Karmann tie to VW goes long way back

When Ford Motor Company unveils its XR-4 Sierra sedan in the United States in 1985, Wilhelm Karmann GmbH will have a hand in it. And every time Volkswagen of America signs up a buyer for its Scirocco, guess where the car is built? Right here at Karmann - even with VW spelled out on the grille.

Not long ago the 600,000th Scirocco came off the line, less than 10 years after the production of the sports coupe began in February 1974. Of the total, 345,000 cars, or 58 percent, were sold outside West Germany.

More Sciroccos are shipped to the United States, in fact, than to any other country in the world - 170,000 since the car was introduced to the US in the mid-1970s. Britain and France have each taken 39,000; Italy 23,000; Switzerland 14,000; and Canada and Austria 11,000 apiece.

The Osnabruck firm also builds the Rabbit ragtop, as it had the beetle and Karmann Ghia convertibles before it.

Indeed, VW's link with Wilhelm Karmann GmbH goes back nearly 35 years, to 1949, when the firm turned a VW beetle into a 4-seat ragtop and presented it to the VW management in Wolfsburg. The carmaker, just emerging from the rubble of World War II, ordered a thousand just like it - and the knot between the two companies was tied.

Karmann started out as a carriage builder in 1874 and produced the first automobile body in 1902. In the early days the workers were mostly craftsmen, and the die was cast. Thus, Karmann helped VW to acquire a quality image right from the start.

In 1955, the popular Karmann Ghia coupe, designed by Luigi Segre of the Ghia studio in Turin, Italy, was introduced, and the company was hard pressed to keep up with demand. Waiting lines for delivery sometimes ran for up to three years. Yet it wasn't the ''low price'' alone that presold the car. It was, instead, the design (by Ghia) and the care with which the car was built. The Ghia convertible was introduced in 1961.

The roof on both the Ghia and beetle softtops didn't leak, it moved up and down manually with ease, and had a finished look when in place over the passenger compartment. Simply put, all the parts fit.

Besides all this, Karmann built some 120,000 midengine VW-Porsche 914s, twinning Porsche's coachwork with the flat engine of the VW beetle.

Without Karmann, Volkswagenwerk AG would not have been able to produce and sell as many cars under its logo as it has since the end of World War II.

But this isn't all there is of Wilhelm Karmann GmbH. Karmann also is a major tool and die manufacturer for the European automobile and truck industry. About 20 percent of all work at the plant, in fact, is building dies for other manufacturers, a company spokesman declares.

Karmann also builds automotive parts for Fiat, Renault, Peugeot, Iveco, Porsche, Daimler-Benz (Mercedes), BMW, and more. It builds the body for the BMW 600 as well as machine tools for General Motors and Ford.

The company has even developed complete car-body production plants for other vehiclemakers.

Car capacity here is 480 units a day, although - reflecting the automotive slowdown worldwide during the past few years - it now is producing 340 a day with 900 workers. The company, like Volkswagenwerk AG and many other carmakers in the world, lost money in 1982.

To do its job, Karmann employs more and more sophisticated robotics and welding processes. VW, in fact, is one of the world's major robotmakers - about one a day.

''Robots,'' a Karmann worker says with a smile, ''are never inattentive to the job.''

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