A car company set up to realise a plan supported by Hitler.
It is then saved by the British Army, its most famous product becomes a Hippy symbol of freedom, and goes on to become one of the largest companies in the world, let alone the car industry.
Even the most respected screenplay writer would have difficulty selling this story to a Hollywood studio, but in the case of Volkswagen it actually happened. There's more to this than can be explained in a single sentence, of course, but further details are just a click away.
The people's car
Several German manufacturers produced what they hoped would become popular cars for ordinary people in the 1930s. The one which came closest to making it - because it had the support of Adolf Hitler - was developed by Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951). It was named Volkswagen, the German word for 'people's car'.
The project was state-sponsored. Customers would pay five Reichsmark a week into a savings scheme before receiving their new car. The Second World War put an end to all this, but some authorities believe it would never have worked in any case. Only a very small number of cars were built, starting in 1938.
The Kübelwagen - short for Kübelsitzwagen, or 'bucket seat car' - was a memorably basic military vehicle based on the discontinued Volkswagen saloon. Many versions were developed, including the amphibious Schwimmwagen, but the basic design remained more or less the same through vehicle's production life from 1940 to 1945.
It was less capable than the Allies’ equivalent, the Jeep, being only two-wheel drive, and was much less produced: around 50,000, against 650,000 for the American vehicle.
The Type 1
Volkswagen's post-War existence is almost entirely due to the efforts of former British Army Major Ivan Hirst (1916-2000) of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and his German assistant Heinrich Nordhoff (1899-1968). They led the rebuilding of the Volkswagen factory and made it possible to put the car into production. The project was offered to several other British and American manufacturers, of all which rejected the idea because they thought the car was terrible.
Despite this, the car - unofficially known as the Beetle, among other nicknames - became one of the world's best sellers, and was still being built in Mexico as late as 2003.
The Type 2
Volkswagen's second civilian model was a light commercial vehicle officially known as the Type 2. Introduced in 1950, it became available in a wide variety of forms, including van, campervan (pictured) and flatbed pickup. As with the Beetle, all versions were powered by an air-cooled, flat-four petrol engine.
More than 70 years later, VW is still building descendants of the Type 2 in the form of the California, Caravelle, Crafter and Transporter.
The Karmann Ghia
VW moved into sports car production in 1955 with the Karmann Ghia, so called because it was manufactured by Karmann in Germany and designed by Italy's Ghia. Although mechanically similar to the Beetle, it looked nothing like it, and is regarded as one of the high points of car design. Production continued until 1974.
A more dramatic-looking second-generation Karmann Ghia, based on the Type 3 and commonly referred to as the Type 34, was less successful. It was introduced in 1962 and discontinued seven years later.
The Type 3
Volkswagen's gradual move into new market sectors continued with the introduction of the Type 3 in 1961. Larger than the Beetle, the Type 3 was also offered with more body styles - saloon, coupe and estate (pictured), also known as notchback, fastback and variant/squareback respectively.
The cars were marketed as VW 1500 or VW 1600, depending on the size of engine fitted.
Anyone who knows about today's Volkswagen Group will be aware that it includes several brands other than VW itself. The process began in 1964, when VW bought Auto Union from Daimler-Benz. Auto Union had been formed in 1932 as an amalgamation of Audi, DKW (by far the dominant partner even though it built the cheapest cars), Horch and Wanderer. Each maintained its own identity, and the Auto Union name was used only for fearsomely powerful Grand Prix cars in the 1930s.
By the time Volkswagen arrived, things had changed completely. The company was now building only DKWs, some of which were rebadged as Auto Unions.
The DKW F102 of 1963 was replaced two years later by a derivative called the F103, the only DKW ever designed to be fitted with a four-stroke engine. Volkswagen was concerned that DKW was too closely connected with increasingly unpopular two-strokes, and abandoned the name at this point.
As a replacement, it chose Audi, which would otherwise now be an almost forgotten name, unused for over 80 years. Audi adopted the four-ring logo of Auto Union; in 1995 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sued the company for trademark abuse, but the IOC lost.
The Type 4
VW's first large family car was the Type 4, offered with saloon, coupe and estate body styles. Its engine was of the usual Volkswagen type, but with a greater capacity of 1.7 and later 1.8 litres.
Marketed originally as the 411, the Type 4 remained in production for only six years from 1968, but was renamed 412 after a facelift in 1972.
The Type 181 (or Type 182 if right-hand drive) started out in 1968 as a military vehicle, very similar in concept to the Kübelwagen. It subsequently became available as a civilian vehicle known as the Thing or the Trekker, among other names. In this form it was a plausible alternative to the contemporary, and equally basic, Citroen Mehari, Mini Moke and Renault Rodeo.
Since Volkswagen has become far more of a premium brand than it once was, it's unlikely that we'll see a VW of this type in future.
Once a rival to DKW, NSU was bought by Volkswagen in 1969. At the time, it was producing the little Prinz saloon cars, and had recently discontinued the beautiful rotary-engined Spider sports car (pictured).
VW merged it with Auto Union to create a new company initially known as Audi NSU Auto Union. The name was shortened to Audi in 1985.
NSU Ro 80
Eight years after acquiring NSU, Volkswagen shut down the brand. After 1972, its only model was the Ro 80. This was, on the face of it, a remarkably advanced car, with exceptionally good aerodynamics and a clutch operated simply by touching the gearlever.
Unfortunately, it developed a terrible reputation for unreliability due to early failures of its rotary engine. These were largely resolved, but the reputation did not improve. VW persevered until 1977 before consigning NSU to history.
Volkswagen and Porsche
Since the Beetle was largely the work of Ferdinand Porsche, it was appropriate that Porsche and VW would collaborate on a sports car project in 1969.
Available with flat-four and flat-six engines, the 914 was popular in the US, but the project was not particularly successful otherwise, and the partnership came to an end in 1976.
The Ro 80 mentioned previously was the last car sold as an NSU, but not the last designed by the company. That honour goes to the K70, which was never sold with an NSU badge. Instead, it was marketed from the start (in 1970) as a VW, and became that brand's first model with a front-mounted, water-cooled engine and front-wheel drive.
This was a major transition for Volkswagen, and the K70 is therefore a historically important car. However, it wasn't a successful one, and was discontinued after only five years.
The K70 was indirectly replaced by another water-cooled, front-wheel drive model in 1973. The Passat was Volkswagen's own work. Although it was related to the slightly earlier Audi 80, that car was developed after VW had taken over Audi, as previously described.
The Passat has been an important part of Volkswagen's portfolio ever since. The name is still being used for large family cars, and is now in its eighth generation.
VW brought water cooling and front-wheel drive to the market sector it had previously competed in with the Beetle when it introduced the first-generation Golf in 1974. Unlike the mechanically similar Scirocco coupe launched a few months earlier, the Golf was also Volkswagen's first hatchback, a body style which was not new but had also not yet taken over from the more traditional saloon shape.
The Golf GTi (pictured), launched in 1976, is sometimes referred to as the first hot hatch, though earlier models such as the Simca 1100 Ti and Renault 5 Alpine/Gordini also have a claim to that title.
The 1975 Polo was essentially a rebadged version of the Audi 50 launched in the previous year. These cars represented a first move into the supermini sector for their respective brands. For Audi, the experiment lasted only four years, and there was to be no model like it until the A2 more than two decades later.
For Volkswagen, the Polo was the start of something big. Like the Golf and Passat, the Polo name has now been in continuous use for nearly half a century, though there is no other commonality between the first and latest versions.
Spanish brand SEAT started out building Fiats under licence, and progressed to developing its own models using Fiat technology. The relationship soured in the early 1980s, and Volkswagen became a SEAT shareholder, increasing its ownership to 99.99% in 1990.
The first SEAT to go on sale after this was the first-generation Toledo (pictured), which was based on the contemporary Golf but had far more luggage space. All SEATs since then have been related to at least one other model - and in some cases several - produced by the Volkswagen Group.
Volkswagen in China
VW became the first western manufacturer to set up a joint venture arrangement in China when it came to an agreement with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation in 1984. Car building was at a very low level in the region back then, but China has since become the world's largest automotive market, and correspondingly the most important to Volkswagen.
Some Chinese Volkswagens are sold under the Jetta brand (VA3 pictured), which was created in association with another partner, First Automobile Works (FAW), in 2019.
In 1991, Volkswagen took a 31% shareholding in Czech brand Skoda, having put forward a more attractive proposition than Renault. The VW stake increased to 100% in 2000, by which time Skoda (once considered, a little unfairly, to be a joke brand in western Europe) was well on its way to becoming a major player in the industry.
As with SEAT, Skoda models are now technically similar to other VW Group products, though there is a general tendency for them to have more spacious interiors.
By the 1990s it was becoming increasingly important for a manufacturer to have at least one MPV in its line-up. Although there was no question of either company investing in the other, Volkswagen and Ford jointly created such a vehicle, which they named Sharan and Galaxy respectively. There was also a SEAT version known as the Alhambra.
The VW and SEAT remained in production for a remarkable 15 years, during which Ford pulled out of the deal and developed its own second-generation Galaxy. New Sharan and Alhambra models were introduced in 2010. Ford and VW unveiled a new partnership to co-develop commercial vehicles and Electric Vehicles in 2020.
The New Beetle
The second-generation Beetle (and the first Volkswagen to be officially called that) was an early example of a modern car with retro styling, similar in that respect to the later MINI and Fiat 500. Launched in 1997, it had roughly the same shape as the original model but was mechanically completely different, with one of several possible water-cooled engines (ranging in size from 1.4 to 3.2 litres) up front.
Neither this car nor the even newer Beetle which succeeded it in 2011 achieved anything like the popularity of the car designed in the 1930s, but it's unlikely that VW ever expected them to.
Like most small hatchbacks, the Polo has gradually increased in size as one generation takes over from the last. By 1998, Volkswagen reckoned that the time had come to introduce a new sub-Polo model. The Lupo was only slightly larger than the first Polo, launched in 1975.
It was replaced early in the 21st century by the Fox. Volkswagen's current car in this sector is the up!, which was also sold in very slightly altered form for several years as the SEAT Mii and Skoda Citigo. The Citigo has since been axed, while the Mii is available only as an electric vehicle.
Italian supercar manufacturer Lamborghini went through several changes of ownership during its first 35 years. A long, and continuing, period of stability began in 1998, when Lamborghini was taken over by the Volkswagen Group.
The first model introduced under VW ownership was the Murciélago (pictured). The current Urus is based on the MLB Evo platform and is also used for other SUVs marketed by the Group such as the Audi Q7.
Shortly after its acquisition of Lamborghini, Volkswagen built on the fame of the Bugatti name by reviving a new supercar brand. Its first model, the Veyron of 2005 (16.4 Grand Sport derivative pictured), had a quad-turbocharged, 8.0-litre W16 engine which produced approximately 1000bhp and drove all four wheels.
The Veyron's successor, the Chiron of 2016, is fitted with a development of the same engine whose output is around 50% percent greater.
The 1997 decision by Vickers to sell the luxury Bentley and Rolls-Royce brands led to a slightly confusing arrangement involving Volkswagen and BMW. Once all the dust settled at the start of 2003, Rolls-Royce had become part of BMW, while Bentley was the latest member of the VW Group.
The first Bentley of the new era was the Continental GT, which has been a mainstay of the brand ever since. In its original form, it was closely related to the much less successful Volkswagen Phaeton.
Volkswagen and Porsche again
A large SUV co-developed by Volkswagen and Porsche, and known as the Touareg (pictured) and Cayenne respectively, made its debut in 2002, and was followed by the similar Audi Q7 three years later. SUVs have become a central pillar of the group in recent years; it currently makes around 30 different SUVs under its various brands.
Porsche's involvement in Volkswagen has grown stronger since then. While Porsche (the brand) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group, Porsche (the company) has a 53.3% stake of ordinary shares in the Group, as of 30 July 2021. The Porsche family – together with their cousins, the Piëchs – have not done badly as a result of their interests; they’re collectively worth around £60 billion ($83 billion) today.
The emissions scandal
In September 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation of the Clear Air Act to the Volkswagen Group, based on evidence that some models met emissions standards when being tested but not when being driven normally, especially the many models powered by the EA189 four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine.
The resulting scandal cost VW around £25 billion ($35 billion) in costs and fines and the job of its chief executive, Martin Winterkorn. It’s arguably one reason for the recent decline in sales of diesel cars in Europe. This was neither the first or the last example of a manufacturer being penalised for emissions violations, but it is currently the most famous.
The ID models
Volkswagen had created electric versions of existing models in the past, but in 2019 it introduced its first dedicated EV. This was the ID.3 hatchback, and it was quickly followed by two crossovers: the ID.4 and the China-only ID.6.
The ID.5, another crossover but with a more coupe-like design, will go on sale in the near future. VW has just revealed a compact EV concept called the ID. LIFE (pictured), which may go into production in 2025.
In addition to the car brands already mentioned, the Volkswagen Group includes Ducati (motorcycles - Panigale V2 pictured) and MAN, Navistar and Scania (commercial vehicles, and also industrial engines in the case of MAN), Italdesign Giugiaro, the Volkswagen Commercials division and several other companies with a more general involvement in the motor industry, such as the mobility services brand MOIA.
On top of all this, the Group has a separate financial services division. It also still owns the Auto Union, DKW, Horch, NSU and Wanderer names, though there is little sign that any of these will be reintroduced in the near future as VW have plenty of current brands to play with. There was a rumour in 2014 that the company might try to reduce confusion between the VW brand name and the VW company name by renaming the latter Auto Union, but this idea seems to have gone away.