It didn’t look like it was going to work out, at least in the West. Tarnished by its association with Nazi Germany, the Volkswagen automotive brand was a slow sell in the North American market, and it was headquartered in a country that was still reeling from defeat in World War II. Today, though, is one of the largest automakers in the world, thus (in a sense) living up to the figurative meaning of its name: “People’s Car.”
In Germany of the 1930s, few people could afford cars, since most of them were luxury models. So, with the encouragement of then-dictator Adolf Hitler, some car makers like Mercedes-Benz, Steyr Motors, and Hanomag embarked on “peoples’ car” projects. The German Labour Front, or the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (DAF)—which was the Nazi organization that became the country’s sole trade union when Hitler came to power—took the concept further by establishing the Volkswagen brand on May 28, 1937. Originally calledGesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH, the name was simplified to Volkswagenwerk in 1938, which means “The People Car’s Company.” By then Hitler had hired Austrian automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche to design the debut model, which was meant to sell for less than 1,000 Reich marks, then equivalent to around $140.
War & Ruins
The next year, the state-owned company’s factory was built at Wolfsburg, and production began on the first car, which was the prototype what would become Volkswagen’s most popular car: the Beetle. However, this car was actually called the KdF (Kraft-durch-Freude)-Wagen, which means “Strength Through Joy” car. The naming was inspired by a speech that Hitler had made at a Nazi rally, where he said that the new car was “intended to give [the people] joy.” However, with the outbreak of World War II, production had to be converted to military vehicles.
When the war ended, Germany had been defeated, its name tarnished by the Nazi era and the Jewish Holocaust, and the factory was in ruins. A formidable effort was thus launched to resuscitate the country’s economy, and its auto industry was a huge part of it. Within a year, when the factory was still in disrepair, Volkswagenwerk—now referred to as Volkswagen—was producing a thousand cars per month. However, it took a while for the Western World to catch on, as the VW vehicle—now known as the Volkswagen Type 1—was deemed too noisy and unattractive to be commercially viable. It was most unpopular in the United States, where it only sold two units in 1949, the year it was introduced to the country.
Despite the bleak outlook, Volkswagen trudged on under the leadership of German engineer Heinz Nordhoff. By 1955, its car had sold one million units. Four year later, advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach would give the Type 1 Volkswagen a name that would stick forever: “Beetle.” Emphasizing its small size as an advantage, sales of the Beetle were brisk from then on. By 1960, when Germany denationalized the company by selling 60 percent of its stock to the public, the Beetle was the top-selling foreign vehicle in the U.S. In 1972, Volkswagen surpassed the 15 million mark with its vehicle, breaking the worldwide production record set by the legendary Ford Motel T. To keep itself fresh, Volkswagen introduced sportier cars, such as the Passat in 1973 and the Golf (Rabbit in the U.S.) in 1974. In 2003, the iconic Beetle retired into history, with more than 21 million units sold.
With a revenue of 103.942 billion Euros in 2012, Volkswagen is the biggest auto imprint in Germany, as well as the second largest in the world. The company has almost 30 models, which include the Beetle “A5,” the latest iteration of the company’s debut model.
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