It’s a well-known fact that some of the most well-engineered cars on the road today were produced by Germans. But here’s something that isn’t as well-known: Outside of Germany’s "Big Three" (BMW, Daimler-Benz and the Volkswagen Group), two low-volume independent manufacturers played a significant role in the development and production of convertibles for the German Big Three. These restructured and now-defunct companies, Baur and Karmann, were Germany’s only independent coachbuilders with a specific focus on the convertible. I, myself own a vehicle produced by Karmann, a 1993 Volkswagen Cabriolet "Collector’s Edition," equipped with an incredibly simple and well-designed Karmann vinyl soft-top. Notable features of my Volkswagen’s ragtop are a heated glass rear window and horsehair insulation — major innovations to improve year-round drivability.
Established as a coachbuilder in Osnabrück, Germany in 1901, Karmann’s highest-produced and best-known vehicles are the Volkswagen Beetle (Type 1) Cabriolet and Volkswagen’s Karmann Ghia. Like other post-war-era vehicles designed out of necessity, the low-cost Volkswagen Beetle paved the way for economic recovery in Germany and created a need for affordable yet up-market vehicles. Designed as a halo car, the Karmann Ghia originally debuted as a design study at the 1953 Paris Auto Show by Luigi Segre, an Italian car designer and engineer, who later took ownership of Ghia one year later in 1954. From Luigi Segre’s concept, the Karmann Ghia debuted in 1956, with an open-topped model following in 1958.
Using the exact same mechanicals from the Beetle on a slightly modified chassis, Volkswagen contracted Karmann to manufacture the Karmann Ghia. Although mechanically identical to the $1,995 Type 1, the Karmann Ghia cost around $400 more due to handcrafted body panels and a higher degree of finish, commensurate with coachbuilding. The large price difference did not deter buyers, and the car became very popular due to its 2+2 design, which offered little compromise over the immensely popular Beetle. Thanks to its high production numbers for a coach-built car, there are close to 100 used models listed on Autotrader Classics with an average asking price of $15,000. And thanks to shared Beetle mechanicals, the cost of classic-car ownership is low.
Beyond its namesake vehicle for Volkswagen, Karmann produced cars and convertible modules for many automakers. For Daimler-Benz, they produced the Mercedes-Benz CLK — and during Daimler’s partnership with Chrysler, Karmann also produced the Chrysler Crossfire, with its complex folding hardtop. Not every vehicle it produced was open-topped. Karmann also manufactured many low-volume niche vehicles, sparing car manufacturers the cost of retooling an entire plant for vehicles like the Ford Escort RS Cosworth, Merkur XR4Ti and Triumph TR6, all of which were produced in limited numbers. With the capacity to manufacture entire vehicles, Karmann also built Porsche’s 356, 911, 912, 914 and 968, presumably to assist in meeting the demand for these models.
Baur, meanwhile, got its start coachbuilding in 1910, nine years after Karmann opened up shop in Stuttgart. After securing a patent on a folding convertible top, Baur began a long-standing relationship with BMW in 1930. Baur’s approach to coachbuilding differed from Karmann’s, as Baur mainly manufactured car bodies, which were then shipped to manufacturers for final assembly. The bodies manufactured by Baur were lower-volume niche vehicles such as the legendary Audi Quattro, Porsche 959 and BMW’s quirky Z1. Baur is also known for aftermarket convertible conversions from assembled vehicles. This enabled owners to have certain BMW models like the 2002, E21, E30 and E36 converted at anytime during their ownership. Because Baur’s vehicles originated as fixed-roof vehicles, their designs are a Targa style with the A and B pillars and front doors preserved, and a roll bar located on the B pillar.
Baur TC1, Based on BMW’s E21 3 Series.
Although Baur offered aftermarket equipment, the firm’s conversions were sold through BMW’s dealer network, even at a time when BMW manufactured their own convertibles without Baur. Because of elements of the vehicle frame that were left intact, the appearance of Baur’s vehicles are quirky and an acquired taste. While I favor the look of Baur’s TC1 based on BMW’s E21 320, Baur’s final vehicle — the TC4 Landaulet — is an unusual 4-door BMW E36 with all pillars and door frames left intact, and the roof and rear window replaced with a sliding soft-top. Their limited production makes Baur vehicles quite collectible, and a rarity on the roads today. Although quite rare, when they come up for sale, Baur BMW’s are still an affordable classic, fetching between $12,000 to $15,000 for a well-sorted model.
Baur "Landaulet" TC4, based on BMW’s E36 3 Series.