If you are considering getting a new car with a powerful performance that you can count on, which car brands would you consider? While we may not know your preferred list of brands, there is a very big chance the name Volkswagen was one of them!
Volkswagen is one of the most famous and loved brands in the world! However, no brand reaches such a status without a rich history to back it up, and Volkswagen has no shortage of that! The German brand started before the Second World War and took several years to become a powerhouse on the automobile scene.
Volkswagen’s long history is full of successes but also dark periods. Founded in 1937 as ‘The People’s Car’ by German mechanic and inventor Ferdinand Porsche, Volkswagen is today famous for many attributes. But how did the company reach this pinnacle of success? Let’s discover its history together.
Volkswagen: The History
Volkswagen (a German term meaning “people’s car”) was officially born in the 1930s when the German Labour Front of the Nazi party decided to create a mass automobile for the people. In 1934, Hitler contacted Ferdinand Porsche to commission him to design a vehicle that could carry five passengers (or three soldiers and a machine gun), exceed a top speed of 100 km/h and consume 7 litres of petrol per 100 kilometres. All this at a price of less than 1,000 marks.
Porsche has been working on this idea of a small car that fits the whole family for years, so he was just the perfect man for the job. Ferdinand built the first prototypes in 1936 while the production version—called the KdF-Wagen (Kraft durch Freude meaning ‘Strength through Joy’, which is the name of the Nazi party’s leisure association)—saw the light of day at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show.
The Legendary Volkswagen Beetle
When the Beetle, or KdF-Wagen, made its appearance at the Berlin Motor Show, everybody was in awe! Characterised by aerodynamic styling and rear-wheel drive, it was powered by a 25-hp four-cylinder rear-mounted boxer engine. The car came with a top speed of 62 mph and achieved about 30 miles per gallon.
The press immediately renamed it the Beetle. It was this model that made Volkswagen famous. The car stayed true to the idea of a ‘people’s car’, a cheap and simple vehicle for the everyday person. When it came out, the Beetle was the most affordable car in Germany, with a price tag of only 990 Deutschmarks. The Beetle was designed to last for years with very little maintenance and became famous for its durability. The car was produced in Wolfsburg, Germany, from 1938 to 2003 and in Puebla, Mexico, from 1945 to 2003.
World War II
World War II terminated the development of the Volkswagen Beetle. However, the Nazi regime exploited the basis of this vehicle to make two military vehicles for the army: the Kübelwagen and the amphibious Volkswagen Schwimmwagen variant.
The Wolfsburg factory was completely destroyed by bombing and only resumed operations after the end of the war, thanks to the intervention of Ivan Hirst, a British officer with a passion for cars who believed in the car and put the production lines and distribution network back on track.
1945-1950s: Rebirth and Boom
After the war was over, under the temporary control of the British army stationed there, Volkswagen resumed business and began selling Beetles in large numbers. The range was expanded with a commercial vehicle, the Transporter. It was powered by the same boxer engine and was also destined to enjoy success under the nickname Bulli.
Volkswagen cars began to be exported in such large numbers outside Germany that new production plants were opened as early as the 1950s, including one in Brazil.
These years also saw the debut of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, a sports car available in coupé and cabriolet variants. The car was the result of a collaboration between Carrozzeria Ghia, the famous designer from Turin and Karmann, the German coachbuilder. In 1955, the company celebrated the one-millionth car produced!
The 1960s: Faithful to the Boxer
The 1960s opened with the launch of the Volkswagen Type 3 in 1961—again built on the Beetle floorpan and available in several body variants, but not as successful as hoped.
At the same time, Volkswagen saw the need to modernise what the brand offers. Thus Type 3, or the Volkswagen 1500, was presented as a car with a totally different body than the Beetle. It was offered in different variants; sedan, fastback and family types, but underneath, it remained faithful to the opposed cylinders, rear-wheel drive and air-cooling features.
Volkswagen became the car of choice for those looking for ergonomics and practicality and, despite its Nazi origins, became the car manufacturer that symbolised the flower children and youth protest.
The Beetle and Transporter become lifestyle phenomena, symbols of a generation. The Beetle was also a film star, thanks to several film appearances. In 1964, Volkswagen purchased Auto Union, which was a union including four German car manufacturers.
In 1967, a period of crisis began for the Wolfsburg company; falling sales due to the technical obsolescence of some vehicles and the death of Heinrich Nordhoff, the brand’s CEO, who helped rebuild the company after the Second War.
In 1969, the German brand took over NSU Motorenwerke AG (NSU), another German carmaker. The brand would eventually merge the two entities to establish the modern Audi company! Also in 1969, together with Porsche, the brand presented the mid-engined VW-Porsche 914 sports car.
The 1970s: Hello Golf!
The 1970s started with the Volkswagen K70—a rebadged NSU design — which was a turning point for Volkswagen, as it was the first model from the brand to depart from the Beetle basis and the first with front-wheel drive and a front-mounted (and water-cooled) engine. The design was followed by a more successful car, the Passat, which was presented in 1973.
The real revolution, however, came in 1974 with the debut of the Volkswagen Scirocco and, above all, the famous Golf, designed by none other than Italy’s famous car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro to replace the old Beetle. The compact car from Wolfsburg took very little time to win over the public thanks to its high reliability and complete range.
The first generation Volkswagen Golf not only represented a technical revolution compared to the past (water-cooled transverse front engine and front-wheel drive) but also a stylistic one. The car featured shapes that are now considered traditional (hatchback and tailgate) but, at the time, were mainly only used by French compact cars. The Golf was the first Volkswagen model to be equipped with a turbocharger.
The car began a new era in Volkswagen’s history, during which the brand was recognised as a pioneer in the use of forced induction technology. In 1976 the sporty variant of the Volkswagen Golf – the GTI – made its debut, while in 1980, it was the turn of the Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet characterised by a striking fixed roll bar.
In 1975, it was the turn of another successful Volkswagen, the small Polo, a cheaper (and more popular) variant of the Audi 50.
The 1980s: Goodbye Boxers
In 1980 came the first major motorsport victory; an Iltis driven by Swede Freddy Kottulinsky won the prestigious Dakar Rally raid. Volkswagen expanded into distant markets such as China in the first five years, and in 1985 the Wolfsburg brand became quite popular in the European market. The following year, the German brand, soon to be a group, took a majority stake in Seat.
This decade is characterised by the arrival of new generations of existing models. The Golf strengthened its market position in Europe, thanks in part to the GTI, while the Passat was followed by the Santana, a three-box car designed to ply the roads of many developing countries and with which Volkswagen began its conquest of the Chinese market.
After the second generation, the Scirocco paved the way for a new car; the Volkswagen Corrado. The brand also introduced the third generation of Volkswagen Transporter, the Syncro. The public was already well familiar with the company’s new direction by now.
In the last decade of the 20th century, Volkswagen brought out the fourth generation of the Transporter in 1990 (the first, finally, with a water-cooled front engine) and incorporated Skoda into the Volkswagen Group the following year. In 1992, the third generation Golf was launched, allowing the Wolfsburg brand to win the prestigious Car of the Year award for the first time, and in 1997 it was the turn of the New Beetle, a modernised version of the legendary Beetle.
The following year 1998, was a very important year for the German marque, which added to its group four luxury brands (Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce, the latter of which was sold to BMW in 2002). In the same year, the brand also launched the Volkswagen Lupo city car. The car had several variants; the most notable of them would be the Lupo 3L version, which was equipped with a 1.2 turbo diesel TDI engine that allowed it to consume only 3 litres of diesel per 100 km.
The 21st Century: Becoming the World’s Largest Car Manufacturer
In the 2000s, Volkswagen decided to focus on technological innovation and repositioning the brand, making it more ‘premium’! Elements like DSG automatic transmission, direct petrol injection and refined models such as the Phaeton flagship and the Touareg large SUV, both from 2002, made their debut.
Nevertheless, the 2008 financial crisis and the global economic recession that followed had a major effect on the automotive industry. For example, GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy protection, and Ford’s share price fell to its lowest level in 50 years. In this difficult situation, Volkswagen was able to seize the opportunity and become the largest car manufacturer in the world.
The birth of the Volkswagen Group took place in the spring of 2008 when the German car giant formed a new organisation comprising the main brand Volkswagen and the other six brands: Audi, Skoda, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche.
Between 2009 and 2011, the Wolfsburg brand won three consecutive Dakar Rally races with the Volkswagen Race Touareg; the first with South African Giniel de Villiers, the second with Spaniard Carlos Sainz and the third with Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah. At the same time, the fifth-generation Polo not only won Car of the Year in 2010 but also four WRC World Rally Championships (two Drivers’ titles with Sébastien Ogier and two Constructors’ Championships).
2015: The Scandal and Dealing with the Consequences
In 2015, Volkswagen faced one of the most difficult times in its journey. In September of that year, the company admitted that millions of its cars worldwide contained a software feature that allowed them to cheat during diesel emissions tests; these tests work to examine the amount of Exhaust gas produced by motor vehicles. The so-called Volkswagen emissions scandal rocked the automotive world and led to a dramatic fall in Volkswagen’s share price, causing the company’s value to plummet by $18 billion, or around 20 per cent, and the CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned.
This was only the beginning, and the consequences of the scandal were dire, and the group faced a series of unfortunate events, including a sharp drop in sales, a reduction in the company’s credit rating, and the departure of several executives. The long-term consequences of the scandal for Volkswagen are still being assessed, but the company’s reputation has been damaged, and the company faced large fines from regulators and lawsuits from customers.
Since the scandal broke, Volkswagen’s share price has fallen by 50 per cent, wiping out billions in shareholder value.
After facing the scandal, the brand has been working on putting it behind its back and cleaning up its reputation to get back on track. Under new management, Volkswagen has been working to regain people’s trust with new strategies and new designs.
In 2017, Volkswagen announced that it would be focusing on creating electric vehicles (EVs) with the goal of having an electric version of all models of Volkswagen by 2030. Making sure to stay true to the “all models” part, in 2019, the brand announced a programme that would turn the famous old Beetle models into electric cars as well! In 2022, the brand also announced the establishment of its own Gigafactory, the name of the factory working on producing batteries for electric cars.
Volkswagen logo: the Meaning of the Symbol
Since its inception, we have seen several changes to the official logo of the people’s car, but in all editions, the letters V and W have remained the absolute protagonists, always positioned within a circle. As with all car logos, the colours are, of course, fundamental, and in Volkswagen’s case, it is blue and silver.
Volkswagen has always had a very simple coat of arms, where the V stands for Volks (people) and the W stands for Wagen (car). The creator of the VW emblem was the German engineer Reimspiess (the same man who designed the Beetle engine). There have been several changes throughout the history of the brand, but the various logos have never left the basic version.
The last change in logo took place in 2019 when the current Volkswagen logo was designed to celebrate the launch of the brand’s electric cars. With a two-dimensional design, it is futuristic, simple, yet sophisticated. The frame and letters are thinner, and the shade of blue is significantly darker than its predecessors. It has been designed with the digital world and mobile devices in mind to appear well-readable on various platforms.
Volkswagen has had a strong presence in the automotive industry for years. Its place as one of the top car manufacturers has been secured by its ability to innovate in almost every area of the car production process, including design, technology, performance and more. Volkswagen is also known for its focus on safety and its industry-wide efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Although the company has faced some challenges over the years, it has always managed to come back stronger than before.