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Volkswagen

Volkswagen (VW) is an automobile manufacturer based in Wolfsburg, Germany, the core of VAG, one of the world's four biggest car producers.

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Origins in 1930s Germany

The origins of the company date back to 1930s Nazi Germany, and the project to build the car that would become known as the Beetle. Hitler's desire that almost anybody should be able to afford a car fitted with a proposal by car designer Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1952) -- although much of this design was inspired by the advanced Tatra cars of Hans Ledwinka[?]. The intention was that ordinary working Germans would buy the car by means of a savings scheme, a scheme which around 336,000 people eventually paid into. Prototypes of the car called the KdF-Wagen (German: Kraft durch Freude = strength through joy), appeared from 1936 onwards. The car already had its distinctive round shape and air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine, features similar to the Tatra. The 1938 prototype was recognizably the Beetle we know today. However the new factory in the new town of KdF-Stadt, now called Wolfsburg, purpose-built for the factory workers, had only produced a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939. Consequently the first volume-produced versions of the car were military vehicles, the jeep-like Kübelwagen and the amphibious Schwimmwagen.

1945: British Army and Ivan Hirst, unclear future

The company owes its postwar existence largely to one man, British army officer Major Ivan Hirst (1916-2000). In April 1945 KdF-Stadt and its heavily bombed factory were captured by the Americans, and handed to the British to administer. The factory was placed under the control of Hirst. At first the plan was to use it for military vehicle maintenance. Since it had been used for military production, and had been a "political animal" (Hirst's words) rather than a commercial enterprise, the equipment was in time intended to be salvaged as war reparations. Hirst painted one of the factory's cars green and demonstrated it to British army headquarters. Short of light transport, in September 1945 the British army was persuaded to place a vital order for 20,000. The first few hundred cars went to personnel from the occupying forces, and to the German Post Office. By 1946 the factory was producing 1000 cars a month, a remarkable feat considering the factory was still in disrepair: the damaged roof and windows meant rain stopped production; the steel to make the cars had to be bartered with new vehicles.

The car and its town changed their Nazi-era names to Volkswagen and Wolfsburg respectively, and production was increasing. It was still unclear what was to become of the factory. It was offered to representatives from the British, American and French motor industries. Famously, all rejected it. After an inspection of the plant Sir William Rootes, head of one of the largest British car companies, told Hirst the project would fail within two years, and that the car "is quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer, is too ugly and too noisy ... If you think you're going to build cars in this place, you're a bloody fool, young man." Ford representatives agreed: the car was "not worth a damn". The French motor industry dissuaded its government from getting involved.

1948-1974: Icon for German regeneration

From 1948 on, Volkswagen became a very important element, symbolically and economically, of West German regeneration. Heinrich Nordhoff[?] (1899-1968), a former senior manager at Opel who had overseen civilian and military vehicle production in the 1930s and 1940s, was recruited to run the factory in 1948. In 1949 Hirst left the company, now re-formed as a trust controlled by the West German government. Apart from the introduction of the "Type 2" commercial vehicle (van, pickup and camper), Nordhoff pursued the one-model policy until his death in 1968. Production of the "Type 1" VW Beetle (German: 'Käfer', US: 'Bug', French: 'Coccinelle') increased dramatically over the years, the total reaching 1 million in 1954.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, although the car was getting out-dated, American exports, innovative advertising and a growing reputation for reliability helped production figures to surpass the levels of the previous record holder, the Ford Model T: by 1973 total production was over 16 million.

1974: From Beetle to Golf

Production of the Beetle at the Wolfsburg factory switched to the VW Golf in 1974, marketed in the United States as the VW Rabbit in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a car unlike its predecessor in most significant ways, as well as its angular styling (by the Italian Giorgetto Guigiaro[?]). Its design followed trends for small family cars set by the 1959 Mini and 1972 Renault 5[?] -- the Golf had a transversely mounted, water-cooled engine in the front, driving the front wheels, and had a hatch-back, a format that has dominated the market segment ever since. Beetle production continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until 1978, but mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico.

From 1970s to present

Since soon after the introduction of the Golf, VW has offered a range of models much like other large European car-makers. The Polo[?], a smaller car introduced around the same time as the Golf, the coupés Scirocco and Corrado[?], and the larger Passat[?] saloon have been the most significant. In 1998 VW launched the New Beetle[?], a "retro"-themed car with a resemblance to the original Beetle but based on the Golf -- this has been popular in the USA but less so in Europe. In 2002 VW announced two models taking it into market segments new to the company: the Phaeton[?] luxury saloon, and the Touareg[?] sports-utility vehicle.

Cult status of Beetle

Like its competitors the Mini and the Citroën 2CV, the original-shape Beetle long outlasted predictions of its lifespan. More so than those cars, it maintains a very strong following worldwide, being regarded as something of a "cult" car since its 1960s association with the hippie movement. By 2002 there had been over 21 million produced. Production continues in Mexico.

Relationship with Porsche

The company has had a close relationship with Porsche, the Stuttgart-based sportscar manufacturer founded in 1947 by Ferry Porsche[?], son of the designer of the original Volkswagen. The first Porsche cars, the 1948 Porsche 356, used many Volkswagen components including a tuned engine, gearbox[?] and suspension. Later collaborations include the 1969/1970 VW-Porsche 914, the 1976 Porsche 924 (which used many Audi components and was built at an Audi factory), and the 2002 Porsche Cayenne (which shares engineering with the VW Touareg[?]).

Corporate Leadership and Structure

In 1992 leadership of the Volkswagen Group went to Ferdinand Piëch[?], grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. In 2002 former BMW head Bernd Pischetsrieder[?] took over.

Volkswagen is part of the Volkswagen group (VAG), along with:

From July 1998 until December 2002 VW's Bentley division also sold cars under the Rolls-Royce name under an agreement with BMW, which had bought the rights to that name. From 2003, only BMW may make cars called Rolls-Royce.

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