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Volkswagen Logo

Volkswagen (VW) is an automobile manufacturer based in Wolfsburg, Germany. It forms the core of VAG, one of the world's four biggest car producers.


Origins in 1930s Germany

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The Volkswagen main plant in Wolfsburg, Germany 2003.

The origins of the company 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. VW honored its savings agreements after World War II; Ford, which had a similar "coupon" savings system, reportedly did not. 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 Kbelwagen and the amphibious Schwimmwagen.

Volkswagen literally translates as "people's car" in English.

1945: British Army and Ivan Hirst, unclear future

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 1,000 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 for with new vehicles.

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." (In a bizarre twist of fate, Volkswagen would manufacture a locally built version of Rootes' Hillman Avenger in Argentina in the 1980s, long after Rootes went bust at the hands of Chrysler in 1978—the Beetle outliving the Coventry-based concern by over 30 years!)

Ford representatives were equally critical: the car was "not worth a damn". In France Citron started the 2CV on a similar marketing concept. In Italy it was the Fiat 500.

1948–1974: Icon for German regeneration

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1972 Volkswagen Beetle 1600L (extensively customized)

From 1948, Volkswagen became a very important element, symbolically and economically, of West German regeneration. 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. 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: 'Kfer', US: 'Bug', French: 'Coccinelle', Brazil: 'Fusca') increased dramatically over the years, the total reaching one 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.

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. In 1973 they intoduced their military Model 181 "Thing" in America.

1974: From Beetle to Golf

VW was in serious trouble by the end of the 1960s. 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. 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 1970s and 1980s. 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 continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until 1978, but mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico.

From 1970s to present

While VW's range of cars soon become similar to that of other large European car-makers, the Golf has been the mainstay of the VW line-up since its introduction, and the mechanical basis for several other cars of the company. There have been five generations of the Volkswagen Golf, the first of which was produced from the summer of 1974 until the end of 1983. Its chassis also spawned the Scirocco coupe and Jetta saloon. The second generation Golf hatchback/Jetta saloon ran from late 1983 to late 1991. In 1991, Volkswagen launched the third generation Golf and it was third time lucky when the Volkswagen Golf was voted European Car of the Year for 1992. The previous two versions had lost out to the Citron CX in 1975 and the Fiat Uno in 1984. This time the saloon version of the Golf was badged Vento in Europe (but Jetta in the USA). The fourth incarnation of the Golf arrived in late 1997, its chassis spawned a host of other cars within the Volkswagen group—the Volkswagen Bora (the saloon, still called Jetta in the USA), Volkswagen New Beetle, Seat Toledo, Seat Leon, Audi A3, Audi TT and Skoda Octavia. However, it was beaten into third place for the 1998 European Car of the Year award by the winning Alfa Romeo 156 and runner-up Audi A6. The last generation Volkswagen Golf was launched in late 2003, came runner-up to the Fiat Panda in the 2004 European Car of the Year, and has so far spawned the new generation Seat Toledo, Skoda Octavia and Audi A3 hatchback ranges as well as a new mini-MPV, the Seat Altea. The fifth generation golf is now available in Europe, and the GTI boasts a 2.0L Turbocharged direct injection engine. The fifth generation Jetta is curently available in the united states, and the next GLI should be available late 2005, with same 2.0L turbocharged motor of the european GTI.

The other main models have been the Polo, a smaller car than the Golf, and the larger Passat saloon car for the segment above the Golf. As of 2005 there have been four incarnations of the Polo: Mark 1 (1976), Mark 2 (1981, facelifted 1990), Mark 3 (1994, facelifted 1999) and the current Mark 4 (2002). The Scirocco and Corrado were both Golf-based coups.

In 1998 VW launched the J Mays-designed 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.

Volkswagen currently offers a number of its vehicles with an advanced, light duty diesel engine known as the TDI. While extremely popular in the European market, light duty diesels do not yet enjoy the same wide acceptance in the U.S. marketplace, despite increased fuel economy and performance comparable to gasoline engines due to turbocharging. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 4 of the 10 most fuel efficient vehicles available for sale in the U.S. in 2004 are powered by VW Diesel Engines. They are: a three way tie for 8th (TDI Beetle, TDI Golf, TDI Jetta) and 9th, the TDI Jetta Wagon. Sales of light duty diesel engine technology are increasing as gasoline prices rise and products such as the Toyota Prius have proven the viability of non-traditional powerplants.

Cult status of Beetle

Like its competitors, the Mini and the Citron 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. Currently there is a wide array of clubs that are concerned with the beetle. The fans are quite diverse. Looks include the resto-look, Callook, German-look, resto-Callook, buggies, Baja bug's, old school, ratlook, etc. Part of their cultstatus is attributed to being one of a few cars with an air-cooled engine design and the consequent ease of repair and modification as opposed to the more conventional and technically complex watercooled engine design.

By 2002 there had been over 21 million produced.

On July 21, 2003, the last old-style Volkswagen Beetle rolled off its production line in Puebla, 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".

Relationship with Porsche

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).

Corporate leadership and structure

In 1992 leadership of the Volkswagen Group went to Ferdinand Pich, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. In 2002 former BMW head Bernd Pieschetsrieder took over[1] (

Volkswagen is part of the Volkswagen group (VAG), along with:

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.

Related Topics

External links

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