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Relaxed Motoring: The Karmann Ghia and 190SL

October 23, 2011 by Matt

Volkswagen VW Karmann Ghia

Speed isn’t the point here.

Neither is handling, or any of the cars’ dynamics, really. And truth be told, it’s not even exclusively about looks. Rather, the goal is a convergence of attributes, an overlap of good qualities in a very particular and specific way in order to create an impression, an aura, if you will, about them to their owners and those who observe them.

The two cars under consideration are the ’55-’71 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia—a rebodied VW Beetle, sharing its anemic but distinctive mechanicals—and the ’55-’63 Mercedes-Benz 190SL, which took the legendary 300SL Gullwing and excised all the “racing” from it, chopping the top, removing the spaceframe and substituting the fire-breathing, fuel-injected six for a sedate, carb’d four.

They’re both German cars with 4-cylinder engines, but on paper, those are really their only shared qualities. One has a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat four; the other’s engine is water-cooled, upright and in the front. They occupy significantly different price points, both when they were introduced and now, and they each arrived at their present configuration following different paths, the Karmann Ghia being a tarted-up Beetle, and the 190SL essentially a very detuned race car.

Mercedes-Benz Merc MB M-B 190SL 190 SL Roadster Cabriolet Convertible

So what’s the big deal?

They’re the sort of cars that create a universally positive impression about you on passers-by. Drive a straight sports or luxury car, no matter the make, and it’s virtually certain that there’s some segment of the population that will view you in a negative light. But I defy anyone to spy a well-kept Karmann Ghia or 190SL motoring along a high street on a sunny fall afternoon and not smile. They’re just pleasant cars; no pretension, no exhibition, just profoundly good taste—the automotive equivalent of every screen role Morgan Freeman has ever played. They’re classics, and their age and shape grants them a kind of gravitas that their deft proportions immediately play down. The cars are charming; they turn your head and encourage you to appreciate their simple elegance.

Full disclosure: I haven’t driven either. But I can visualize myself behind the wheel of a Karmann Ghia or 190SL and feel quite confident that the kind of emotion they would leave me with would be one of immense satisfaction, but without the artificial inflation so many cars create in various ways. They’re not meant to be powerful enough to go head-to-head against anything with even the power-to-weight ratio of the typical modern minivan. So no illusions there. And neither of them are achingly beautiful in a way that would mismatch with their owners—visualize a first-generation T-Bird driven by a 50-something, balding, overweight executive type and you get the idea. So their design isn’t meant to “overcome” anything; they just are, and you hold the knowledge of both their dynamic and aesthetic status as you drive. Driving the Karmann Ghia or 190SL instills the sense that you’ve got nothing to prove, and there’s something liberating about that.

Really, for graceful motoring that radiates goodwill and charm, it doesn’t get any better.

Filed under: Mercedes, Volkswagen


  1. John D says:

    Seems like I’ve heard stories that my dad had a Karmann Ghia back in the day. The only lasting impression I can recall from his stories relate to how it was a unique and distinctive looking car that got some looks but was almost a hassle to drive because it was so incredibly slow. And now I know what one looks like. Not bad at all. But I think I’ll forgo the test drive…even an imaginary one. ;)

    • Matt says:

      Yep, I think the accepted 0-60 time is around 25-30 seconds. And when you get there, you’ll be traveling quite close to the vehicle’s top speed. Not a rocket sled; that’s for sure.

      Still, I can confidently say every time I’ve seen one driving around, the fact that the owner chose to drive such a car immediately formed a positive prejudice in my mind. I’m predisposed to approve of the personality type of owners who appreciate them; that’s what it is.

  2. BD says:

    The 190SL was based on the 190 ponton sedan and only styled to look like the 300SL, which is the detuned race car. It’s basically Merc’s economy sedan with a few engine tweaks and a pretty body. The 300 had the space frame chassis, direct fuel injection etc.

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