Sitting to watch any of the ever-popular “Herbie” movies in which a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own becomes involved in an increasingly absurd range of wacky capers, it is difficult to believe that the widespread recognition and market share of the Volkswagen brand owes no small amount to the patronage of Adolf Hitler. Nonetheless, the Beetle and other Volkswagen cars continue to be popular today. After all, a good company and a good name does not stop being good simply because a dictator attempted to co-opt it into his increasingly insane plans.
The name “Volkswagen” sums up the idea of the ethos behind the company. Literally translated, “Volks” means “people’s” and “wagen” translates as “car”. The intention was that Volkswagen cars would be available to the average German worker, as long as the worker was willing to save their money to buy one, usually by putting aside five Marks a week. This savings scheme was bought into by well over 300,000 Germans. To get an idea of how extensively the Volkswagen name and brand has imbued the German nation, one must only look at the city of Wolfsburg. Built in the 1930s as “KdF-Stadt” (KdF being short for “Kraft durch Freude” or “strength through joy”), Wolfsburg was a city created for car workers. Today, it is one of Germany’s most well-known cities, and is identified with the company that made the city its home.
In 1945 it became abundantly clear that Hitler had lost the war and the state ownership of the Volkswagen brand was transferred to a British officer, Major Ivan Hirst. Those who would turn their back on a Volkswagen today because of the company’s past association with Hitler should know that it is what it is today far more because of Hirst than Hitler. It was Hirst that ensured the protection of the factory in Wolfsburg, and Hirst who secured the order for 20,000 Volkswagen cars for the British forces who remained behind in the area after the war as part of the normalisation plans in post-war Germany. Rather than the reflection of the Nazi ideal that Hitler would have wished, the Volkswagen name has come to reflect durability and quality.
Exports of Volkswagen cars were initially slow, but the extremely innovative advertising campaign for the Beetle that we know and love today saw it pick up rapidly, and become by 1972 the most popular car of all time – interestingly, the “Beetle” or “Bug” names were in fact just nicknames, as the car itself was marketed in America by Volkswagen as the “Type 1”.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of the Beetle’s shape and durability – and that film with the sentient one – there are a great many other Volkswagen vehicles. The manufacturer has shown itself to be adept at developing cars that people will want to buy. Given that the company name, badge and aesthetic are all things that could have been lost to posterity but for Major Ivan Hirst, it is truly one of the automotive stories of the 20th Century.
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