Volkswagen, shortened to VW, is a German motor vehicle manufacturer founded in 1937 by the German Labour Front, known for the iconic Beetle and headquartered in Wolfsburg. It is the flagship brand of the Volkswagen Group, the largest car maker by worldwide sales in 2016 and 2017. The group’s biggest market is in China, which delivers 40% of its sales and profits. Popular models of Volkswagen include Golf, Jetta, Passat, Atlas, and Tiguan. The German term Volk translates to “people”, thus Volkswagen translates to “people’s car”.
1932–1938: People’s Car project
Volkswagen was established in 1937 by the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront) in Berlin. In the early 1930s, cars were a luxury – most Germans could afford nothing more elaborate than a motorcycle and only one German out of 50 owned a car. Seeking a potential new market, some car makers began independent “people’s car” projects – the Mercedes 170H, BMW 3/15, Adler AutoBahn, Steyr 55, and Hanomag 1.3L, among others.
In 1934, with many of the above projects still in development or early stages of production, Adolf Hitler became involved, ordering the production of a basic vehicle capable of transporting two adults and three children at 100 km/h (62 mph). He wanted a car every German family would be able to afford. The “People’s Car” would be available to citizens of the Third Reich through a savings plan at 990 RM (US$396 in 1938 dollars)—about the price of a small motorcycle (the average income being around 32 RM a week).
It soon became apparent that private industry could not turn out a car for only 990 RM. Thus, Hitler chose to sponsor an all-new, state-owned factory using Ferdinand Porsche’s design (with some of Hitler’s design suggestions, including an air-cooled engine so nothing could freeze). The intention was that every German family could buy the car through a savings scheme (“Fünf Mark die Woche musst du sparen, willst du im eigenen Wagen fahren” – “Five Marks a week you must set aside, if in your own car you wish to ride“), which around 336,000 people eventually paid into. However, the project was not commercially viable, and only government support was able to keep it afloat.
Volkswagen Works (Wolfsburg)
The construction of the new factory started in May 1938 in the new town of “Stadt des KdF-Wagens” (renamed Wolfsburg after the war), which had been purpose-built for the factory workers. This factory had only produced a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939. None were actually delivered to any holder of the completed saving stamp books, though one Type 1 Cabriolet was presented to Hitler on 20 April 1944 (his 55th birthday).
1939–1944: Wartime production and concentration camp labour
War changed production to military vehicles—the Type 82 Kübelwagen (“Bucket car”) utility vehicle (VW’s most common wartime model), and the amphibious Schwimmwagen—manufactured for German forces. One of the first foreigners to drive a Volkswagen was the American war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who had the use of a captured Volkswagen for a few days after the Allied victory in Tunisia in May 1943. As was common with much of the production in Nazi Germany during the war, slave labour was utilised in the Volkswagen plant, e.g. from Arbeitsdorf concentration camp. The company would admit in 1998 that it used 15,000 slaves during the war effort. German historians estimated that 80% of Volkswagen’s wartime workforce was slave labour. Many of the slaves were reported to have been supplied from the concentration camps upon request from plant managers. A lawsuit was filed in 1998 by survivors for restitution for the forced labour. Volkswagen would set up a voluntary restitution fund.
1.1 – Volkswagen Works Cornerstone Ceremony
1. Original Photo
2. Full Decode – Step 1
3. Full Decode – Step 2
4. Full Decode – Step 3
5. Full Decode – Final
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