Happy 75th Anniversary, Volkswagen!

January 17th, 2024 by

75 years ago today, two Volkswagen Type 1 vehicles landed on the shores of New York. 15 years before a small band from Liverpool would touch down in the Big Apple for the first time, Beetles had arrived in America. 

Volkswagen gambled on Americans embracing their diminutive Love Bug, as production of the car had swelled overseas. 75 years later, that wager is still paying dividends. To celebrate 75 years of VW, Volkswagen of Macon looks back at the company’s birth. 

The People’s Car Project (1932 – 1940) 

Volkswagen was established in 1937 by the German Labour Front in Berlin. In the early 1930’s only one in 50 German citizens owned a car. Sensing the potential of an untapped market, car makers began independent “people’s car” projects. (Volkswagen itself roughly translates to “people’s car” in English.) 

Enter Ferdinand Porsche, best known at the time for designing high-end and race cars. For years he’d been pursuing the concept of a small car that was ideal for the whole family. He built his “Volksauto” from the ground up in 1933, prioritizing an air-cooled, rear engine. He compensated for the small engine by rounding the front bonnet, giving the car both better aerodynamics and its now-iconic “beetle” shape. 

Together with lead designer Erwin Komenda, Porsche designed the Beetle with the aid of a wind tunnel – a method Germans had been using for aircraft design for years. The Beetle underwent several designs, each one put through rigorous testing. In all, the Beetle underwent a record million miles of testing before it was deemed road-worthy. 

Wartime Production & British Military Takeover (1939 – 1948) 

The second World War changed priorities for everyone, and VW was no exception. The company changed production to military vehicles, including the Type 82 Kubelwagen (a common utility vehicle) and the Schwimmwagen, an amphibious military vehicle for German forces. 

A year before the war began, in 1938, construction had begun on a new factory in the town of Stadt des KdF-Wagens (thankfully renamed after the war, to Wolfsburg). In April of 1945, KdF-Stadt and its factory were heavily bombed, captured by United States forces, and subsequently handed off to the Brits.  

The factory fell under the control of Major Ivan Hirst, who initially planned to use it for military vehicle maintenance. Instead, Hirst had one of the factory’s wartime cars repainted green, and upon demonstrating it to British Army headquarters, the transport-deprived British Army placed an order for 20,000 cars. 

The car had already changed its name to “Volkswagen” by this time, and it encountered numerous critics. Upon inspecting the factory, Sir William Rootes wrote in his official report, “to build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.” In 1948, the British offered Volkswagen to Ford, free of charge. Henry Ford II deemed the car worthless and passed on the offer, leaving Volkswagen’s leadership in the hands of Ivan Hirst’s assistant, Heinrich Nordhoff. 

Welcome to America (1949 – Present) 

There’s plenty more to Volkswagen’s story, which we’ll be sure to explore in the future. For today’s celebratory purposes, all you need to know is this: on January 17, 1949, Volkswagen made their official American debut. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Volkswagen’s legacy proudly continues here at Volkswagen of Macon, where we’re keeping a diligent eye on VW’s future. Explore the latest in state-of-the-art VW vehicles such as the compact SUV, the Taos, or the roomy Atlas Cross Sport. At Volkswagen of Macon, we proudly celebrate 75 years of Volkswagen in America – and raise a glass to 75 more. 

Posted in Volkswagen History