VW Karmann-Ghia: Wild Aussie Off-Road Racers and Sports Sedans
- 15 September 2014
Frequent flyer. Steve Knott’s rugged off-road racer based on the classic VW Karmann-Ghia was one of the fastest Class 5 contenders in the Australian Off-Road Championship in 1989-90. With 18 inches (over 450mm) of wheel travel, this V6-powered missile was designed and built to withstand this kind of brutal treatment in gruelling events that lasted 400 kms and more. Image: Steve Knott
Given its humble VW Beetle-based origins, the Type 14 Karmann-Ghia of the 1960s would probably not be first in a typical wish-list of competition cars, but the stylish coupe boasts a diverse if little known competition history in Australian motor sport.
With beautiful styling by Italian design house Ghia, the low slung and curvaceous sheet metal crafted by German coachbuilder Karmann gave the humble torsion bar VW Beetle platform a new personality which appealed to motor sport competitors with creative engineering minds.
With suitable modifications, it proved very competitive in the rough and tough world of Australian off-road racing. It also served as the basis for some of the fastest and most intriguing small-bore circuit racing sedans of the 1960s and 1970s in Australia and overseas, which we’ll get to a little later.
Australia’s wildest Karmann Ghia off road racer, which competed in the late 1980s was designed, built and driven with great skill by Steve Knott. ‘Knotty’ as he’s known in the local racing industry has built some of Australia’s best competition engines for some of the country’s biggest touring car stars, including the 350 V8 in Kevin Bartlett’s legendary ‘Nine Sports’ Camaro of the early 1980s.
He’s also built racing engines for numerous other top level road circuit and power boat racers and even worked as a race engineer in the prestigious German Touring Car Championship (DTM) in the early 1990s.
South Australian driver Peter Schultz proved the rugged effectiveness of the Karmann-Ghia in Aussie off-road racing with this potent version, powered by a modified Porsche 911 flat-six. Knott continued to push the envelope in design and performance.
When he wasn’t spinning spanners on race engines in the 1970s and ‘80s, Steve Knott could be found spinning wheels in the rough and tough world of Aussie off road racing. For Knotty, getting behind the wheel of a rugged off-roader was a less stressful and enjoyable form of motor sport than most other categories, with a greater sense of camaraderie amongst competitors.
He started his off road racing career on motorcycles in the early 1970s before progressing to four wheels with a purpose-built buggy. With his creative engineering juices flowing, he then scratch-built a racing buggy of his own design, powered by a fuel injected and supercharged VW Golf engine that proved to be extremely fast.
Armed with that knowledge and experience, his next goal was to tackle Class 5, which catered for 2WD production-based vehicles. Always popular with the spectators as they could easily relate to these vehicles, Class 5 attracted a variety of modified road cars, Aussie utes and imported pick-up trucks, which Steve thought he could conquer with his own extreme interpretation of the VW Karmann-Ghia.
South Australian Peter Schultz had proven the off road racing credentials of the rear-engined German-built coupe in the early 1980s, powered by a potent Porsche 911 engine hanging over the rear axles which proved very competitive.
The Karmann-Ghia’s rear-engined design was most appealing to Knott, as Class 5’s production-based 2WD rules demanded retention of the original drivetrain lay-out.
That suited him because he was adamant that his proposed off road racer needed its engine mounted behind the rear axle line to put plenty of weight over the rear tyres and provide maximum traction on loose surfaces. There weren’t many ‘sedans’ with such a low slung aerodynamic body and rear-mounted engine combination that could comply with such a rule.
The debut of Knott’s self-built Karmann-Ghia in 1989 had everyone talking, particularly about those huge rear mudguards designed to shroud some very large rear tyres as required by the rules. From any angle it was a sensational-looking machine and a real crowd pleaser.
The Karmann-Ghia proved an ideal starting point. And it had to be as light as possible yet with tank-tough build strength to withstand brutal punishment if he was going to challenge for Class 5 honours in the Australian Off Road Championship (AORC).
Fortunately Steve did not have to cut-up a classic Karmann-Ghia to create his dream off road racer. He found his starting point sitting in the front yard of a suburban home; an abandoned show car project that comprised a slightly rusty but original body shell up to the firewall with a one-piece fiberglass front-clip to go with it. Not suitable for a showroom restoration, but ideal for this purpose.
Knott adopted the one-piece fiberglass tilting front clip design, which saved a lot of weight and allowed easy access to the car’s front end. The front section was widened with a filler strip of fiberglass up the centre. Bulbous wheel arch flares were added to cover the front wheels.
Each of the original steel rear mudguards were sliced off and extended outwards by welding in sheet metal filler strips. This was to provide the body clearance needed for the huge off road tyres and long suspension travel. As you’ll see, this modification would also cause a major rule headache for Steve in his first year of competition.
"One of the things that really amazed me about the Karmann-Ghia was that a lot of things like the door locks and hinges and everything were made from aluminium,” Knott told Shannons Club.
"I was really impressed by that because they were so light and nicely made that I couldn’t have made anything better myself, so I used as much of that original stuff as I could.”
Touchdown! Knott’s Karmann-Ghia plunges back to earth after more high-flying aerobatics during the 1990 AORC season. With engine and transmission located behind the rear axle line, the front end didn’t suffer nearly as much punishment as its front-engined competitors in Class 5. Image: Steve Knott
The Schultz Karmann-Ghia used Porsche 911 power, but Knott did not want to follow that path as Porsche engine components were expensive and he was sure he could find a lighter alternative that produced ample power and torque.
His solution was a 2.6 litre Renault V6 known as the PRV because it was used as a power source for a variety of Peugeot, Renault and Volvo (hence PRV) cars of the era. With its narrow 90 degree angle and aluminium block and heads, this sweet V6 was light, compact and ideal for the task.
With his vast experience at building race engines, Knott was able to almost double the V6’s standard power output with a tougher crankshaft, rod and piston combination matched to a hot Waggott camshaft, fully worked heads, custom-made exhaust extractors with Supertrapp mufflers and two 44 mm Weber IDF downdraught carburettors on a hand-crafted inlet manifold.
This proved a very potent and reliable power source, with 240 rock-throwing horses on tap across a broad power band that stretched from 3000 rpm all the way to 7500 rpm. It also boasted impressive torque with around 230 ft/lbs.
This tremendous punch at lower revs allowed Knott to run a relatively tall final drive ratio and leave the car in higher gears coming out of corners, to reduce wheel-spin and maximise acceleration. Top speed registered on a radar gun at one event was a snip under 180 km/h, with 200 km/h-plus potential given more space to stretch its legs with a taller diff.
The compact and very light Renault 2.6 litre aluminium V6 made an ideal power source. Note the neat functionality of its installation in the tubular steel space-frame. Note also the big oil-impregnated foam air filter, which protruded through an opening in the engine cover to provide cool, dust-filtered air to the twin Weber downdraught carburettors. Image: Steve Knott
A lightened flywheel and heavy duty clutch were matched with a four-speed transaxle from a 2.0 litre VW Kombi. This light aluminium casing was loaded with competition Hewland gears and a super strong Albins ‘open’ diff in preference to a limited slip set-up due to Knott’s use of a hydraulic handbrake.
Popular in rallying and off road racing, hydraulic handbrakes are plumbed into the rear brake hydraulic circuits of cars to let drivers retard either the left or right rear wheel so that the other wheel in effect drives around it. If used with an open diff (no LSD or locker), this provides much greater steering response in cars with a strong rearward weight bias like Knott’s Karmann-Ghia.
The control lever was mounted on his right-hand side, which if pushed forward braked the left rear wheel and if pulled back braked the right. Knott said that after a while this push-pull action became second nature to him.
"Basically you could drive flat-out down a winding road and go through the turns without moving the steering wheel,” Knott said. “It was really great in the loose stuff. If the outside wheel dug in through a turn you’d just hit the foot brake to stop the inside wheel spinning in the air and drive it out on the other wheel.”
Brakes were big 11.5-inch diameter ventilated four wheel discs specially made for off road racing by US supplier Carr, designed to avoid damage from a bent wheel with trick internally-mounted calipers.
Under that low-slung fiberglass and steel bodywork was Knott’s beautifully designed and fabricated space-frame chassis, hand-crafted from cold-drawn chrome moly tubing that tied the cockpit, drivetrain and front and rear suspension into one fully welded and extremely rigid package.
Remnants of the original Karmann-Ghia were evident in the otherwise highly modified cockpit for driver and navigator. Note the stout roll cage cross-bracing beneath the dashboard, minimal instrumentation and sports steering wheel. To the right of the driver’s seat you can just see the push-pull lever to operate the hydraulic turning brakes on the rear wheels (see story). Image: Steve Knott
The two-seat cockpit for driver and navigator retained the original VW floor tray and central tunnel with a big 120-litre aluminium foam-filled fuel tank mounted directly behind the seats with fillers mounted on each side through the rear windows.
The long travel front suspension built by Wright Engineering in the US was based on VW’s original twin torsion bar design, but supplied as a complete chrome moly front-end with a steering rack that bolted straight in, longer trailing arms, wider track width and two coil-over shocks per wheel.
The rear suspension featured long trailing arms with integral hub carriers made by Mark Stahl in the US, which splayed out at 45 degree angles to each wheel from front pivot points under the cabin floor.
The rear suspension featured three coil-over shocks per wheel to support the greater weight of the engine and transmission and Knott’s clever yet simple three-stage compression system.
The first two stages were covered by primary and secondary coils on the shocks, separated by floating dividers (just like the front). The third stage featured a separate trailing arm with its own coil-over shock unit, which was only used during the heaviest of landings by engaging with a roller mounted on the primary trailing arm.
Together these extreme front and rear suspension designs delivered a whopping 18 inches of wheel travel, capable of withstanding the most brutal off road terrain for hundreds of flat-out kilometres.
The car’s front end shows the skilled fabrication that went into building this incredible machine, which was a credit to Knott’s versatile skills as a car builder. Fully welded tubular steel space-frame was immensely strong. Note the two-stage coil-over shocks, very long torsion bars and big radiator to cool the hot V6 engine in the heat of battle. Image: Steve Knott
The Karmann-Ghia sat tall on big 15-inch diameter US Centreline off road racing wheels, built from two forged aluminium halves held together by rugged stainless steel rivets. Fronts were 5.5 inches wide with fatter 9.5 inch rears, wrapped in Hankook tyres with bead locks.
Knott and his wild new machine caused a sensation on debut in the 1989 Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC) with navigator Gavin Milkie.
Straight out of the box it was the fastest Class 5 qualifier at the opening round at Griffith (NSW) and finished third in class after 400 bruising kilometres. At Kempsey’s equally rugged round two in NSW, Knott was beaten only by a big 350 V8-powered Chevy pick-up and he showed impressive pace in the third round at Waikerie in South Australia.
However, Knott had been racing under protest since the start of the season, which came to a head at the fourth and final 1989 AORC round at Inglewood (QLD) when he was knocked back at scrutineering and not allowed to compete.
The reason? Simply that his bulbous rear guards contravened CAMS’ regulations because they altered the body shape of the car. As far as Knott was concerned, they were built to the letter of the law to cover the big rear wheels and tyres. The rules on this clearly needed clarification.
"The rules contradicted themselves because they said wider wheels and tyres had to be fully covered by body flares, but you also weren’t allowed to alter the ‘shape’ of the vehicle,” Knott explained.
You could be excused for thinking Steve Knott’s Karmann-Ghia spent more time in the air than it did on the ground! It will always be remembered as one of the most exciting vehicles to compete in the Australian Off-Road Championship. Image: Steve Knott
“What the rules should have said was that car builders couldn’t alter the profile or ‘silhouette’ of the vehicle. Fortunately they could see the confusion caused by the wording, so that was changed for the following year and we were cleared to race.”
Unfortunately for Knott, his second AORC campaign in 1990 was also derailed by officialdom, after his Karmann-Ghia (now with sponsorship from tyre manufacturer Hankook) proved to be consistently fast and reliable throughout the five-round championship.
He claimed several fastest qualifying times and podium finishes which kept him in the hunt for Class 5 honours right up to the final round. What brought his campaign unstuck was when Griffith 400 race organisers disallowed crucial lost time he wanted to claim for helping move a crashed car out of a gateway. Sadly he was penalised for his ‘Good Samaritan’ act.
Knott had to park his awesome off-roader in 1991-92 when he moved to Germany to work as a race engineer on a works-backed Opel Omega in the German Touring Car Championship.
Returning to Australia in 1993, Knott had plans to dust off the Karmann-Ghia and return to off-road racing. However, due to pressing work commitments and other interests, it sat gathering dust in a corner of his shed until Knott made the tough decision to sell.
"I sold it to someone in Queensland who planned to go off-road racing in it, but I’ve never seen it or heard about since,” he said. “If it hasn’t been destroyed or stripped for parts, it’s probably sitting around in someone’s shed somewhere. Hopefully one day I’ll stumble across it and restore it.”
So if you know of anyone with a mud-splattered VW Karmann-Ghia, sitting sky high on big knobbly tyres with a V6 in the tail and a tonne of attitude, please drop us a line.
Ken Hastings powering through BP Corner in his 2.0 litre Ford BDG-powered Karmann-Ghia during the 1979 Australian Sports Sedan Championship round at Sydney’s Oran Park. This bright yellow machine was in many ways a scaled-down version of Frank Gardner’s all-conquering Chevrolet Corvair.
Honey, I shrunk Frank Gardner’s Corvair!
The radical Chevrolet Corvair sports sedan raced by Frank Gardner and Allan Grice with crushing success in the late 1970s left an indelible impression on Australian motor sport.
That amazing car, with its mid-mounted 5.0 litre Chevrolet V8 engine, was so dominant during four seasons of competition that the sport’s governing body moved to effectively ban it after claiming its third straight Australian Sports Sedan Championship (ASSC) in 1979.
We say ‘effectively’ because by changing a key rule in the regulations, the all-conquering Corvair and cars built along similar lines lost their competitive advantage.
The sports sedan rules had previously allowed what were originally rear-engined cars, like the Corvair/VW Beetle/Porsche 911 etc, to relocate their engines from behind the rear axle line to in front of it. This created a classic mid-engined chassis lay-out with near-perfect front to rear weight distribution.
Aussie international Frank Gardner re-wrote the record books with his radical Chevrolet Corvair-based sports sedan, seen here at Calder Park during its debut season in 1976. Although the basic concept and early construction was the work of Sydney racer Tom Nailard, Gardner’s vast experience in race car design and development combined with his driving skills refined it into an almost invincible machine. Note the engine cover for the mid-mounted 5.0 litre V8 mounted directly behind the driver.
For the 1980 season, CAMS simply re-wrote that rule so that all cars originally built with their engines behind the rear axle line had to remain that way. So with the stroke of a pen, the mighty Gardner/Grice Corvair and other sports sedans which took advantage of that rule were rendered uncompetitive.
This led to the sudden demise of not only the Corvair but also an extremely fast 2.0 litre sports sedan based on the VW Karmann-Ghia, which only raced for a brief period in the late 1970s and in both appearance and chassis design looked like a miniature version of the Gardner Corvair.
This potent little rocket was built and driven by Ken Hastings in 1978-79, setting several 2.0 litre class lap records and scaring many larger and more powerful V8 rivals with its speed and handling. Outstanding results like third place overall at the Calder round of the 1979 ASSC, a renowned big horsepower track, attest to its remarkable performance.
Unfortunately, little is known about this car as Ken Hastings has sadly since passed away and what can be documented about it is based on a collation of news clippings and personal anecdotes. Our thanks to motor sport enthusiast and former owner of this car, Peter Smeets, for his help with this story.
The early version of Hastings’ Karmann-Ghia sports sedan in action at Calder Park in 1978. Note the very boxy wheel flares that were fitted at this stage, which were in stark contrast to the otherwise flowing lines of the Ghia-styled coupe. Fortunately these flares were refined with much smoother and more aerodynamic replacements in 1979.
Hastings clearly had affection for Volkswagens as he raced a hot VW Beetle-based sports sedan before transferring most of its mechanicals into the lower and sleeker Karmann-Ghia.
Not much was left of the original hand-crafted steel body and VW floor pan when Hastings had finished with it, though. The original cabin and roof section between the firewall and rear bulkhead were retained, with a tubular steel roll cage inside that extended to tubular steel space-frames at either end of the car to support the suspension and one-piece front and rear body sections made from lightweight fiberglass.
Like the Gardner Corvair, the engine was mounted ahead of the rear axle line and directly behind the front seats. However, instead of a big 5.0 litre V8, Hastings fitted the full-house four cylinder Ford BDG race engine from his Beetle.
With twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and close to 300 bhp, the high revving and potent 1975cc power unit was mated to a Hewland FT200 trans-axle driving the rear wheels. The engine and transmission were solidly mounted within the space-frame as semi-stressed chassis members.
Another shot of Hastings’ Karmann-Ghia at Oran Park in 1979. Note how small this car was compared to its largely V8-powered competition. Its light weight and potent Ford BDG engine resulted in a very fast and agile package.
Front and rear suspension featured upper and lower wishbones with lightweight cast-aluminium hub carrier/uprights and four wheel disc brakes. Historical documents and anecdotal evidence suggest this car may have started with suspension components sourced from various road cars, before being upgraded with wishbones, uprights and brakes from an Elfin Formula 5000 single-seater.
Either way, the end result was very light and very fast, even if the standard of presentation seen in Hastings’ workmanship (look at those early box-type wheel flares) was considered by some to be a bit agricultural at times.
With the rule change for 1980, Hastings removed the BDG engine and Hewland trans-axle and fitted them to a Toyota MR2-based sports sedan (which CAMS also banned) and sold the Karmann-Ghia as a rolling shell to SA’s Peter Smeets.
Smeets told Shannons Club that he successfully installed a rear-mounted Mazda 10A rotary engine in the car and later sold it to Brian Randall (Randy’s Race Wheels) who also had a lot of fun with it.
Amazingly, it ended its racing days in the hands of “a young fella” by returning to road duties with full registration. Given that it still had its tube steel front and rear space-frames, one-piece front and rear fiberglass body sections and full race suspension, this would have made one wild road car!
The Porsche-powered Dacon Karmann-Ghias dominated Brazilian motor sport in the mid-1960s. These were very fast cars driven by the cream of the country’s driving talent, including future F1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
Brazil nuts: The Dacon Karmann-Ghia Porsches
Back in the 1960s, the Brazilian government (like Australia) was imposing punitive import tariffs on fully imported vehicles to protect local car makers and promote local assembly of imported cars.
So to gain publicity for your products through motor sport, the most affordable option was to start with a locally-assembled car, modify it to go as fast as possible and employ the best driver to get the most out of it on the race track.
Dacon was a major VW assembler, distributor and dealer in Brazil, which also imported Porsches for wealthy clients. So given those strong German factory connections, Dacon boss Paul Goulart started with a locally-assembled Karmann-Ghia and fitted it with as many Porsche parts as possible.
Goulart’s Porsche 356-engined Karmann-Ghia prototype proved successful and after winning one of the country’s most prestigious endurance races in 1964, he committed to building up a multi-car race team to promote the Volkswagen brand through motor sport.
Four semi-works Karmann-Ghia race cars were built, fitted with either 1.6 litre or 2.0 litre Porsche 356 engines imported by Dacon. These engines were much hotter than stock, having been modified using competition parts from the Porsche 904 that produced much higher power outputs.
The Dacon cars were also much lighter than standard Karmann-Ghias, thanks to fiberglass replacing steel in numerous body panels and the use of many lightweight aluminium parts.
Fitting hot Porsche 356 engines to locally-assembled Karmann-Ghias was a smart move by Brazilian VW distributor and dealer Paul Goulart. The race track dominance of these specially prepared cars provided a strong image boost for the Volkswagen brand.
Goulart employed the best local driving talent, too, including a local young gun named Emerson Fittipaldi. The sublimely talented Brazilian would of course progress rapidly through open wheeler ranks to become a multiple world F1 champion in the 1970s, driving for Lotus and McLaren.
His brother Wilson was also one of the Dacon team drivers, along with another ferociously fast local talent named Carlos Pace. Both these drivers would also ascend to F1 racing in the 1970s.
Not surprisingly, given the raw speed of the Porsche-powered Karmann-Ghias and Dacon’s prodigious driving talent, the multi-car team dominated Brazilian motor sport in 1966-67, often with formation 1-2 finishes. In the most prestigious endurance race of the year, the Dacon cars finished a crushing 1-2-3.
The Dacon Karmann-Ghias and their talented drivers were so good that the Dacon team often had the luxury of staging 1-2 formation finishes. They went one better in the country’s most prestigious endurance race, the 1000 km Brasilia, with a memorable 1-2-3 result.
Even so, the racing program took a heavy toll on the cars, with reports that the big power and torque increases from the hot Porsche engines had resulted in alarming chassis twisting and cracking. The chassis required constant welding repairs to keep them on the track.
After two dominant seasons the Dacon team was disbanded, having more than achieved its goal of raising the profile and desirability of the VW brand in Brazil. One of the cars was sold to the Fittipaldi brothers who continued to win races in it.
The fate of the other original Dacon team cars is not known, although the numerous high quality replicas or ‘tribute cars’ that have been built in their honour shows just how revered these Porsche-powered Karmann-Ghias were in their day.