There are only a few brands within the automobile industry that truly stood the test of time, and one of those brands is Volkswagen, a German automobile manufacturer that was established in 1937. Despite being very popular today, not many people know about Volkswagen’s origins and how it rose to become one of the best automobile brands in the world. To know more about the company and its beginnings, here is the history of Volkswagen.
Founding of Volkswagen
The Volkswagen company was founded by the German Labour Front in 1937. The German Labour Front was an organization within the Nazi Party that replaced the independent trade unions in Germany.
Before Volkswagen was founded, cars were a luxury in Germany during the early 1930s, as the people in the country could only afford cheap vehicles, and only one out of 50 citizens owned a car. Because of this phenomenon, many independent manufacturers inside and outside Germany began producing inexpensive cars that can be afforded by ordinary German citizens, like the BMW 3/15, the Adler AutoBahn, and the Mercedes 170H.
The inexpensive compact car, which would later be deemed as the “people’s car,” became a popular body style and design in Germany during the mid-1930s, although there are still only a few people that can purchase them. Adolf Hitler, who wanted every German citizen to have a car, spearheaded the project to produce the government’s own “people’s car” that they would then sell at RM990 through a savings plan.
At first, Hitler wanted a private manufacturer to produce cheap vehicles, but seeing that many manufacturers couldn’t create a vehicle that is only RM990 in price, Hitler decided to sponsor a new factory owned by the state. The design for Hitler’s “people’s car” was created by Ferdinand Porsche, but there are several tweaks that were suggested by Hitler himself.
New Factory and Production
The company’s factory was officially opened in May 1938 in the town of Stadt des KdF-Wagens, which would later be renamed as “Wolfsburg” after World War II. Despite being a relatively large factory, the workers were only able to produce only a few “people’s cars,” as the production would suddenly ship to manufacturing military vehicles that would be used in the war. Not one “people’s car” was given to the citizens from 1938 to 1944, although Hitler was given one unit on April 20, 1944, as a birthday gift from the company.
By 1939, the company was tasked to manufacture military vehicles, particularly the amphibious Schwimmwagen and utilitarian Type 82. Although it was primarily used by German forces, several Allied soldiers were able to utilize the vehicles after the war. During the production of the said cars, slave labor from concentration camps was fairly common in the company. According to reports, there were more than 15,000 slaves that worked in the factory. In 1998, the surviving slave laborers filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen, and the company voluntarily set up a restitution fund.
After the War
After the war, the company’s ownership was transferred to the British forces led by British Amery officer Major Ivan Hirst. The town where the Volkswagen factory was located was first captured by Americans in 1945, but it was handed over to Britain within the same year since the town is found in Britain’s occupation zone.
During a particular tour around the factory, Hirst came across an old and unused “KdF-Wagen” (prototype for the Volkswagen Beetle). Hirst then repainted it green and showcased its features and capabilities in the British Army headquarters. Impressed by the performance of the KdF-Wagen, Hirst encouraged the British Army to reopen the factory and utilize it to manufacture military vehicles. Hirst’s encouragement was successful, and the British sent an order to the factory to produce 20,000 cars.
Unfortunately, the factory experienced some problems due to the refugee crisis within the town and in the company, so Hirst recruited a German assistant by the name of Heinrich Nordhoff, who is also experienced in running an automobile company since he previously worked at Opel, to help him re-establish the company and make the factory run smoothly. Thanks to the efforts of the two men, the factory was able to return to its normal production process by 1949.
In March 1948, the British government offered the Volkswagen company to Ford for free. Before making a decision on the deal, Henry Ford II, the son of the legendary Edsel Ford, traveled to Germany to discuss the deal. Ultimately, Ford did not accept the offer, so the British had to transfer the ownership to Heinrich Nordhoff.
The Iconic Volkswagen Beetle
After the ownership of the company was transferred to Nordhoff, Volkswagen became one of the most important entities that would help revive West Germany’s economy. During the ownership of Nordhoff, Volkswagen sold two models. The first model is the Type 1 (“people’s car”), which was popularly named the “Beetle,” while the second model is the Volkswagen Type 2, a larger vehicle that can be an ordinary van, a pick-up, or a camper.
The two Volkswagen vehicles were then showcased and sold in the United States in 1949, although there were only two units sold in the same year. Despite its failure in the United States, the Volkswagen models were quite popular in Germany and other countries in Europe. By 1955, Volkswagen was able to sell more than 1 million units of the Beetle.
During the 60s and 70s, the Beetle became a popular vehicle as international automobile brands started to gain traction in the United States. Even though the Beetle’s features were outdated, it still outsold several known models produced in the stated periods. It was reported that more than 16 million Beetles were sold by Volkswagen by 1973.
Expansion of the Volkswagen Line
In 1961, Volkswagen decided to expand their line by introducing four Type 3 models, namely the Notchback, the Fastback, the Karmann Ghia, and the Variant. By 1969, Volkswagen would already have four lines with the introduction of Type 4, which has the 411 and the 412 larger family car models.
Then, in 1971, Volkswagen introduced the Type 131 or Super Beetle, which is supposed to be an upgraded version of the original Type 1 Beetle. The Type 181, or the “Trekker,” was then produced in 1973 is intended to be a military vehicle used by the NATO-era German Army during the Cold War.
The second-most popular model under Volkswagen, the Golf, was then introduced in 1974 to cater to the growing compact car market that was spearheaded by the 1959 Mini that was produced by the British Motor Corporation or BMC.
Volkswagen in the 80s and 90s
In the 1980s, Volkswagen began struggling as their sales plummeted in the United States and Canada even though the Golf is a very popular model in other countries. However, through the improvements that they made for the Golf, which resulted in the MK2 Golf model, Volkswagen was able to re-establish itself as one of the biggest manufacturers of automobiles in the world.
By the 1990s, Volkswagen had stable sales thanks to the MK3 Gold and the newly introduced New Beetle in 1994. The New Beetle was originally a concept car called the “Concept One,” which was designed by renowned industrial designer J Mays. Because of the overwhelming positive response over the concept car, Volkswagen decided to make it a production model.
In 1995, Ford and Volkswagen formed a partnership to launch three collaborative models, which were the Ford Galaxy, the SEAT Alhambra, and the Volkswagen Sharan.
While Volkswagen’s sales have been stable from the 2000s and 2010s, the company wanted to focus on other ventures, mainly in producing electric vehicles. In 2017, the company announced that it would focus more on manufacturing electric vehicles or EVs, and they plan on releasing up to 30 EV models by 2025. By 2030, Volkswagen plans to create an electric version of all of their existing models and popular vintage cars, although it would cost them more than 20 billion euros to do so.
Volkswagen is one of the car brands that are recognized by many people, even those that aren’t really familiar with cars. Even though it had shady or controversial origins, Volkswagen was able to recover from its negative criticisms in the past to become one of the biggest car brands in the present.