Volkswagen’s Turnaround in the 1970s

Writing history and history itself are closely linked to sources. What kinds of sources are available to the researcher define the researcher’s product. One story of the behind-the-scenes work at Volkswagen as they prepared their vehicular savior, the Golf, caught my eye when I found a partially contradictory report in an authoritative text on the history of the car market in America.


Taken from Bertel Schmitt’s article on The Truth About Cars, “Autobiography of BS: How I Lied about the Golf“, Herr Schmitt describes the atmosphere surrounding the soon to be launched Golf, a car whose advertisement account he was in charge of:

Everybody at Volkswagen hated that car. It had the wrong shape. At the time, a true Volkswagen was round. This thing was boxy with harsh corners. It had the wrong engine. A true Volkswagen was air-cooled, this one was cooled with—ughh—water. The engine was in the wrong spot. A true Volkswagen hat the engine in the rear, this one had it up front. It was designed by the wrong people. A true Volkswagen was designed by Volkswagen engineers. This one was engineered by people from Audi, that strange little Bavarian company Volkswagen had acquired from Mercedes a few years before…

Everybody at Volkswagen was deeply convinced that the Golf would be an utter disaster. But they had no other choice. Attempts of their own engineers to make something else than the Bug, with the proper shape and the proper engine, had ended in even bigger disasters, again and again…

Herr Schmitt goes on to note that the Golf indeed went off to become a complete hit for Volkswagen, even for a time holding the title of the world’s best selling car of all time. A few years after the launch of the Golf, Herr Schmitt recounts being asked to write the speech for a major presentation on the Golf’s product planning by VW’s head of advertising. Herr Schmitt proposes telling the true story of VW not being behind the car whatsoever and putting it to market only because the struggling company didn’t have anything else to turn to. The head of advertising decides that such a move would get him fired;

And so it happened that, once more, students and faculty at the Akademie für Führungskräfte der Wirtschaft in Bad Harzburg were blatantly lied to.

They were told that after careful analysis of the market, after a study of the changing habits of the target group, with premonition of the rising oil prices, which everybody at VW had long seen coming, and with an enthusiastic cadre of engineers, the right car was made at the right time for the right price.

Due to the combined wisdom of everybody at Volkswagen, and the heroic effort of the Volkswagen workers, the Golf became a success, all according to plan.

For decades, the (official) version of the launch of the Golf was regarded as the textbook case of how to design, build, and market a car…

I loved finding just one example of that textbook case in one such textbook, John B. Rae’s The American Automobile Industry. Boston; Twayne Publishers. 1984. p. 152.

[VW] repeated Henry Ford’s mistake with the Model T  by keeping the Beetle in production too long. In the United States other companies, notably the Japanese, were offering automobiles that were competitive in price, at least as good in technical quality, and more attractive in style. [and now the good part] Volkswagen met its problems head on. New management was brought in, organizational changes were made, and the product line was brought up to date.

While the textbook version doesn’t tell a contradictory history to the introduction of the Golf, the textbook gives a wonderful sense of purpose, order, and planning that the real success story never possessed.

Please read the whole of Bertel Schmitt’s article, as its conclusion is not to be missed, nor is the infinitely more engaging storytelling.

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1 Response to Volkswagen’s Turnaround in the 1970s

  1. Pingback: VW Käfer / Volkswagen Beetle | Autofrei

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