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
-- 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
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.
Early German advertisement
for the KdF-Wagen...
The Volkswagen "Kübelwagen" proved
to be a rugged utility vehicle, particularly
for the Africa Corps...
The Volkswagen Schwimmwagen is perhaps the
most odd model to emerge from KdF-Stadt...
The 1000th Volkswagen coming off the production
line, March 1946
Ivan Hirst (left) & Heinrich
Volkswagen "Type 3"...
Volkswagen Golf Mk.1 GTi...
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
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
Production of the "Type 1" VW Beetle
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"
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
Beetle Production Continues
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 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.
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.
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
, 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),
- Audi - (the former post-WWII Auto
Union/DKW) which was bought from Daimler-Benz in
- 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
Volkswagen Car Reviews
The History of Volkswagen (USA Edition)