Steel roof or "fabric hat"?
It is unlikely that Wilhelm Karmann asked himself this question at the beginning of the 20th Century when he, in 1913, registered his first patent - one that would turn his young company in Osnabrück into a global operation decades later. The "mechanics for the folding top" went on to revolutionise automobile construction for vehicles "without a roof". Prior to that, Karmann already had twelve years of experience in body construction of carriages and the early automobiles.
From a carriage to a Beetle Cabriolet
With a large order from the Adler Plant in Frankfurt am Main, the Osnabrück company became, as of 1926, one of the leading pioneers of German cabriolets. A rolling legend which is still being built today was created when Wilhelm Karmann - now two generations, Senior and Junior - set up a business connection with the Volkswagen Plant in Wolfsburg shortly after the second world war:
The Beetle Cabriolet, which was developed by Karmann in Osnabrück and was then built under commission from Volkswagen from 1949 to 1980, is - as with the fixed roof version, synonymous with the German economic miracle and also represents an upturn shift of the company. As of 10 January 1980, a total of 331,847 Beetles with a fabric roof rolled off the production line. It was with this model that the Karmann's reputation as a specialist for the cabriolet roof and small series grew.
Right: The last Beetle Cabriolet is produced at Karmann Osnabrück - followed directly by the Golf I Cabriolet
Italian chic for Wolfsburg: Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
However, the "Karmann" myth would be linked to another Volkswagen. "One of the most beautiful cars in the world", was how Gute Fahrt (Good Trip), a magazine for VW drivers, described the car in September 1955. And even if it was "just" a sporty coupé built on a Beetle platform - the elegant lines of the Karmann Ghia captivated the motoring press and car drivers alike. Two years before in 1953, Wilhelm Karmann Jr. had presented the prototype of the Karmann Ghia Coupé (Typ 14) to Volkswagen General Director Heinrich Nordhoff for the first time in Georgsmarienhütte. The "old man" from Wolfsburg was convinced, and the Osnabrück company received the commission to develop the car into a model ready for production.
The first vehicle rolled off the production line in spring 1955, and continued until 1974. In total, 443,482 Karmann Ghia coupés were built.
Below: Volkswagen Karmann Ghia (Typ 14) Cabriolet
While it carried the Italian elegance of the designer, it remained a "Beetle in sports clothing" - and was always driven by the most powerful, air-cooled boxer engine currently available out of Wolfsburg. Performance ranged from a very moderate 30 PS in 1955 to an 50 PS from 1600 ccm in 1974 - and that was a lot of horsepower, way back then.
Left: Production of the Beetle and Karmann Ghia cabriolets bumper to bumper
Karmann small series competence grows over and above
By the end of the 1960s, other manufacturers had started to place orders at Osnabrück to develop cabriolets or small series models. Karmann was knocking on the doors of the automobile aristocracy, even making the four-seater Audi 100 for the Ingolstadt company and developed the "Volksporsche" 914/4 alongside Porsche and Volkswagen. The allure of his designs was undeniable: bauhausesque frugality, characteristic folding headlights and the clear, horizontal contours at the rear.
"Without a roof" - Osnabrück beach life
During this time, beach cars from California - better known as "buggys" - had ventured across the Atlantic. Here too, Karmann was ahead of its time, developing the "Gypsy" in 1970, a buggy inspired by the success of the similarly conceived French models designed for the beaches of the Côte d´Azur. A plastic body was set on the floor panel of a Volkswagen Beetle - it was robust, easy to wash and totally open. Sadly, apart from a few prototypes, only brochures were ever produced.
But, just a year later, Karmann made use of an idea from a readers' competition from a car magazine. Initially available only as an assembly set for around 3,000 DM, by 1977 assembled models were introduced into the market, and were seen on the streets well into the 1980s.
Right:"Flower power" with the Buggy Karmann GF
Strawberry basket with handles
Volkswagen finally introduced the long-awaited successor to the Beetle when it presented the Golf I in 1974. It seemed that the end was near for the open-top Beetle, and so Karmann took the initiative to develop a cabriolet from the Golf platform - although it was still without the famous "handles" on the "strawberry basket". At the 1976 presentation in Wolfsburg, the then Head of Volkswagen Development immediately gave the green light to commence production - "but not without a bar". In order to be successful on the world market, cabrios of this period - such as the Porsche 911 Targa - required an appropriate "handle".
The safety bar Karmann designed was subject to heated debate right from its presentation in 1979, but it proved to be no obstacle to success. In just 12 years the Golf, with its "fabric hat", overtook its predecessor as the most produced cabriolet in the world. It then received some visual upgrades and survived two Golf generations, and by 1993 a total of 388,525 had been produced. The direct successor also skipped a model change of the closed version and kept on until 2001, with over 200,000 rolling off the production line in Osnabrück.
Left: Basket of strawberries" - because of the "handle" (the noticeable roll-bar) and the body shape, the Golf convertible MK 1 earned this nickname.
The last "Karmann"
The years 2001 to 2009 signalled the end the of Karmann GmbH's independence as too many clients withdrew development and production capacity. Even with the production of Mercedes Benz's CLK models and the Chrysler Crossfire, as well as their own innovations - including the development of modern roof mechanisms, the company was unable to turn back the tide. Liquidity dwindled, and on 23 June 2009, the last real "Karmann" left the production halls. With the establishment of the Volkswagen Osnabrück GmbH in December 2009 and the transfer of the most important production materials, the Wolfsburg Group secured the legendary skills of the "Karmänner" in cabriolet and small series manufacture.
Karmann expertise for the Volkswagen Group
After a 10-year wait, production of a new Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet began in 2011, and for five years, an open-top Golf without "handles" was available to the market.
Porsche had also relocated the production of the Cayman in 2012 to the site in Lower Saxony, and in doing so secured more than jobs. The agile and fleet-footed sports car is still a best seller in the Stuttgart company's catalogue today. Also manufactured at Karmann, the raucous noise of the Porsche's mid-mounted engine in particular was a blast from the past and reminiscent of the 914.
Left: The 2017 Porsche Cayman in its element
On 17 April 2014, Volkswagen went on to begin production of what was at the time a technical flagship project for the Group, the one-litre XL1. In contrast to the current production of the Porsche Cayman in Osnabrück or the Tiguan I, which was due to expire, production of the XL1 did not start in a factory hall the size of a football pitch, but rather, the space resembled more of a Bugatti studio in Molsheim.
If it were up to him, Wilhelm Karmann would have probably given even this technology pioneer a fabric hat, who knows? He would, however, have been immensely proud that the "open-top" T-Roc - the only cabriolet from the Volkswagen brand, will be built at his Osnabrück location.