The history of Volkswagen, the “People’s Car”
Germany’s Volkswagen is the largest car maker in the world, after Toyota. Its 590,000 employees produce around the world nearly 41,000 vehicles daily.
It currently owns 12 subsidiaries including Volkswagen Passenger Cars, Audi, Seat and Skoda, luxury brands such as Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche and Ducati, as well as Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, Scania and Man.
And, above all, it is a long way from its origins as part of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s vision to enable German families to own their first car!
In all began on May 28, 1937, when the government of Germany, then under the control of Adolf Hitler of the National Socialist Party, better know as “Nazi Party”, created a new state-owned automobile company, then known as Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH. Later that year it was renamed simply Volkswagenwerk or “The People’s Car Company.”
Originally operated by the German Labor Front, a Nazi organization, Volkswagen was headquartered in Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony, Germany (about 230 km west of Berlin). In addition to his ambitious campaign to build a network of autobahns and limited access highways across Germany, Hitler’s project was the development and mass production of an affordable yet speedy vehicle (a car that could carry two adults and three children at 100km/h) that could sell for less than 1,000 Reich marks (about $140 at the time). To provide the design for this “people’s car,” he called in the Austrian automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche.
In 1938, at a Nazi rally, the Fuhrer declared: “It is for the broad masses that this car has been built. Its purpose is to answer their transportation needs, and it is intended to give them joy.”
Soon after the KdF (Kraft-durch-Freude)-Wagen, German for “Strength-Through-Joy” car, was displayed for the first time at the Berlin Motor Show in 1939, some 336,000 people subscribed to buy the car via a monthly savings plan but only a handful of cars were completed and none are delivered to customers.
The reason? World War II began, and Volkswagen halted car production and the firm switches to making vehicles for the German army, using more than 15,000 slave labourers from nearby concentration camps, a practice widespread among German firms during the war.
After the war ended, with the factory in ruins, the Allies would make Volkswagen the focus of their attempts to resuscitate the German auto industry.
Volkswagen sales in the United States were initially slower than in other parts of the world, due to the car’s historic Nazi connections as well as its small size and unusual rounded shape. In 1959, the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach launched a landmark campaign, dubbing the car the “Beetle” and spinning its diminutive size as a distinct advantage to consumers. In any case, over the following several years, VW became the top-selling auto import in the United States and in 1960 the German government sold 60 percent of Volkswagen’s stock to the public, effectively denationalizing it. Twelve years later, the Beetle surpassed the longstanding worldwide production record of 15 million vehicles, set by Ford Motor Company’s legendary Model T between 1908 and 1927.
With the Beetle’s design relatively unchanged since 1935, sales grew sluggish in the early 1970s. VW bounced back with the introduction of sportier models such as the Rabbit and later, the Golf. In 1998, the company began selling the highly touted “New Beetle” while still continuing production of its predecessor. After nearly 70 years and more than 21 million units produced, the last original Beetle rolled off the line in Puebla, Mexico, on July 30, 2003.
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