’s.

“I had at least a dozen over the years, Bugs, buses, square-backs and Ghias. I must have had one of every model. I even had four Ghias.”

And the Karmann Ghia was his favorite model.

“I loved the body style,” he said. “It was a lot like a Porsche. My license plate frame says, ‘Poor Man’s Porsche.’”

But he’d rather have it than a Porsche.

The Karmann Ghia was developed in 1955 by the noted Italian design company Ghia and hand built by the German independent coachmaker Karmann on a widened Bug floor pan.

Although it soon became very popular, all Karmann Ghias were not created equal.

Before 1968, they did not have independent suspension. Because of that, they did not handle very well.

That was why Russ was looking for one like the ‘69 Ghia he found for sale by the original owner in 1990. The owner, who had been stationed in Germany in the Army, had bought it new and brought it home with him.

The Ghia soon became a part of the family. When he and wife Kim moved to Monterrey, Mexico, in 1995, they drove the Ghia.

There he connected with VW afficionados, who are quite active in Mexico.

When they returned here in the summer of 1999, they drove the non-air conditioned Ghia, crossing the desert.

“It was an epic trip,” Russ recalled. The Ghia has had its share of problems. “I could tell stories all VW owners could tell,” he said. “Breakdowns, pulling the motor out on the side of the road to repair it. Kim would want it to be known the number of times she’s pushed it (the Ghia) when it broke down.”

Russ is lucky to have such an understanding wife.

“She’s an enthusiast,” he said. “She loves going on runs.”

But things have improved since those days.

“It’s dialed in, so it doesn’t happen (need to be pushed) very often now.”

“Dialed in” is a complete rebuild.

The original 1584 cc engine that produced about 50 HP was bored and stroked to 2110 cc’s and pumps out about 100 HP, a lot for the light bodied Ghia.

With a full-flow, cooled oiling system, lubrication is not a problem. Russ installed headers and dual Kadron carbs. “It’s built for torque, not high revving,” he said, “so it has a lot of low end power.” To make it cruise comfortably on the highway, he used “freeway gears” in the transaxle.

For a shifter, he opted for one by legendary Gene Berg, a “super-tight, no play” one that is favored by racers. But speed was not the main issue, handling was.

“The design object was to make the car go around corners,” Russ stated. He dropped the suspension 3” all around, added heavy-duty anti-sway bars front and rear and installed Bilstein shocks.

Braking is by four-wheel, cross-drilled discs. Wide EMPI eight-spoke rims have low-profile 175/45 15” tires.

Inside, Russ has completely redone everything, seats, headliner, door panels and carpets.

All the gauges have been upgraded to VDO’s, with a new tach, speedometer, oil pressure and oil temp. The theme is performance rather than luxury.

When Russ drives his Ghia now, he gets a lot of looks.

“It’s that classic design,” he said. Plus the older VW’s are getting a growing following. “They’re like the Model A’s are for hot rodders,” he said. “We weren’t hot rodders. We were into V-dubs. It’s a whole subculture, with everything from restorations to customs. They’re the hot thing in California. Clubs, aftermarket parts, big shows, all that. They’ve gone up a lot in price, but they’re still affordable.”

Russ joined the local VW club, State Route 49 Vdubs.

Although not all that active, he does plan on going on their Lake Tahoe cruise this summer with wife Kim. But there is a condition, Russ said.

“When I say ‘Hey, want to go for a ride in the Ghia?’ she says, ‘As long as I don’t have to push it.’”

Ron Cherry’s four books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His latest Celtic saga, Three Legs of the Cauldron, is now available on Amazon. For more about his writing, go to

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