The tale of a 1974 worked VW Karmann Ghia

William Porker's recollection of a firecracker Karmann Ghia coupe with a colourful story of road and track racing


DAK-daks. Hitler’s Revenge. Vee Dubs. Volkswagens. Okay, I admit it – I’ve done the almost unthinkable and worked on a few. Well, maybe more than that. Twenty? Fifty? Hundreds? Probably. I’m trying to forget – it was a bit of a nightmare at the time. I never did get to like them.

First published in the November 2022 issue of Street Machine

But one I do remember. It was a bit special, because it was a worked Karmann Ghia coupe, owned by a great mate of mine, a farmer by the name of Trevor Chappell.

He’d bought one of these things before I met him. They were slippery-bodied and pretty, based on the original 36bhp VW 1200 floorpan and with an all-steel body designed by the Italian company Carrozzeria Ghia. A German firm, Karmann, had the contract to build these 2+2 coupes, and the shape was so appealing that they churned out over 364,000 of them.

Despite the streamlined body, they were heavier and slower than their sedan cousins, the original concept for these borrowed from a 1925 design by Béla Barényi for Mercedes-Benz.

Anyway, Trevor was running around in this 1974 version, before he decided it was way too slow for racing on Queensland’s Lowood circuit. Then he spotted an ad for a go-faster kit made by Okrasa of Germany. For a fair bit of the folding, they would supply a stroker crankshaft, four 80.5mm pistons and barrels to suit, and two vertical alloy manifolds to fit standard Solex carburettors.

Trev thought that this was a real good thing, so he picked up the package and got Jim Bertram, Brisbane’s top tuner, to strip the VW engine and install these good bits. I think Jim tweaked the camshaft a bit while the mill was in pieces, and the end result turned a pedestrian car into a firecracker, capable of outrunning supercharged MGs and stove-hot Morris Minors.

Trev raced the German gem for a bit before buying a real racing car, a Morgan Plus 4. This was reworked by Alan Caelli to accept a Standard Vanguard 2.0-litre six in place of the original four-pot Triumph TR2 mill, which was less powerful and heavier. So the Karmann was then used as a fast road car, as Trev was based at his Allora farm and had to commute often into Brisbane to party.

I got involved with the Darling Downs bloke through working on his Morgan, so he lent me the reworked Karmann to use as daily transport, as at that stage I worked on the Gold Coast. This bloody dak-dak was really quick up to 120 clicks, and one night I raced a 356 Porsche from Surfers along a straight-ish double highway until the road ended at a set of traffic lights at Southport. Those lights were there because back then there was a fork in the road immediately following a sharp left turn. I knew about that, so I slowed down, But the 356 didn’t. Wrote off his right front guard on the kerbing Armco, and while he was abusing me, the lights changed and I took off!

Eventually, the Karmann went back to Trevor and resumed duty as his fast road rocket. The highway from Warwick to Brisbane rose over a massive mountain range named Cunninghams Gap. On the northern downhill side, it was a really tricky road of short straights and fast, tight bends, and Trev loved that challenge. He was flinging the little coupe down that mountain as fast as it would move, downshifting and accelerating and having heaps of fun – until the overworked, air-cooled flat-four dropped the head off an exhaust valve.

He had it towed back to the farm, and there it sat until I found a man who wanted the engine – provided that I pulled it apart first and fitted a new valve.

I swore a lot when Trevor dropped the mill off to me in Brisbane, but I pulled off all the air-directing tin and the offending head, managed to buy a good second-hand valve to fit, and reassembled the engine. But it was really, really tired and should have had at least four new barrels and pistons, which were worn out after all that road and track racing, but the budget was too tight. It was going into a stock VW Beetle sedan, and I did see how it was running on its twin carburettors when the guy brought it in for an inspection, but it was not well, obviously down on compression and blowing black smoke.

So I hope it was eventually rebuilt into as-new condition by a dak-dak expert for lots of road-going enjoyment. After all, that Karmann Ghia coupe was a real Porsche shut-down machine!