Volkswagen History

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Volkswagen History



 1937 - Present

The People's Car

The origins of Volkswagen date back to 1930s Nazi Germany, and the project to build the car that would become known as the Beetle. Hitler's desire that almost anybody should be able to afford a car coincided with a proposal by car designer Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1952) -- although much of this design was inspired by the advanced Tatra cars of Hans Ledwinka.

The intention was that ordinary Germans would buy the car by means of a savings scheme, which around 336,000 people eventually paid into. Prototypes of the car called the KdF-Wagen (German: Kraft durch Freude = strength through joy), appeared from 1936 onwards (the first cars had been produced in Stuttgart).

The car already had its distinctive round shape and air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine, features similar to the Tatra. Erwin Komenda, the longstanding Porsche chief designer, developed the car body of the prototype, which was recognizably the Beetle we know today.

The new factory in the new town of KdF-Stadt, now called Wolfsburg, purpose-built for the factory workers, had only produced a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939. Consequently the first volume-produced versions of the car were military vehicles, the jeep-like Kübelwagen and the amphibious Schwimmwagen.

Major Ivan Hirst Saves The Marque

The company owes its postwar existence largely to one man, British army officer Major Ivan Hirst (1916-2000). In April 1945 KdF-Stadt and its heavily bombed factory were captured by the Americans, and handed to the British to administer. The factory was placed under the control of Hirst.

At first the plan was to use it for military vehicle maintenance. Since it had been used for military production, and had been a "political animal" (Hirst's words) rather than a commercial enterprise, the equipment was in time intended to be salvaged as war reparations.

Hirst painted one of the factory's cars green and demonstrated it to British army headquarters. Short of light transport, in September 1945 the British army was persuaded to place a vital order for 20,000. The first few hundred cars went to personnel from the occupying forces, and to the German Post Office. By 1946 the factory was producing 1000 cars a month, a remarkable feat considering the factory was still in disrepair: the damaged roof and windows meant rain stopped production; the steel to make the cars had to be bartered with new vehicles.

Volkswagen "KdF-Wagen"
Early German advertisement for the KdF-Wagen...

Volkswagen K├╝belwagen
The Volkswagen "Kübelwagen" proved to be a rugged utility vehicle, particularly for the Africa Corps...

Volkswagen Schwimmwagen
The Volkswagen Schwimmwagen is perhaps the most odd model to emerge from KdF-Stadt...

The 1000th Volkswagen The 1000th Volkswagen coming off the production line, March 1946

Ivan Hirst & Heinrich Nordhoff
Ivan Hirst (left) & Heinrich Nordhoff...

Volkswagen Type 3
Volkswagen "Type 3"...

Volkswagen Golf Mk. 1 GTi
Volkswagen Golf Mk.1 GTi...

The last Volkswagen
The last Volkswagen beetle rolls off the production line in Mexico...

KdF Becomes Volkswagen

The car and its town changed their Second World War-era names to Volkswagen and Wolfsburg respectively, and production was increasing. It was still unclear what was to become of the factory. It was offered to representatives from the British, American and French motor industries. Famously, all rejected it.

After an inspection of the plant Sir William Rootes, head of the British Rootes Group, told Hirst the project would fail within two years, and that the car "is quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer, is too ugly and too noisy ... "If you think you're going to build cars in this place, you're a bloody fool, young man." Yet in a bizarre twist of fate, Volkswagen would manufacture a locally built version of Rootes' Hillman Avenger in Argentina in the 1980's, long after Rootes went bust at the hands of Chrysler in 1978 - the Beetle outliving the Coventry-based concern by over 30 years!

Heinrich Nordhoff (1899-1968), a former senior manager at Opel who had overseen civilian and military vehicle production in the 1930s and 1940s, was recruited to run the factory in 1948.

Heinrich Nordhoff Persues A One Model Policy

In 1949 Hirst left the company, now re-formed as a trust controlled by the West German government. Apart from the introduction of the "Type 2" commercial vehicle (van, pickup and camper) and the Karmann Ghia sports car, Nordhoff pursued the one-model policy until shortly before his death in 1968.

Production of the "Type 1" VW Beetle (German: 'Käfer', US: 'Bug', French: 'Coccinelle', Brazil: 'Fusca') increased dramatically over the years, the total reaching 1 million in 1954.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, although the car was becoming out-dated, American exports, innovative advertising and a growing reputation for reliability helped production figures to surpass the levels of the previous record holder, the Ford Model T. By 1973 total production was over 16 million.

Introduction Of The Type 3

VW expanded their product line in 1967 with the introduction of several "Type 3" models, which were essentially body style variations (Fastback, Notchback, Squareback) based on "Type 1" mechanical underpinnings, and again in 1969 with the relatively unpopular "Type 4" (also known as "411" and "412") models, which differed substantially from previous models with the notable introduction of unibody construction, a fully automatic transmission and fuel injection.

The Type 3 and Type 4 models had been a comparative flop, and the NSU-based K70 also failed to woo buyers. The company knew that Beetle production had to end one day, but the conundrum of replacing it had been a never ending nightmare.

Troubled Times Following The Aquisition Of Audi

From Beetle to Golf, Volkswagen was in serious trouble by the end of the 1960's. The key to the problem was the 1964 acquisition of Audi/Auto-Union. The Ingolstadt based firm had the necessary expertise in front wheel drive and watercooled engines that VW so desperately needed to produce a credible Beetle successor.

Audi influence paved the way for this new generation of Volkswagens, known as the Polo, Golf and Passat. Production of the Beetle at the Wolfsburg factory switched to the VW Golf in 1974, marketed in the United States as the VW Rabbit in the 1970's and 1980's. This was a car unlike its predecessor in most significant ways, both mechanically as well as visually (its angular styling was designed by the Italian Giorgetto Giugiaro).

Its design followed trends for small family cars set by the 1959 Mini and 1972 Renault 5 -- the Golf had a transversely mounted, water-cooled engine in the front, driving the front wheels, and had a hatch-back, a format that has dominated the market segment ever since.

Beetle Production Continues

Beetle production continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until 1978, but mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico. Since the introduction of the Golf, VW has offered a range of models much like other large European car-makers. The Polo, a smaller car introduced around the same time as the Golf, the coupés Scirocco and Corrado, and the larger Passat saloon have been the most significant.

In 1998 VW launched the New Beetle, a "retro"-themed car with a resemblance to the original Beetle but based on the Golf -- this has been popular in the USA but less so in Europe. In 2002 VW announced two models taking it into market segments new to the company: the Phaeton luxury saloon, and the Touareg sports-utility vehicle. Like its competitors, the Mini and the Citroën 2CV, the original-shape Beetle long outlasted predictions of its lifespan.

More so than those cars, it maintains a very strong following worldwide, being regarded as something of a "cult" car since its 1960s association with the hippie movement. By 2002 there had been over 21 million produced. On July 21, 2003, the last old-style Volkswagen Beetle rolled of its production line in Puebla, Mexico.

It was car number 21,529,464 of the model, and was immediately shipped off to the company's museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. In true Mexican fashion, a mariachi band serenaded the last car in the 68-year-old history. The last car was nicknamed El Rey, which is Spanish for "The King".

The company has had a close relationship with Porsche, the Stuttgart-based sportscar manufacturer founded in 1947 by Ferry Porsche, son of the original Volkswagen designer Ferdinand Porsche. The first Porsche cars, the 1948 Porsche 356, used many Volkswagen components including a tuned engine, gearbox and suspension. Later collaborations include the 1969/1970 VW-Porsche 914, the 1976 Porsche 924 (which used many Audi components and was built at an Audi factory), and the 2002 Porsche Cayenne (which shares engineering with the VW Touareg).

In 1992 leadership of the Volkswagen Group went to Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. In 2002 former BMW head Bernd Pietschesrieder took over. Volkswagen is part of the Volkswagen group (VAG), along with:

  • Audi - (the former post-WWII Auto Union/DKW) which was bought from Daimler-Benz in 1964-1966
  • NSU - bought in 1969 by Volkswagen's Audi division, a brand not used since 1977
  • SEAT - majority owned since 1987
  • Skoda - bought in 1991
  • Bentley - bought in 1998 from Vickers along with Rolls-Royce
  • Bugatti - name bought in 1998
  • Lamborghini - bought in 1998 From July 1998 until December 2002
  • VW's Bentley division also sold cars under the Rolls-Royce name under an agreement with BMW, which had bought the rights to that name. From 2003, only BMW may make cars called Rolls-Royce

Also see:
Volkswagen Car Reviews
The History of Volkswagen (USA Edition)

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