Karmann Carrera: High-Tech Mods In A Classic Volkswagen

In This Article
Category: Restomods
Make: Volkswagen
Model: Karmann ghia
Year: 1965

Volkswagens, particularly the tricked-out variety, have been coexisting like curds and whey with car enthusiasts in Southern California, almost since the bombed-out Wolfsburg plant slowly came back to life. Volkswagens in California took all forms, from dead stock to surfboard-toting Sambas, to the first dune buggies, to end-chopped Baja specials with towering stinger exhausts, down through the decades. Other fans turned Volkswagens into diminutive Gassers for the drag strips. If you’re of a certain age, you may have even built the glue kit by Revell— which started out in Hollywood—that built up into an EMPI-equipped performance Beetle.

More than 50 years later, EMPI is still very much in business. And people from around California, and especially the Los Angeles metro area, are still heart-throbbing with joy over air-cooled Volkswagens, especially the built-up kind. What we’re talking about here is embodied by this faithfully authentic, yet enthusiastically modified, 1965 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, the delightful Type-1 (Beetle)-based sport coupe. It’s the product of one technically savvy owner’s mental picture of what a Volkswagen that was fit for both go-fast moves and street cruising could logically be. The owner of this Karmann Ghia took an interrupted buildup and made it his very own, using techniques practiced at his workplace, which produces very sophisticated fuel-injection systems for a variety of modern vehicles.

This is a long, long way from an exercise in bolting on parts extracted from cardboard boxes. Instead, Danny Foerster, who rescued this Karmann Ghia from possible oblivion, hand-crafted an advanced fuel-injection system using a pair of drive-by-wire throttles that now reside behind a pair of oversized performance air filters. In its history, Volkswagen never produced a true performance version of the Karmann Ghia. Danny’s work and thought processes have transformed this one into something that could have been analogous to a canyon-carving Porsche product except it was pieced together outside Los Angeles, not in Stuttgart.

“I believe that my Karmann Ghia is the only one in the world with twin throttle-by-wire throttles, at least as far as I know,” Danny says.

Built as a coupe and then a convertible shortly thereafter, the original Karmann Ghia remained in Volkswagen’s lineup from 1955 through 1974, until it was succeeded, first by the mid-engine Porsche 914 and ultimately, by the watercooled Volkswagen Scirocco. Essentially, it used a Type 1 platform, and was assembled under contract by the German coachbuilding firm Karmann at its plant in Osnabrück, Germany. It’s been a When completed, the Karmann Ghia’s profile offered a sporty rake, changing the attitude of Ghia’s otherwise stock styling. misconception for a long time that “Ghia,” in this case, referred to the Volkswagen’s body style. Instead, it refers to Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin, the design house whose owner, Luigi Segre, came into contact with Wilhelm Karmann and surreptitiously restyled a Beetle at Karmann’s suggestion. Segre showed his prototype to Karmann in 1953, who decided to build it.

The first Karmann Ghia, dubbed the Type 14, debuted in Paris in 1953 before being approved for production. That’s the first generation of the car, recognizable at once by its low-mounted headlamps. In 1961, Volkswagen undertook a restyling of the Karmann Ghia, its largely hand-built body now having higher-positioned headlamps, along with wider front grilles located inboard, plus larger taillamps. It was this configuration that lasted to the end, and which represents the raw material for Danny’s project. The car is based on an uncut, unmodified body shell and platform that was already being transformed when he got involved.

“My buddy Felix Barela was building the car. He had the car painted and then he needed someplace to store it,” Danny recalls. “It came to my shop as a shell, and I ended up buying it from him for what it had cost him to paint it. When I first built it, I didn’t put a lot of money into it—I just got it running with a stock engine, no customized interior or anything. Then after about a year of driving it, I decided to make it really, really nice, and to put some money into it, and to put a lot of time into it. That’s how I ended up with what it is now.”

That process began some 10 years ago at Danny’s shop in Huntington Beach, down in Orange County. It all started out when the Karmann Ghia’s transmission started to leak. A lifelong Beetle fan, Danny was quickly reminded how easily these cars’ powertrains can be disassembled. “I pulled the engine and transmission and after that, everything just came apart. I got everything powder coated, stuff like that,” he says. “First, I had the transmission redone. Then I completely rebuilt the engine. I designed custom fuel injection for it. Then I designed a custom throttle-by-wire setup.”

Volkswagen never offered a performance version of the Karmann Ghia; however, creative engineering boosted this air-cooled engine’s displacement to 2,332-cc and its output to 190 hp.

Danny is a technical pro at Split Second of Santa Ana, which builds complete fuel-injection systems and related gear for aftermarket applications. Before deciding on the fuel system, he started out on the engine build with his late friend, Gary Larsen. Most of the internal components that transformed the engine were sourced from CB Performance Products of Farmersville, California, a specialist in hot Volkswagens. Danny specified a stroker crankshaft with 84-mm connecting rods and 94-mm pistons, which brought the flat-four’s total displacement to 2,332-cc, compared to 1,493-cc stock. The engine has CB Performance cylinder heads with larger valves, divided by a Berg Enterprises intake manifold.

The engine is naturally aspirated, but its unique fuel-injection system, which Danny designed himself at Split Second, does a star turn in the buildup. The setup uses dual Jet Performance electronically controlled throttles, one per side, fully customized and managed by a Split Second computer. The throttles were originally designed for a Chevrolet LS3 small-block V-8. As Danny explains, “It has twin plenums because it has two throttle bodies. It runs one injector per cylinder, and there are actually two computers that control the fuel injection. Our product is designed to go on late-model cars, and I just adapted it to work on the Volkswagen engine. It piggybacks off the system that’s already in the car. It allows you to control the injector pulse width. We have an input of throttle position and rpm, and that gives us the manifold absolute pressure (MAP) table to control the pulse width. It has some other inputs like air temperature and head temperature, which have their own MAP tables and can compensate by adjusting the fuel.”

As Danny puts it, “I like to say that I hang out with smart people who help me with my crazy ideas,” referring to his Split Second coworkers. He built the rest of the fuel system himself, hand-fabricating the fuel rails. His friend, Erik Hernandez, detailed and painted the engine bay. Another friend, who goes by “Pushrod Chuck,” custom-made the breather box. As Danny says, remembering the dyno sheet, the rebuilt air-cooled engine now produces 190 horsepower, about 150 better than stock. The Pro Street transmission was rebuilt by Danny’s cousin, Volkswagen drag racer Jack Sachette, with welded gears, a lightened flywheel, and Stage II clutch from CB Performance. A low-restriction EMPI exhaust system completes the package.

Owner’s View

“The goal here was to make it as nice and customized as I can, which started with the engine. It’s very out of the ordinary for a Volkswagen. That was the goal, to do something different with the car. The Karmann Ghia wasn’t there for me at first, because I’ve always been a Volkswagen Bug guy. I’d never had a Karmann Ghia and when I got this one, I just fell in love with it. It’s the first one I’ve ever owned, and the first one I’ve ever built. I did just about everything with it, from putting all the windows in to making adjustments to the door gaps, everything like that. I did the bulk of the work myself. I’m happy with it.” —Danny Foerster

EMPI, the legendary purveyor of Volkswagen speed goodies based in Orange County, is responsible for most of the chassis components. The Karmann Ghia’s ride height has been dropped by an estimated 2 inches, using EMPI adjustable lowered spring plates. The car has KYB gas shock absorbers at all corners. Pushrod Chuck also got the call to narrow the EMPI front beam, from which the spindles are hung. Narrowing it keeps the front tires from binding inside the wheelwells when the Karmann Ghia is cornering. Those eye-grabbing wheels are imitation Fuchs units—there’s the Porsche analogue again—supplied by EMPI. Lefty’s Pinstriping of Yucaipa, California, detailed the wheels in black and finished the center caps. The Karmann Ghia has CB Performance disc brakes at every wheel, which are shod with 165-width Kumho radials and the rear, and 135-width Nankang units up front.

Like the body, the interior is uncut. The dash is dominated by a custom round gauge, built by Speedhut of Utah, which combines the speedometer with cylinder-head temperature, voltage, oil pressure, and fuel-level functions. The power seats are sourced from an E46 3-series BMW and retain power adjustability. There’s a custom pedal assembly from Coolrydes Customs of Chula Vista, and a custom shifter from legendary Volkswagen modifier Gene Berg of Orange, topped with a knob engraved with the logo of a friend of Danny’s who runs a Volkswagen dealership in Japan. The main color is Apache Green, a BMW hue.

Danny figures he drives the Karmann Ghia maybe 300 miles a year, preferring runs down the Pacific Coast Highway. The rumbling little German elicits a strong response. “It’s always 100 percent positive, especially when I show them the engine,” he says. “’Is it a Porsche? Is it turbocharged?’ I have to tell them otherwise.”

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