Vintage Karman Ghia

Vintage Karmann Ghia

Befana came to Perugia, and for some reason this meant that there should be a classic car rally in Perugia. Jaguars (including a glorious XK-E; see this Top Gear segment), Triumphs, Citroens, Mercedes, and lots and lots of Fiat 500s.

But what caught my eye was a 1972 Karmann Ghia convertible. Because a white 1970 Ghia was my first car.

And I sold it.


Over the holiday break we took some evenings to continue the boys’ education in classic films. After hearing us buzz about it, Simon and Jakob had clamored to watch Citizen Kane, and so we dialed up the iTunes one night. I had first seen Citizen Kane during a January term course on film noir at Californian Lutheran University. The darkness of ambitions, the desperate straining towards the light of affection.

It was only a few months afterwards in my junior year at Gustavus when my friend Mike announced that he was going to sell his hardtop Karmann Ghia, which he had patched up with Bondo and had running pretty good. I had admired the car in the Wahlstrom parking lot; Mike knew that, and had given me some lifts from time to time. And for some reason, I actually had the $1200. So I bought it.

The 1972 green Ghia

The 1972 green Ghia in Perugia

The Karmann Ghia, designed by the Italian Luigi Segre, was a poor man’s Porsche. I could maintain it largely myself. It had a noisy motor, a cheap radio-cassette player, and smelled of old vinyl. I felt every bump in the road; I grew to appreciate that. Low on the road as I was, kids in school buses always smiled and waved. Sometimes girls did too. During grad-school winters, driving between Ann Arbor and Sandstone was an endurance test; the heaters on full blast barely kept me warm, or held the windows clear of frost. One December, I had to stick my head out of the window east of Lake Michigan to see through the lake-effect snow. For 30-some miles. Somehow, while I slid around plenty on the narrow tires, I never really got stuck.

The white Ghia

The white Ghia in Perugia

I don’t generally think I’m a fool who pines after a long-lost past, itching to play a mid-life crisis card. I cut many strings long ago and didn’t much look back. But watermarks remain. Sometimes it’s wondering what it would be like to take the kids for a quick spin, to push the pedal down on Veterans Highway. I put my Ghia over 100 on a blank stretch south of Madison, just to see what she’d do. The steering wheel began to shake, but the engine never complained. I was proud of her then; I laughed, patted the dashboard, and must have said “Atta girl.” I’m not proud of driving anyone around in the Odyssey, even though it’s far more useful, efficient, and safe. I gave our minivan a name, out of tradition, but I don’t remember what it is.

The rally

The past gathers

The strange thing was, last night I had dreamed — a recurring dream. In it, I’m back at the farm, and I’m talking to someone — an uncle, or maybe a cousin. Suddenly it occurs to me that I’ve come to collect something. I wander towards the machine shed, bulky, cavernous and covered with corrugated tin. I slide the tall heavy door aside, and sitting under a few sheets of canvas and a layer of dust, perfectly expecting me, is my white Ghia. I’ve known somehow that she was there, and I had just mis-placed her. I feel relieved, or perhaps — reprieved. I open the hood, and there’s the small black bottle of anti-freeze and two red containers of lead-free fuel additive. A pair of jump cables, a toolkit, and some oily gloves. The driver’s door still has the rough paint job around the bottom; the bench behind the two front seats impossibly small — there’s no way I could have moved all my worldly possessions back and forth in that space. The keys are in the ignition, and I sit down to take hold of the hard plastic wheel. The engine pops and purrs, throaty and solid and sound. It’s as loud and as reliable as I remember. I ease down the parking brake, find the slightly-bent path to the first gear, and raise the clutch.

Sometimes the dreams let me drive; sometimes not. Sometimes the window is open and I can hear the wind of the world; sometimes it’s quiet and strangely still. But the car is always alive in the dream; she always was. I knew her true name; I used it; sometimes I still speak it. But the present owner doesn’t know her name, and I’m not giving it away here either.

Not like I sold her, in 1991. Too cheaply. Desperate for cash to study in Athens for a year. To expand my experience and beef up my CV. Sold to a father who wanted it for his daughter who was starting as a Michigan undergrad. A driver I never met. But I happened to see, through the front window, the father look under the chassis before he came up the sidewalk to negotiate the price. I knew he had seen the Bondo. And the rust holes. And the awkward muffler. He was wearing a grey suit and a raincoat. I knew I had better be honest with him. I was leaving in three weeks. He gave me a check; I signed and handed over the title; he drove away right then and there.

And I never saw her again.