The Volkswagen story: A brief history and its cars by Carphile
Founded in 1937, the Volkswagen story started from a need in Germany for a car for the masses, a people’s car, a Volks-wagen.
The original Beetle went on to become a car that captured peoples hearts around the world. This enthusiasm quickly spread to the Volkswagen marque itself and that Vee-Dub camaraderie is still very much alive today at Bug Jams to owners clubs to the friendly waves between classic air-cooled VW van drivers as they pass.
Volkswagen – the early years
In 1934, at the time of the first VW, the German car market was dominated by expensive luxury models that were beyond the reach of the average driver, meaning only one in fifty Germans owned a car.
Out of several designs that were considered, a prototype of the Beetle by Ferdinand Porsche was chosen. A factory was built in Berlin, initially known as ‘Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH’ (meaning ‘Company for the Preparation of the German Volkswagen Ltd’) to produce Type 1 (as the Beetle was known within VW). However, very few Type 1’s were built before the outbreak of WW2 in 1939.
When the war finally ended in 1945, the future of the Volkswagen project looked bleak. The factory was turned over to occupying forces, who were offered it free of charge. However, neither British, French or American car manufacturer were at all interested in the little car and control of the factory was passed to the British Military and Major Ivan Hirst.
The factory was intended to be used as a repair station, but a few of Hirst’s men assembled two Beetles from parts in the factory. After demonstrating one of the cars to British army headquarters an order was placed for 20,000 vehicles to be used as light transport.
The Volkswagen factory was handed back to the German state in 1949, the same year the town in which the factory resided was renamed Wolfsburg and one of the world’s greatest automotive success stories really began.
The VW badge
The VW badge has remained pretty much the same since it made its début on the first Type 1 export models in 1949. The simple roundel featuring Volkswagen’s initials is one of the most recognised logos in the world. As iconic a symbol as the Beetle itself.
– photo © 2010 Volkswagen UK
VW’s for new generations and sporty superstars
The Beetle, or Type 1, was followed by Types 2–4. Like the Beetle the Type 2 T1 camper van earned a devoted following for its looks, practicality, reliable-simplicity and sheer sense of fun.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that a new generation of peoples cars were introduced, cars like the Golf, Polo and Passat would go on to become central to the Volkswagen range. In addition to modern bestsellers, VW showed it still had a sense of fun, with cars like the Scirocco, in the mid-seventies, and the Corrado in the late eighties. Before we get too far ahead though, and however well-received these coupes were, both sit firmly in the shadow of one of the all-time car greats, the Golf GTi.
Introduced in the mid-seventies, Volkswagen originally only intended a limited production run of 5000 cars but word of mouth quickly spread and soon VW were making 5,000 Golf GTi’s a week. This car not only packaged the performance car into a popular and practical package but became one of those rare cars that completely transcended class boundaries, while setting a standard that all future hot hatches would be judged.
Volkswagen went on to sell over 21 and a half million, Beetles before production in Brazil finally ended in 2003. While the appeal of the Polo, Golf and Passat has spanned decades, to the point that (several generations later) each car is still in production today.
Even the beloved Beetle had a modern revamp in 1997, ensuring its appeal endured into a new millennium (The new Beetle may have kept some of that iconic silhouette but the engine is no longer at the back but at the front and the car is based on the Golf (ironically the replacement for the original Beetle – many generations ago).
Volkswagen has come a very long way from its uncertain future in 1945. The marque has evolved over the last 70 years to become the world’s second largest car manufacturer and now controls a portfolio of car marques including – Lamborghini, Bentley Motors, Bugatti, Audi, Porsche, Seat and Skoda.
If you’re a Volkswagen owner or fan, please visit out our owners’ club section and find out about clubs near to you, or for information about club meetings and events.