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Volkswagen: The People's Car

Today, Volkswagen is one of the largest automakers in the world.  Three of its cars-the Golf, Beetle, and Passat-are on the list of ten best-selling cars of all time. This is impressive enough on its own, but is made all the more striking by the fact that shortly after its inception Volkswagen nearly ceased to exist.  The car had been commissioned by the Nazi party in the 1930s to be a car for the average German citizen, as reflected in the name Volkswagen, i.e. the "People's Car."  Following Germany's defeat in World War II, the Volkswagen factory was nearly dismantled.  A British Army Major, Ivan Hirst, led the company down a path towards building a car truly meant for the people.  Volkswagen eventually moved far away from their totalitarian roots to become a countercultural symbol for the hippies, and a badge of quirkiness for the owners who drive and frequently modify them. 

Throughout the 1930s Ferdinand Porsche, designer of performance and racing cars, had tried to convince automakers of the need for a small car for family use.  At the time, many Germans used motorcycles as their primary means of transportation due to their low cost.  Adolf Hitler commissioned the design of a car that could transport a family of two adults and three children at about 60 mph.  He also insisted that it cost about the same as a motorcycle and be air cooled so that the owner could easily repair it. Subsequently, Porsche came through with the design, including the now familiar rounded hood, for improved aerodynamics.  It was the first car ever developed with the use of a wind tunnel.  Hitler hoped that the Volkswagen would make automobiles available to the normal German in the same way that the Model T made them available to Americans.  He renamed it the Kraft durch Fredue-Wagen (KdF Wagen) meaning "strength through joy wagon." In reality, few were produced.  Germany was facing a gas shortage and many Volkswagens had to run on wood gas rather than petroleum (which, incidentally, marked the beginning of a trend of running Volkswagens on alternative fuels).  Many of the cars that were produced ended up as vehicles for high-ranking officials, and soon after the idea of a "people's car" was quickly abandoned amidst the start of WWII.

Volkswagen's Factory in WWII and its Aftermath

When war broke out, the Volkswagen factory was converted for military manufacturing purposes.  This nearly led to the end of the Volkswagen.  The factory was bombed by the Allies, and, after the war, came under British control.  Because the factory had been used for war manufacturing it was liable to be dismantled.  The British Army offered to move the plant's equipment to Britain, but several British automakers refused to accept it.  An official British report said: "The vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," adding, "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and "to build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise."

It fell to Major Hirst to take control of the factory.  After removing an unexploded bomb from the building, Hirst convinced the British Army to commission 20,000 Volkswagens and set about improving the car. He found a new manager (Heinrich Nordhoff, formerly of Opel) for the factory, and starting to export the car.  The first Volkswagens were exported to Holland in 1947.  In 1948, The British offered the company to Ford for free. Henry Ford II refused the offer when an advisor told him he didn't think the company was worth anything.  However, around 25 years later, the Beetle would pass the Model T's record for all-time sales. 

The Birth of the Beetle

Hirst handed instated Nordhoff as head of the factory in 1949, and Lower Saxony (the state Volkswagen is headquarted in) and the German federal government took ownership of the company in this year.  In the early fifties, the first Volkswagen dealer was established in the United Kingdom.  Two years later, Volkswagen of America was formed.  The Volkswagen Type 1 car was briefly sold in the United States as a "Victory Wagon," but later took on the more familiar Beetle name.  For the most part, Nordhoff focused the company on this one model well into the sixties. 

The Beetle went on to win the Mexican Baja 1000 race several times from 1967 to 1971, prompting Volkswagen to produce a limited edition "Baja Champion SE" Beetle in 1972.  Today, many drivers modify Beetles into "Baja Bugs" designed for driving on sand.  The Baja 1000 now featured three classes for Beetles: two for Baja Bugs (one with an engine size limitation), and one for stock Beetles.  The original Beetle is also popular with drag racers, since its rear engine and rear wheel drive design provides powerful grip off the start.  Some factory improvements were made to the Beetle in 1971, resulting in the Superbeetle, with strut rather than torsion spring suspension and a longer hood.  By this point, though, the Beetle was past the peak of its American popularity.  American companies were introducing their own small cars like the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega, and Japanese automakers were being introduced in the US via several compact cars.  Even though Volkswagen moved on to focus on the Golf, this was not the end of the original Beetle, which was still produced in Germany until 1980 and in Mexico as late as 2003, well after the introduction of the New Beetle.  By that point, more than 20 million Beetles had been produced. 

The Microbus and The Thing

Although Volkswagen focused on the Beetle through the fifties and sixties, they had another product from this time which may have been nearly as iconic-the Type 2 van, frequently known as the microbus, or, in US popular culture, the hippie bus.  The Type 2 was also available in a pickup truck configuration, but is still best known for its van form.  Like the Beetle, the Type 2 was designed with the use of a wind tunnel, and would eventually achieve a drag coefficient of 0.44, better even than the Beetle's 0.48.  The Type 2 also followed after the Beetle in its popular adoption by the hippie subculture, who often decorated their vans in vibrant psychedelic colors.  Today, a more common modification is the conversion of vintage vans into small campers. 

During the 60's, though, US sales of the Type 2 were stifled, despite the vehicle's popularity, when the van was labeled as a light truck, and made subject to a steep 25% tariff in response to tariffs placed on American chicken by West Germany.  This did not, however, stop US Army forces stationed in Germany from using a later version of the Type 2, sold commercially as the Vanagon, as an administrative vehicle.

During this early period, Volkswagen also produced a vehicle intended, at least in part, as a military vehicle: the Type 181, familiar to Americans as "the Thing."  In the 1960s several European governments were cooperating to build the Europa Jeep, a lightweight military vehicle that could be cheaply mass-produced.  Volkswagen had been approached about building such a vehicle as early as the 1950s but passed on the project.  By 1968, the Europa Jeep was still in development and Germany was in need of a similar vehicle. 

Volkswagen decided then to begin work on the Type 181, seeing an opportunity to sell the car to the consumer market as well.  The Beetle was selling well in Mexico, but there was demand for a car that could better handle rural roads.  This, and the popularity of Baja Bugs in California, convinced the company that there was a market for an off-road-capable Volkswagen.  The Type 181 was designed to be cheap to build by using pre-existing parts.   It was built on the Type 2 platform with mechanical parts from the Beetle.  It was sold as the Thing in the US, the Trekker in the UK, and the Safari in Mexico.  In 1975, safety standards became stricter in the US, and the Thing, failing to meet the new standards, was dropped from Volkswagen's US lineup.  By the 1970s the Beetle was also on its way out of the US market.  It was time for new designs to challenge increasingly sophisticated US and Japanese models.  The first of these was the Passat, introduced in 1973, followed soon after by the Golf in 1974. 

Newer Models and Newer Horizons

In 1964, the Volkswagen group had acquired Audi, who they turned to in the 1970s when it came time to develop a more modern Volkswagen.  The first Passat was based partially on the Audi 80.  Some Audi 80s were manufactured on the same assembly lines that would be used to produce the Passat as a sort of test run.  The Passat shared a platform with an Audi model (most recently the A4), until 2005.  The Passat was also followed by the Golf, a subcompact meant to directly replace the Beetle.  The Golf was initially sold in the US as the Rabbit from 1974 to 1983, and again from 2003 to 2010.  The Golf  hatchback, with a more conventional trunk and some styling changes, served as the basis for the first Volkswagen Jetta in 1979. 

From this basic beginning, the Jetta would go on to become the all-time best-selling European car in the US.  In the early 1980s, Volkswagen used the Jetta as the basis for its Integrated Research Volkswagen to test such developing technologies as anti-lock brakes and electric power steering.  The fifth generation Jetta, produced from 2005 to 2010, was a stumbling point for the company, with each one taking more than forty hours to produce.  This led to the current generation being cheaper and simpler to produce, with 70% of the parts designed and manufactured in Mexico, where the car is built.  One thing that these three models share is their use of Volkswagen's Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) diesel engine.  TDI engines became available in Golfs and Jettas in 1993 and Passats in 1994.  TDI engines are highly fuel efficient.  The 2008 Jetta TDI won the Green Car Journal's Green Car of the Year Award, the 2010 Golf TDI was named one of Kelly Blue Book's Greenest Cars of the Year, and the 2013 Passat TDI is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest fuel economy of any non-hybrid vehicle.  The TDI engine is also powerful; in 2009, the Sports Car Club of America ran a series of races exclusively for factory-prepared TDI Jettas. 

Volkswagen approves of running the TDI engine on up to 5% biodiesel - fuel made from vegetable oil - but may deny warranty coverage if a fault occurs after a higher percentage is used.  Despite this, many drivers have modified their TDIs to run entirely on biodiesel.  One biodiesel seller in Seattle says he sells to 800 customers-most of whom drive Volkswagens with TDI engines.  Incidentally, Rudolf Diesel, father of the diesel engine, originally intended his engine to be run on vegetable oil which would be readily available to farmers.  This modification of Volkswagens to run on alternative fuel harkens back to the wood-gas-powered war-time Beetles. 

In a similar spirit of return to form, Volkswagen released its New Beetle in 1997, after unveiling a prototype at the North American International Auto Show.   Unlike the original, the New Beetle had a front mounted engine and front-wheel drive, but the visual styling was clearly a streamlined update of the original.  The New Beetle was based on the Golf's platform.  The mix of modern technology and retro styling proved popular with many consumers.  In 1999, Motor Trend named it their Import Car of the Year.  In 2010, Volkswagen debuted an even newer version of the Beetle that was built around the Jetta platform with more aggressive styling than 1997's New Beetle. 

Volkswagen Today

In 1985 Volkswagen renamed itself the Volkswagen Group, or Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft. They are the owner of several premier car companies such as Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, and Lamborghini, as well as foreign companies such as the Czech automobile manufacturer Skoda and the Italian motorcycle manufacturer Ducati. They continue to offer TDI versions of their models, as well as the high-performance GTI. They've even pushed into the growing electric motor market with the e-Golf than can reach up to 83 miles per charge and 115 horsepower. The New Beetle has once again returned to its original name, and, from looking at the model, seems to resemble both in its styling as well.

So, now that Volkswagen has come back around to the model that started it all, has the company finally earned the title of the people's car?  We say yes.  Whether they're painting their Type 2s in day-glo colors, suping up original Beetles to run on the beach, or modifying their Jettas to run on French-fry grease, Volkswagen owners tend to make their cars their own.  So, even though the Volkswagen was first conceived by an enemy of freedom, the brand's post-war rehabilitation has allowed it to come to represent the freedom so many drivers seek today.  

Volkswagen is a registered trademark of Volkswagen AG. 1A Auto is not affiliated with or sponsored by Volkswagen or Volkswagen AG. See all trademarks.

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