The car that got away

I’ve always wanted to have a fun older car. I’ve had dreams of learning to tinker on the engine to keep it running, and taking it out for sunlit drives along an old highway.

I almost got my chance when I was 22. I had been out of college for a couple months and had just started my first career job. I was driving my dad’s spare car, a Renault, but Dad wanted it back. I had no money, so when I started shopping for cars I knew I was heading for my first car payment. I figured a used car would be the best way to stay within budget.

Terre Haute had three things in abundance: churches, bars, and used-car lots. It seemed like one of the three was on every corner. A lot of Terre Haute’s used-car lots looked pretty shady, and the shadiest-looking of them all were concentrated on Lafayette Road. I planned to avoid the Lafayette Road lots, but that’s when I spied the Karmann-Ghia on one of them.

196x Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

In the 1950s, Volkswagen was known for reliable but unexciting cars. When they decided they needed to punch up their image with a sporty car, they turned to German coachbuilder Karmann, who turned to Italian design firm Ghia, which designed the body. Karmann then built it and attached it to a modified Beetle chassis. 445,000 were turned out over the car’s run from 1955 to 1974. The bright-green 1972 Karmann I found was clean and, except for a couple tiny rust spots, looked new. The five-digit odometer claimed 60,000 miles, but I felt sure it was really 160,000 miles, or maybe even 260,000. The price soaped on the window: $2,500.

This Karmann sat on by far the sketchiest-looking independent dealer’s lot, an outfit called King’s Cars, or so said the hand-lettered sign on a two-by-four over the office trailer’s front door. But I was blind with excitement. The scraggly fellow inside the office trailer was none too thrilled to let a kid take the car for a spin, but I convinced him somehow. I drove it around for a while – never having test-driven a car in my life and having no idea what I was doing. I knew just enough to realize that I could be buying a world of trouble. So I returned the car, got back into my dad’s Renault, went home – and called my friend, the Beetle expert. When I met Jeff, he was in the middle of swapping one engine for another in one of his Beetles; he did this kind of thing all the time. He could tell you the most minute model-year changes across the Beetle’s history. I figured if anybody could tell me about the Karmann, he could. He looked at it and called me back, excited. “This is the cleanest Karmann I’ve ever seen! I’ll bet it really has only 60,000 miles on it! If I had $2,500, I’d buy it!”

Jeff’s call hyped me to the max. I could hardly believe my luck at finding this almost-cherry automobile! And then I couldn’t scrape together $2,500. My bank said, “You have no credit history and we’re not lending you a dime, especially not on a 17-year-old car.” A finance company said the same thing. And so I called my dad, who said, “Even if I had $2,500, I wouldn’t lend it to you for a 1972 Karmann-Ghia!”

And so I had to let the car go. It stayed on the lot for another week, and then it was gone. I still think about it from time to time. I wonder if whoever bought it took care of it as well as I would have!

Ford, Chrysler, and GM dangled fat credit offers in front of me to buy a new car, though. Which is what I did. Read the story of that car.


6 responses to “The car that got away”

  1. Mike Roe Avatar

    I don’t even like the Karmann Ghia, but your “I would have,” seriously, almost brought a tear to my eye. I hope you get that fun, older car someday… might I recommend the Volvo P1800 (my favorite car).

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks Mike! I have developed a soft spot in my heart for wagons — maybe the 1800 ES?

  2. Scott Avatar

    I have wanted one for years. I like the style of the little car. Maybe, one day! Got here to your blog cause you stopped by mine. I’m bookmarking this one.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’ve been following yours for some time — I like all the abandoned places you find.

  3. -Nate Avatar

    ‘Ghias are nice and all and like all old Typ I VW’s they’re easy to drive and fun too .

    Sadly they don’t have good ventilation, a serious defect in the South West where it gets really hot in Summer .

    Oddly enough the exact same heater that easily warms up a Bug doesn’t do much in a ‘Ghia, why I sold every one I tried, on .


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My memory of that Ghia I drove was that the heater was crap. Probably not ideal in an Indiana winter.

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