A Brief history of Volkswagen
Adolf Hitler is not someone who generally gets good press, without him however, Volkswagen would never have been born. Although Hitler could not drive himself, he had an extremely keen interest in cars and it was this interest that led him to Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche had been working on various car designs when in 1933 Hitler demanded Porsche revise his 1931 car design and make it accessible to the working class German. Although Porsche had many misgivings when he saw the first design brief, he decided he would take on the project as it was such a challenge. Charged with designing a car that could carry two adults and three children, achieve a top speed of 60 mpg, return at least 33 miles per gallon and all for one thousand Reich marks (around the price of a motorcycle at the time), there is no wonder Porsche had his doubts.
Due to the tight timelines that Hitler had imposed on Porsche, the project, named the Type 60, used many of the components from Porsche's earlier 1931 NSU design, this included the rear mounted air-cooled flat-four engine and the distinctive shape. Two years after being given the brief, the first prototypes were being tested on the Autobahns and included both saloon and convertible derivatives.
These prototypes known as the Kdf-Wagen, were handed to Erwin Komenda, a colleague of Porsche's, to develop further. Komenda's previous position had been Chief Engineer with Daimler-Benz, where his duties had covered taking prototypes and improving their performance by reducing the weight and the use of streamlining. After a period of time in the wind tunnel, Komenda developed the bodyshape of the prototype into what is now instantly recognisalbe as the Volkswagen Beetle.
A purpose built factory and town for the workforce (KdF-Stadt), were constructed to manufacture the new car, but in the same month as production began war was declared and production was switched to military vehicles.
With the end of the war Kdf-Stadt fell into the hands of first the Americans, then the british. Heavily bombed, the british officer in charge, Major Ivan Hirst at first decided to use the plant for repairing their own military vehicles, the longer term plan was to salvage all the equipment as war reperations. However, with a shortage of light transportation Major Hirst painted one of the factory's cars green and demostrated it to his HQ, following this demonstration an order was placed for 20,000 vehicles, the first of which were supplied to personnel of the occupying forces (some of which made there way back to the UK when the soldiers were demobbed) and the German Post Office.
Production had increased to 1,000 units per month by 1946 and the name of both the factory and the town was changed, the factory to Volkswagen (the People's car) and the town to Wolfsburg. Amazingly Volkswagen was offered to all the major motor manufacturers of the time, American, British and French manufacturers all turned down Volkswagen saying it would fail within two years, Ford showed minor interest until Henry Ford II looked at where Wolfsburg was on the map and dismissed the idea out of hand.
Heinrich Nordhoff, a man with extensive Knowledge of both civillian and military vehicle production was recruited in 1948 to run the Volkswagen factory and in 1949 Volkswagen became a trust run by the West German government and Major Hirst left the company. Over the next few years Volkswagen went on to become a symbol of regeneration for the whole of Germany.
Although sales of the Beetle worldwide began extremely cautiously, with clever marketing and advertising campaigns sales increased steadily and by 1955 one million Beetle's had been sold. Other models were added but none had the mass appeal of the Beetle and by the late sixties Volkswagen was beginning to struggle, the solution to their problems lay in the 1964 acquisition of Audi, who had expertise in water cooled engines and front wheel drive technology. Could a successor to the Beetle lay in this new technology? Definitely.
1973 saw the launch of the Passat (a year that saw the sixteenth million Beetle produced), 74 the Golf and 75 the Polo. The Polo was simply a rebadged Audi 50, the Passat a rebadged Audi 80, the Golf however was different, designed by the Italian Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Volkswagen Golf would become just as important to VW as had the Beetle. Although Volkswagen have added many vehicles to their range over the years the Golf has always been the mainstay of Volkswagen's production from its release right up to the present day.
Since the acquisition of Audi in 1964, Volkswagen has continued to expand its range of marques, NSU was brought into the Volkswagen fold in 1969, Seat became wholly owned by Volkswagen in 1987 with Skoda following in 1991, Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini all came under the Volkswagen wing in 1998.
So what of the car that started all this? On the 30th July, 2003 the final Beetle was produced in Puebla, Mexico. Twenty one million, five hundred and twenty nine thousand, four hundred and sixty four Beetles had been produced since its inception, a record that will surely never be beaten.
The old Beetle may have been consigned to the history books, but by now the car had achieved cult status, movie appearances, especially the Herbie films, have introduced different generations to the Beetle and with this knowledge Volkswagen had been working on a replacement for the Beetle, the new Volkswagen Beetle. Although the similarities end with the name and the look, the new Beetle has taken the people's car into the 21st century. Based on the Volkswagen Golf running gear, with a front mounted water cooled engine and with front wheel drive, the new beetle could not be much further away from the original Beetle, but it looks like a Beetle and as such Volkswagen have pulled off yet another masterpiece of design.