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VW - the people's car
By Fritz Burmeister
published September 2005

While FDR promised the American people: “A chicken in every pot!” Hitler made plans for the production of a low cost automobile for the German people. He found Ferdinand Porsche, an experienced car designer, who was enthused by this idea, to undertake the project of producing an automobile in accordance with Hitler’s pipedream. Besides being powered by an efficient air-cooled engine, the car should be able to achieve 30 MPH and carry a machine gun, all for the price of 1,000 RM, about $250.00. 

A number of prototypes were built and evaluated to achieve an optimum design for eventual mass production. Hitler ordered a factory to be built for this purpose at Wolfsburg, which began to produce some demonstration models in early 1939. People were encouraged by the government to make down payments and save up for later delivery. But WW II broke out in September 1939 and many lost their money. During the war the factory produced military vehicles only as well as munitions for the war effort. 

Due to Allied bombing the factory suffered heavy damage, but the British, realizing the demand for small inexpensive cars, rebuilt the plant after the war and produced a limited number of VWs under the direction of major Ivan Hirst. Following the currency reform in 1948, the company was handed over to the German government who appointed Heinrich Nordhoff CEO. 

Business flourished. Based on the original design, “der Käfer” (Beetle) delighted buyers all over the world, because of its low price tag, economy and reliability. And as its popularity grew, assembly plants sprang up outside the borders of Germany to meet the growing demand. Even in the US, considered the automobile capitol of the world, the Beetle made its presence known with countless buyers joining in on the “Fahrvergnügen” the catchy phrase  with which VW tried to attract customers in the 80s. 

But while the Beetle spearheaded VW’s entry into world markets, the company produced a variety of additional models as well to remain competitive. The boxy VW bus hit the show rooms in 1951, also powered by the well-tested air-cooled engine. Dubbed the “Hippie Van” of the 70s or the “Kraut Can” in the jargon of the era, it nevertheless served as a family transporter, a forerunner of today’s SUV. 

Other models from Wolfsburg arrived at the scene. Carman Ghia and Sirocco competed in the world of sports cars, while Golf, Passat and Jetta demonstrated VW’s intent to keep competitors on their toes in the area of family sedans. 

Recently at the LA Automotive Exhibition in January, the all new Jetta  was introduced. Features such as a 150 hp, 2.5 liter, five cylinder engine, a four-wheel independent suspension system, a larger trunk and more leg room than the previous model, demonstrate that VW has not lost its innovative spirit in car design. The new Jetta will be produced at the VW facility in Puebla, Mexico. The Mexican Plant is also the only one producing the new and improved Beetle, maintaining the “buggy” appearance of its forerunner. To date, an impressive number of 22 million “bugs” rolled off the production line, with no end in sight. 

Seventy years ago, a pipedream became reality in a way that staggered the imagination of carmakers and buyers alike.





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