Tailored bodies, Beetle basics: The quirky world of coachbuilt Volkswagens

A one-of-a-kind car celebration calls for a one-of-kind car – or 12.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first Volkswagen Type 1 sold in the United States, a dozen Beetle-based cars with coachbuilt bodies were presented at the prestigious Amelia Island Concours d’ Elegance.

Having a custom body tailor-made for your car was a power move among the wealthy from the start of the auto industry through the 1930s. Following World War II, the European carrozzeria (or karosserie) builders looking to rebuild their business had few options until the arrival of the Volkswagen Beetle – an inexpensive model engineered with an easy-to-remove body shell.

Several shops, mostly in Germany, offered limited-production, hand-built bodies based on the basic Beetle chassis. Volkswagen itself embraced the movement with higher-volume production of the Karmann Ghia and the original Karmann-designed Convertible, but many of these vintage cars from coachbuilders are now extremely rare and collectible.

Along with those of the collectors, Volkswagen brought a few examples from its own collection, including the unique 1965 Karmann-Ghia Type 1 concept and a Wedding Beetle. We talked to three collectors about their coachbuilt creations and what drew them to their cars.

Ned Gallaher, 1957 Rometsch Lawrence Convertible

At age 20, European car specialist Ned Gallaher spotted his dream car in a vintage Volkswagen book. Labeled a rarity, he presumed he would never see the curvaceous coach-built in his lifetime, let alone own one. But when the uncommon model rolled into his shop in 1994, he knew he had to have it.

“There’s only five driving in the world and I’ve never seen another one,” says Gallaher, who owns Gallaher Restorations in Landrum, S.C.

He worked seven days a week for six months to get the two-tone car in presentable shape for Amelia Island. “They are really hard to restore because they are not like a normal production car,” Gallaher, 74, explains. “Nothing fits like it would on a standard Volkswagen. For example, I spent 16 hours replacing chrome around the windshield.”

But Gallaher says his efforts were worth it after seeing its positive reaction from the crowds at Amelia. “There was so many people inquiring about the car – what is was and how it was built –that I had to have two friends with me to help answer questions,” says Gallaher. “It was crazy!”

Lloyd Kee, 1954 Dannenhauer and Stauss coupe

Lloyd Kee refers to his maroon 1954 coupe as the “holy grail” of cars. It’s a fitting label, as there are only 19 known Dannenhauer and Stauss coachbuilt models in existence and his is the lone surviving coupe.

“While beautiful and handmade, these cars were never made to last,” Kee, 56, explains. German winters were harsh, and salt would often cause car corrosion and rust. Plus, the two-door coupes were considered “the ugly duckling” of the prettier convertibles, says the Danville, Calif.-based car collector. So, the fact that the sporty wheels have survived and is still in drivable condition today – largely due to its relocation to the States in 1962 – is astonishing.

His 1954 coupe was purchased in Germany by a wealthy tobacco dealer and outfitted with special Porsche parts, including an engine from a 356 and 16-inch slotted rims. The unique car made its way to the United States when an American serviceman imported and sold it the Roberts family in 1962 for $200. They used it as their main family car until 1973 and stored it in a barn next to their Oregon home until Kee purchased it in 2011.

Although Kee rarely has time to drive his “work of art,” the Volkswagen enthusiast calls it the “pride” of his collection. To honor the vehicle’s storied past, he opted for a preservation, rather than a full restoration.

“The car’s history is told in what it is now,” he says.

Kevin Jeanette, 1959 Rometsch Lawrence Coupe and 1951 Tempo Matador

A Porsche aficionado, Jeanette has been collecting cars since 1975 and has a habit scouring rare and unusual finds on the Internet. The race-and-restoration shop owner bought his unrestored Rometsch Lawrence coupe in 2007 and a blue Tempo Matador shortly after.

Shortly after acquiring the coupe, he added the Tempo to his collection. Originally owned by a Finnish carpenter in Sweden, the VW-powered truck was only recently reassembled in America. “We finished putting the car together three months ago,” Jeanette, 65, explains.

The technology of the 23-window, front-wheel Tempo was “way ahead of its time,” says Jeanette. “It had a 4,800-pound payload and a dependable 25-horsepower Volkswagen motor.” For Amelia Island, he rebuilt the carburetor, cleaned the steel tank and put a new fuel pump on it. “Once we did that, it started right up and drove perfectly,” he said.

Coachbuilt Volkswagens at Amelia Island