Today, Volkswagen is the largest carmaker in Europe, and one with a fierce reputation for reliability. They are the only brand with three entries in the top ten best-selling cars of all time (of those still in production): Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle, and Volkswagen Passat. Such is their reputation their current slogan is simply ‘Das Auto’ – literally ‘The Car.’
The company was formed in May 1937 by the government of Germany – then under the control of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. However, the concept of a ‘Volkswagen’ – a people’s car – dates to the turn of the century. Things got serious in 1933 when the German leadership met with Ferdinand Porsche to discuss his plans for the development and mass production of an affordable yet speedy car for the people of Germany. This led to the development of the VW Beetle, broadly based on Béla Barényi’s design of 1925.
Germany’s plans for the auto were never to materialise since World War II broke out and production ceased. After the war, the factory lay in ruins, but it was the intervention of the British that led to the rise of the German carmaker.
Volkswagen and the UK
The Wolfsburg VW factory fell into the hands of the Allies in 1945, and British Army officers under the command of Major Ivan Hirst restarted production. In March 1946, the 1000th Beetle rolled off the production line and three years later the British Army officially handed the factory back to the Germans. The rebirth of Volkswagen was complete.
The first VW Beetles arrived in the UK in 1952, when British servicemen returned home with their cars. In the same year John Colborne-Baber, who went on to become one of the first official UK Volkswagen dealers, began to import small numbers of VW Beetles for US Air Force personnel who were stationed in Kent. The following year, Volkswagen Motors Ltd was established, becoming the first official importer of new Volkswagen cars into the UK.
Initial reaction to the vehicle was not positive, with the British Motor Industry Commission describing the VW Beetle as, ‘bizarre, noisy and too flimsy’, and declaring it would, ‘remain popular for two or three years at the most.’ How opinions have changed as we’ve seen this simple little car evolve into the likes of the Beetle Sport, and Beetle Design.
Though model designs have been modified over the years, Volkswagen remain a mainstay in the car manufacturing industry, and maintain a strong presence in Kent in family run businesses like JCB Volkswagen in Ashford and Medway, where one can find the entire Volkswagen range, though unfortunately not at 1950’s prices!
Volkswagen’s Famous Models
Over the years, Volkswagen has produced some of the most instantly recognisable vehicles on our roads. Here are some of their most famous creations:
- VW Beetle: This iconic car has the accolade of being the longest-running and most manufactured car of a single design worldwide. Production of the original Beetle declined in the 1970s, although it continued in Mexico until 2003. However, in 1997 Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle, repackaging it again simply as the Volkswagen Beetle in 2011. Incredibly, its design is still based on the original 1933 model. No wonder it’s been described as the ‘car of the century.’
- VW Campervan: The Campervan was introduced in 1950 as a Transporter, designed to carry up to eight people, with removable rear seats to carry greater loads. These versatile vehicles have been used as buses, pickups, fire engines, ambulances, beer waggons, milk floats, delivery vans, and mobile shops, but are best known as the beloved Campervan.
- VW Passat: A large family car that’s been through six design generations since it arrived on the scene in 1973. Almost unrecognisable when compared to its original design, the Passat remains one of the best-selling vehicles in the world and in 2006, it was shortlisted for World Car of the Year.
- VW Golf: Classless and dependable, the VW Golf burst onto the scene in 1974 to revive the fortunes of Volkswagen as sales of the Beetle declined. Now in its seventh generation and like the Beetle, still distinguishable from its original design, this car is the third best-selling vehicle of all time and has won World Car of the Year twice, in 2009 and 2013.
- VW Polo: Released in 1975 this supermini is currently in its fifth generation. Originally based on the Audi 50, a car discontinued in 1978, this little motor is still going strong, and in 2010 was awarded World Car of the Year.
- VW Touareg: It took Volkswagen a while to enter into the utility car market, but when they finally relented, they did it with style. The Touareg, released in 2002, was a joint venture with Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche, and was designed as an off-road vehicle that handled like a sports car.
- VW Up!: A stylish addition to the city car market, the VW Up! was released in 2011, winning World Car of the Year in 2012. This nippy little car is perfect for zipping around town and features some of VW’s best features in a neat little package.
The iconic VW Beetle can claim Chris Evans and Ewan McGregor amongst its fans, both of whom own vintage vehicles, while Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and future Queen, was often seen driving around London in her VW Golf before her engagement to Prince William.
The classic VW Campervan undoubtedly has the most celebrity fans. Jamie Oliver, Vic Reeves, Richard Hammond, Jenson Button, and Vernon Kay all love their Campers, while Robbie Williams uses the VW Multivan, its latest incarnation, when on tour.
The Future of Volkswagen
Volkswagen’s next generation of cars is looking to the future, with an eye on the environmental impact of motoring.
We’ll soon see an electric version of the iconic Golf, the blue-e-motion, along with the NLIS, a single-seat electric car for the ultimate in minimalist mobility. Two hybrid vehicles are planned: the XL1, a futuristic-looking model that will be the most fuel-efficient car on the road and the Cross Coupe.
Volkswagen is also showing its sporting aspirations with the Concept R, Concept BlueSport and an economic sports car called the EcoRacer, in the pipeline.
In 2011 Volkswagen gave us a glimpse into the future as they challenged designers to come up with an ‘off-road’ concept vehicle. The winning entry, entitled the Volkswagen Aqua, was the brainchild of Chinese designer, Yuhan Zhang. Based on hovercraft technology, the 2-seater vehicle is able to travel across all-terrain, though it may be some time before we see this supercar on sale to the general public!