FERDINAND PORSCHE, later Dr Ferdinand Porsche, was born in 1875 in the little village of Maffersdorf near Reichenberg (now Liberec) in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now Czechoslovakia. In 1899 he joined the Lohner company in Vienna as an electrical engineer, and in 1906 he became Technical Director at the Austro-Daimler factory at Weiner Neustadt. In ten short years he had risen to be Managing Director.
The Austro-Daimler Sascha
Porsche had always been interested in small cars; one of the first fruits of this interest was the Austro-Daimler Sascha, a small, 1097 cc, four-cylinder, double-overhead-cam racing car. In 1923, however, Porsche left Austria for Germany to become Chief Designer for Daimler at Unterturkheim near Stuttgart. His first task was to modify the Paul Daimler-designed, 2-liter, four-cylinder racing car, and then to create a new 2-liter, eight-cylinder racer.
Following this he worked on the now famous Mercedes S series of cars with supercharged 6.8 and 7.1-liter six-cylinder engines. Porsche stayed in Germany for six years before moving back to Austria for a short period when he joined the Steyr company in 1929. By 1930, however, he was on the move again, to Stuttgart this time, where he founded his own design consultancy.
Porsche's first project was the preliminary sketches for his pet idea of a 'people's car'. As a contrast he designed the sensational sixteen-cylinder racing car which became famous under the Auto-Union banner. Porsche had intended to produce small cars when he was with Austro-Daimler, but he had failed because of the opposition of the directors, who failed to see the commercial value in producing a small car.
The situation at Mercedes had been the same; both companies produced medium and large cars and had no intention of creating the necessary new plant to produce a high-volume small car on which there was likely to be only a small profit margin. In 1931, however, Porsche's design office got an order from the Zundapp motor cycle company to build a prototype small car with a 1200cc five-cylinder engine. Three cars were made and tested, but the Zundapp management, and in particular Dr Fritz Neumayer, were not satisfied with the results and withdrew from the project.
Waiter William Moore
Soon afterwards another leading German motorcycle manufacturer, SU, approached Porsche with a similar proposition. Porsche's next prototype was the first to feature what was virtually to become a Volkswagen trademark in the years to follow, an air-cooled, rear-mounted flat-four engine of 1448 cc. In 1930 NSU sold their Heilbronn factory and intended to produce the Porsche-designed car at the Neckarsulm factory. Before production commenced, however, NSU wanted the flat-four changed and the design work was entrusted to the Englishman Waiter William Moore, then head of motor cycle design at SU.
Five prototypes of the Moore-modified car were built at Neckarsulm, but by 1934-5 motor cycle sales had improved to such an extent that NSU lost interest in the car, and returned the prototypes to Porsche. Needless to say Porsche himself had not lost interest and, along with his assistants Karl Rabe, Josef Kales, and Frank X. Reimspiess, continued work on the car. Although the flat-four engine was not an invention of the 1930s (Karl Benz had built one as far back as 1898 and many manufacturers of both cars and motorcycles had utilised them in the early days) Porsche was faced with many problems in obtaining the required combination of power, fuel economy and reliability.
An Order from the Reichsverband der Automobil Industry
In 1934 his work was rewarded by an order from Hitler's Government, via the Reichsverband der Automobil Industry (Association of Motor Manufacturers) for a 'people's car' using the flat-four, overhead-valve engine. This was a two-fold stroke of luck for Porsche; Hitler shared the same enthusiasm for a small popular car (for political motives), and Porsche's origins were sufficiently Arian for him to be entrusted with the project.
The first cars Porsche built with government financial assistance used the flat-four in a 985cc form with a bore of 70mm, a stroke of 64mm, and a low compression ratio of 5.6:1. Power output was a modest 23.5bhp at 3000rpm. The first three prototypes, built in 1936, were thoroughly tested; a total of 110,000 miles was covered in a two month period, with the test drivers commonly covering up to 900 miles a day. During 1937 thirty prototype Volkswagens were on the road. Porsche's own works were not equipped for building more than a handful of cars and so these early examples had been sub-contracted to Daimler-Benz at Unterturkheim.
Gesellschaft fur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH
Adolf Hitler's famous promise had been to make available to the German people a popular car which would sell at a mere 999 Reichsmarks. His regime's next step in this plan was the founding of the Gesellschaft fur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH (Association for the manufacture of the German people's car) in 1937. One year later, on 26th May 1938, the first stone of the new factory was laid, fifty miles east of Hanover at a place called Fallersleben. The complex of factories and villages for the workers was to be known as Kraft durch Freude Stadt (literally Strength through Joy Town), Hitler's organisation of that name being behind the mammoth project.
The new town for the workers was actually started some four months after the factory, in September of 1938, and it was in 1938 that the company was formed as Volkswagenwerk GmbH. While the Government had been the instigator of this project the finance for it had in fact been raised largely through advance orders and payments for the cars; by the end of 1938 no less than 169,741 orders had been taken. In theory everything was well under way with a full order book, a new factory and an available labour force. World War 2, however, was a major stumbling block as far as passenger car production was concerned.
The Kubelwagen and Schwimmwagen
The first cars which were turned out, in 1940, were modified for military use, and so it was not until after the war, in 1945, that the first cars were produced for the general public. Unfortunately those people who, pre-war, had ordered, and paid in advance for their VW were not dealt with immediately; it was to be many years and many court cases before the problem of the pre-paid VWs was settled. The military version VW, the Kubelwagen
as it was known, had been given an 1131 cc version of the flat-four engine which produced only 25 bhp but had more torque than the smaller 985cc engine.
In addition to the Kubelwagen, Volkswagen also produced a four-wheel-drive amphibious version for the military, the 'Schwimmwagen'. A total of seventy thousand of these were made before the end of hostilities in 1945. Volkswagen's home town came under American control when the US Army reached Wolfsburg on 10 April 1945, and it did not take long for the name Kraft durch Freude Stadt, with its unsuitable Nazi connotations, to be changed to the more neutral Wolfsburg on 25 May 1945. The town and factory found themselves in the British military zone until military rule ended and a new German Government resumed control of the country in 1949.
Car production in 1945 had been very limited; 1785 vehicles were built, for the British Army and the mail delivery service. This was a good performance considering that much of the factory had been destroyed during the war. Reconstruction took place through 1946 and despite the disruption Volkswagen managed to produce more than ten thousand vehicles that year, all of which were sold to the British Army. Although production fell to 8987 the next year, 56 vehicles went to Holland, to be the first of the thousands of VWs which were exported in the following years.
In 1948 Heinrich Nordhoff became Volkswagen's General Manager, and by May of that year 25,000 cars had left the new assembly lines, and a real breakthrough came the next year when the first orders came from the USA. Up to 1949 all Volkswagens were identical in specification, following the lead of Henry Ford's famous Model T
, with the notable exception that you could buy a VW in colours other than black. July of 1949 saw the export version of the VW introduced with more equipment as standard than the domestic German offering. At the same time the first Karmann-Ghia cabriolet appeared.
The VW range was thus still very limited, but in February 1950 the TV Transporter was introduced, although its production was limited to only ten a day to begin with as the main emphasis was on producing as many of the ordinary VWs as possible. High volume production was facilitated by the completion of the rebuilding work on the war-damaged factories, and the great demand for the simple, reliable and comparatively cheap 'Beetles'. Demand was, in fact, so good that Volkswagen was able to expand, and a sales outlet was formed in 1953 in Canada, and the first overseas factory, Volkswagen Brasil SA, was founded in 1954.
Volkswagen of America
By mid July 1953 half a million VWs had left the Wolfsburg works and the staff was given the first yearly bonus. From here on progress was spectacular, by 1955 a million VWs had been manufactured, at a daily rate of up to one thousand, Volkswagen of America was formed as a sales and service outlet, and the 1955 Karmann-Ghia coupe was a sensation. In 1958 a new VW factory was opened at Kassel, and engine production facilities were increased at the Hanover works where Transporter manufacture took place. Volkswagen expansion continued steadily and Volkswagen France appeared in 1960, the year when the whole company's financial structure was overhauled.
It was decided to put sixty per cent of the VW shares on the open market. The remaining forty per cent were retained by the German Federal Republic and by the local government of Lower Saxony. The money brought in by this move, 360 million marks in all, helped to set up the Stiftung Volkswagenwerk, a technical and scientific research foundation. Despite the distinctive shape of the basic VW 'Beetle' as it became known, which was retained with little alteration over the years, mechanical changes did take place under the skin.
Changes To The Beetle
The engine was changed in 1954 when the capacity was increased to 1192 cc and the power output raised to 30 bhp. The next change took place in 1960 when the engine, still an air-cooled flat-four, was given a strengthened crankshaft, larger bearings, a new fuel pump, stronger pushrods and a new carburetor. An outward similarity to the old 1937 engine masked the fact that power output was now 34 bhp. At this stage Volkswagen were content to keep to the same basic car and configuration, not for them the year by year model change, cosmetic or otherwise. Their sound and simple product sold well, and seemed ageless; the rugged and reliable Beetle had found a niche for itself in almost every country's car market.
By 1961 over five million VWs had been produced, and in September of that year the VW 1500 was introduced, although it never made much of an impact on the world market. At the same time the 1500 Karmann-Ghia coupe appeared. Both cars shared the same engine, a 1.5-liter, air-cooled, flat-four which produced 45 bhp at 3800 rpm. These two vehicles were merely icing on the cake as far as the VW management was concerned - in no way were they intended to supplant the Beetle, which by this time was being built at a rate of up to one million units a year. An influx of Italian labour in the early 1960s led to VW constructing a workers' settlement just for them in 1962, carrying on the pre-war paternalistic traditions of the company.
Meanwhile the VW Variant had appeared on the scene. In both estate and fast back saloon guise, based on the Beetle's mechanicals, with handling to match, it was to become a common sight on the roads of Europe for many years. Still the VW tentacles spread, in 1964 Volkswagen Mexico was formed, and growing demand led to the construction of a new factory at Emden: VW expansion took the form of acquisition as well as normal growth as in 1965 when the Auto Union group came under VW control. At the time Auto Union consisted of Audi and DKW. The Wanderer and Horch names, part of Auto Union since 1932, had fallen by the wayside by the end of World War 2 when the group relocated to Dusseldorf from its eastern German base at Zwickau, which found itself in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) after the war.
The VW 147 Fridolin
In 1956 Mercedes had taken over Auto Union, only to sell their majority shareholding to Volkswagen in 1965. This transaction immediately gave VW greater manufacturing capacity, and Beetles were produced at the old Auto Union factory at Ingoldstadt from 1965 to 1969. In 1965 the VW 147 Fridolin was introduced. This was a new delivery van for the German Post Office which had long been an important customer of Volkswagen, having bought over 25,000 VWs up to that time. Other additions to the range that year were a 1285 cc, 40 bhp version of the Beetle, and the 1600 TL fastback coupe with a 1584cc, 54bhp engine.
In 1966 the Beetle continued to mature, receiving the 1493 cc engine and twelve volt electrics as standard; this last point was an important step; anyone unfortunate enough to have driven a VW with the six volt system much at night will testify to the mediocre light produced even on high beam. While it seemed that there was no place for radical innovation in Volkswagen's scheme of things, the company was still prepared to invest heavily in research, and in 1966 formed the Deutsche Automobile Gesellschaft research and development unit in close collaboration with Mercedes-Benz.
The smooth growth of the Volkswagen empire was interrupted in 1968 when Heinrich Nordhoff, responsible for so much of the company's success, died at the age of 69 after a short illness. Dr Kurt Lotz succeeded him on 1st May 1968, and shortly afterwards the VW 411 appeared on the market. The 411 was something of a departure from the norm for VW in that it was of completely unitary construction and utilised MacPherson struts in the front suspension, rather than the trusty torsion bar system in use before. Although fast and reasonably comfortable, the 411 was not a great commercial success, and to some extent was a warning that the Wolfsburg company could not ignore progress to the degree that their products seemed to indicate. Nevertheless, by November of 1969 fifteen million VWs had been sold.
The Porsche 914 and the 914/6
At this time there was an important change in the VW distribution network in Sweden as Scania-Vabis were replaced as VW importers by Svenska Volkswagen AG in Sodertalje, near Stockholm. It was in 1969 that Volkswagen entered into a strange arrangement with the Porsche company in founding a separate company, VW-Porsche Vertrieb-gesellschaft, for the sole purpose of building a VW sports car with, hopefully, Porsche charisma attached. Two cars duly appeared, the 914 and the 914/6. The 914 was introduced for 1970 as a mid-engined occasional three-seater sports. The power unit was, naturally, an air-cooled flat-four, with over-head valves and a capacity of 1679cc. Notable features were the electronic fuel injection, the five-speed transmission, and the integral roll-over bar. The engine was later uprated to 1971cc and 100 bhp at 5000 rpm, to give the 914 2-liter a top speed in excess of 115 mph.
The 914/6, sold alongside the 914, was powered by a double-overhead-cam, six-cylinder engine, air-cooled and horizontally opposed, which produced 110 bhp at 5800 rpm to give it a similar performance to its four-cylinder brother, with a 0-60 time of 9.7 seconds. While the boxy styling of the two VW-Porsches was certainly attractive and purposeful, at the time the buying public seemed unwilling to make the association of the name VW with sports cars. Aside from the flirtation with the idea of a VW sports car, however, Volkswagen were still busy expanding; 1969 saw construction work start on their sixth German factory, at Salzgitter Beddingen.
The Volkswagen K70
On the 21st August 1969 Auto Union and the Neckarsulm NSU Motorenwerke combined to form Audi NSU Auto Union AG, with Volkswagen the biggest shareholder with a 59.5 per cent holding. The next new VW appeared soon after this, as the 411E; electronic fuel injection helped to boost the power output to 80 bhp. After diversifying into the car hire business through the acquisition of Germany's largest car hire firm, the Selbstfahrer-Union, in 1970, VW introduced the first product of their link up with NSU in the form of the K70, an NSU design. Essentially a very conventional car, its significance lay in the fact that it was the first VW to feature front-wheel drive, and have a water-cooled engine - in this case a four-cylinder, in-line, overhead-valve unit of 1605 cc (later changed to 1807cc).
While up to date in concept, the K70 was never particularly popular, and by VW standards cannot be judged a success. If the K70 was not all that might have been hoped for, another product from the new group certainly more than lived up to expectations. The Audi 100
, again a water-cooled, front-wheel-drive car, was a best seller for many years, and demand for it was such that production was started at Volkswagen's Wolfsburg factory in addition to the Ingoldstadt Audi factory. There was a further increase in share capital in 1970, bringing it up to the 900 million Deutschmark level.
Business was still booming; Volkswagen of Brazil even passed the one million vehicle mark. Yet another improvement to the faithful Beetle was made that year; the new 1302 and 1302S, known in some export markets as the Super Beetle, were introduced with a 50 bhp, 1584cc flat-four engines and improved suspension aimed at improving the handling of what could prove a tricky car to drive in some conditions. By this time the Ferdinand Porsche-designed flat-four engine, had had over thirty years of development. Volkswagen themselves had always used it in a particularly unstressed form and the engine had the reputation of being virtually indestructible.
Formula Vee and Super Vee
In the hands of private individuals, however, its potential was more fully realised in both Formula Vee and Formula Super Vee racing. For Formula Vee the VW engine was commonly tuned to give over 80 bhp, and drivers of the class of Jochen Rindt
cut their teeth racing VW-powered machines in this formula. The first race for Formula Super Vee was held at Hockenheim in early 1971 and by this time the racing versions of the 1584cc engine were developing an impressive 140 bhp, nearly three times the output of the standard production engine. By 27 August 1971 five million VWs had been exported to the USA alone, but shortly afterwards it was felt necessary to reshape the higher management of the company and Rudolf Leiding, previously head of Volkswagen in Brazil, took over the whole VW conglomerate on 1 October 1971.
17th February 1972 was an historic date for Volkswagen; the VW Beetle, the people's car par excellence, passed the production record of Henry Ford's famous Model T, when car number 15,007,034 rolled off the line. By this time, however, the writing was on the wall for the Beetle, and a new generation of cars was badly needed by the Wolfsburg company. The Passat
of 1973, rather than the adopted NSU-designed K70, was the first really new VW. Tradition was thrown to the winds, as the Passat
was a front-wheel-drive car, of integral construction, powered by a water-cooled, four-cylinder engine. Two engine sizes were offered, a 1296cc of 55bhp, and a 1470cc in low and high compression forms, producing 75 and 85 bhp respectively.
The Volkswagen Golf and Scirocco
The Passat proved a worthy successor to the the 411s, and became a respected Volkswagen workhorse for many years. It was, however, the arrival of the Golf and Scirocco in 1974 that really put Volkswagen firmly in the forefront of European car manufacturers, the old flat-four configuration was gone for good, front-wheel drive replaced the rear engine, rear-wheel drive of the older VWs and great attention was paid to style and performance in addition to the traditional Volkswagen virtues of solid construction and reliability. The Golf came originally with two engine options, a 1093cc, and for the Golf S, a 1471 cc four-cylinder unit.
The Scirocco appeared initially with a 1093 cc, 50 bhp four-cylinder engine, and, as with the Passat, a 1470cc engine was available with either high or low compression ratios, giving the same power outputs as in the Passat application. The VW Polo was introduced soon after the Golf and looked remarkably similar, but was powered by a smaller, 895 cc engine in its original form. It was an indication that VW had learned the lessons of the Beetle, and were prepared to revise and up-date the new range whenever it appeared necessary. Like many other manufacturers, VW went over to the hatchback concept in the mid 1970s for the Golf, Scirocco and Polo, but when it became obvious that many customers still preferred the traditional saloon, in its 'three box' format with a separate boot, the company brought out the Derby in 1977.
The Polo, Derby and GTi
This Derby was essentially a Polo with a new rear end treatment; mechanical components, engine, and performance were the same as for the Polo. In fact, the Derby was not dissimilar to the ill-fated K70 in appearance. While the Polo and Derby were intended as economical everyday family sedan runabouts, easy and pleasant to drive, the Golf started life with the same purpose but its potential for greater things was soon realised. The superb handling and roadholding of the well balanced front-wheel-drive car made it a natural for racing. Volkswagen themselves introduced a high performance version, the GTi
, for 1976. With a high compression, 1588cc fuel injected variation of the overhead-cam slant-four engine, the GTi
had a maximum speed of 113 mph and a 0-50 time of only 6.1 seconds.
The Golf GTi
and the Scirocco coupes, which also had brisk performance, were a far cry from Volkswagen's old, and rather staid, image. Volkswagen did not ignore the economy side of the market, however, and carried out extensive research and development work on the diesel engine. At the end of 1976 the diesel Golf
and Passat arrived with a diesel derivative of the 1470 cc petrol engine. The slant-four-diesel in the Golf produced 50 bhp at 5000 rpm, and 59lb ft of torque at 3000 rpm. A top speed of 87 mph, allied to a 0-50 time of 11.5 seconds was never going to set the world on fire, but in view of the fuel consumption, which averaged out at around 44mpg - it was a very appealing alternative.
In 1991, Volkswagen launched the third-generation Golf, which was European Car of the Year for 1992. The Golf Mk3 and Jetta arrived in North America just before the start of 1994 model year, first appearing in southern California in the late spring of 1993. The sedan version of the Golf was badged Vento in Europe, but remained Jetta in the U.S. The late 1990s saw a gradual change in perception of the company's products – with Audi having elevated itself into same league as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen moved upmarket to fill the void left by Audi; with SEAT and the further addition of the Czech car maker Škoda being acquired in the late 1990s, now occupying what was once VW's core market.
This move upmarket was continued with the Golf Mk4, introduced at the end of 1997 (and in North America in 1999), its chassis spawned a host of other cars within the Volkswagen Group—the Volkswagen Bora (the sedan called Jetta in the U.S.), New Beetle, SEAT Toledo, SEAT León, Audi A3, Audi TT, and Škoda Octavia. The other main models have been the Polo, a smaller car than the Golf, and the larger Passat for the segment above the Golf. The Scirocco and the later Corrado were both Golf-based coupés.
The Volkswagen New Beetle
In 1994, Volkswagen unveiled the J Mays-designed Concept One, a "retro"-themed concept car with a resemblance to the original Beetle, based on the platform of the Polo. Due to a positive response to the concept, a production version was developed as the New Beetle, based on the Golf's larger platform. Volkswagen's fortunes in North America improved once the third-generation Golf and Jetta models became available there. Marketing efforts included Trek bicycles with accompanying bicycle racks on the 1996 Jetta sedan. The introductions of the New Beetle and the fifth-generation Passat were a major boost to the brand.
In the UK, Volkswagen's market share grew throughout the 1990s. In 1990, the Golf was Britain's 12th most popular car with nearly 50,000 units sold. The Mk3 Polo achieved similar success in the mid 1990s, but in 1999 the Mk4 Golf was Volkswagen's first ever entrant in Britain's top 10 list of most popular new cars. In the late 1990s Volkswagen acquired the three luxury brands Lamborghini (through Audi), Bentley, and Bugatti due to Ferdinand Piëch" strategy. Audi's plans for Lamborghini included a small supercar later to be named the Gallardo, and a new halo vehicle, the Murciélago, and later the Reventon limited edition halo car. In late 2008, a 4-door saloon for the Lamborghini brand was shown in the form of the Lamborghini Estoque concept.
In 1992 leadership of the Volkswagen Group went to Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. In 2002 former BMW head Bernd Pietschesrieder took over. Volkswagen is part of the Volkswagen group (VAG), along with:
- Audi - (the former post-World War 2 Auto
Union/DKW) which was bought from Daimler-Benz in
- NSU - bought in 1969 by Volkswagen's
Audi division, a brand not used since 1977
- SEAT - majority owned since 1987
- Skoda - bought in 1991
- Bentley - bought in 1998 from Vickers
along with Rolls-Royce
- Bugatti - name bought in 1998
- Lamborghini - bought in 1998 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
Also see: Volkswagen Car Reviews | The History of Volkswagen (AUS Edition)