Saturday, November 7, 2009


This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which has me thinking about where and when the VW 1500 Karmann-Ghia got its start and about its historical significance.

The are many different reasons that people are drawn to the 1500 Ghia. Some appreciate it for its relative rarity. Others see in it an opportunity to own an affordable and reliable coachbuilt classic. Some just like the unique lines. For me it's all of the above, but I'm also interested in what the Ghia meant in its historical context. In a symbolic way, its design is an interesting automotive example of the so-called "German economic miracle," or Wirtschaftswunder.

["People's Dream Car," Hobby magazine, December 1961]

Nearly fifty years on it's easy to lose sight of the context in which the 1500 Ghia was developed. Germany was still a recently defeated, divided country that was the front line of the Cold War, and tensions between East and West were very high, the two Germanys representing the geopolitical conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union by proxy. While the new VW 1500s were being unveiled in Frankfurt in late 1961 the Berlin Wall was literally under construction. It was a tense and dangerous time for the world.

[East German workers building the Berlin Wall, November 1961. From Wikipedia Commons.]

Against this backdrop of competing political ideologies, a related competition between economic theories was playing out. The Wirtschaftswunder was the rapid economic recovery that West Germany experienced after the war, the result of both U.S. economic aid under the Marshall Plan and the revaluation of its currency. By the late 1950s, just over ten years after the widespread destruction and defeat of the war, West Germany was experiencing a surprising prosperity. While East Germany, under Soviet influence, attempted to separate itself from the horror and shame of its recent past through the creation of a socialist society, the West chose a kind of amnesia through all-out consumerism. A growing middle class found itself with money to spend and suddenly there were a lot of things to spend it on—fully stocked supermarkets, consumer electronics, modern furniture, and of course a wide selection of automobiles.

[A spotlessly modern VW/Porsche showroom in Karlsruhe with mid-century American furniture and abstract expressionist art, from VW Informationen no. 50, 1960]

It was into this cultural environment that the VW 1500s were introduced. Basic transportation—the immediate postwar need that the Beetle and other small cars addressed so effectively—was no longer sufficient. There was consumer interest in larger, more comfortable, more style-conscious cars, with design that pointed optimistically toward a bright, modern future and away from the horrific past and the potentially apocalyptic present. The original Karmann-Ghia is an early example of this tendency, but the larger, more luxurious 1500 Ghia, with its flamboyant, American-influenced styling, was an even more pointed rejection of both the past and the East. The fact that it was also a Volkswagen, with the attendant connotations of everyday transportation for all, underscores the point with a touch of irony. This was a different kind of "people's car" for a newly confident, wealthier, and more materialistic people.

No comments: