Posts Tagged ‘greed’

Volkswagen: When Greed meets Technology

Monday, October 26th, 2015

In 1937, Adolf Hitler formed a state-owned automobile company in Germany to produce a reliable, low-cost “People’s Car” (Volkswagen). The car was to be called KdF (Kraft-durch-Freude)-Wagen (Strength-Through-Joy car). Full-scale production was scheduled to begin in 1939. But when World War II broke out production had to be halted. After U.S. forces bombed and captured the Volkswagen plant in 1945, they handed it over to the British occupation forces, which in turn offered it free of charge to American, British, and French motor companies. All three declined.

Our family Volkswagen Beetle

Soon after the war, the British occupation forces began to use the cars for military purposes. And when the vehicles had reached the end of their useful military life, the Brits sold them. My father purchased one of these cast-off Beetles in 1951. I had many fun experiences in that car when I was a little girl in Berlin, Germany, during the post-war years. (Read the full story in my memoir: Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom).

Our family Volkswagen Beetle - purchased second-hand from the British occupation forces, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Our family Volkswagen Beetle – purchased second-hand from the British occupation forces, photo © J. Elke Ertle. 2015

Heinrich Nordhoff leads Volkswagen to success

Following World War II, General Motors-trained Heinrich Nordhoff had hoped for a leading position at GM’s newly rebuilt Opel plant in West Germany. But GM declined. In fact, GM told Mr. Nordhoff that he should consider himself lucky if he landed a job sweeping the street When the British occupation forces offered him a management position at the badly damaged plant, Mr. Nordhoff took it and went to work.

Conditions at the plant were bad. They were so bad that production had to stop when it rained because the roof and windows had been severely damaged during the war. The company even had to barter new vehicles to obtain steel for production. After Heinrich Nordhoff became managing director of Volkswagen in 1948, production increased from 12,000 vehicles in 1946 to 20,000 in 1948. By 1950, the company produced 100,000 and by 1955 one million Volkswagens. Mr. Nordhoff also began exporting the cars to the USA. Initially, customs agents just laughed at his promotional drawings. “That thing will never sell,” they hooted. But when the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach launched a clever campaign in 1959, dubbing the pint-sized car “the Beetle” and encouraging consumers to “Think Small,” sales began to soar. By the 19960s, Beetle-production exceeded that of Ford’s Model T. Eventually, Volkswagen became the top-selling auto import in the United States, the largest automaker in Germany and – behind Toyota – the second-largest one in the world.

The Volkswagen Beetle’s Decline

Heinrich Nordhoff continued to improve the car’s underpinning while retaining its humpback styling. In the early 1970s, Beetle sales grew sluggish. Volkswagen introduced various other models (Golf, Passat, Jetta, Polo, Karmann Ghia – to name a few), but after nearly 70 years and more than 21 million Beetles produced, the last one rolled off the line in Puebla, Mexico in 2003.

When greed meets technology

In September 2015, the news spread that Volkswagen had deliberately installed emissions defeat software in its 2009-2015 diesel cars at home and abroad. The software was designed to decrease emissions during tests. During normal driving conditions, however, emissions control software was programmed to shut off. Then the cars polluted up to 40 times more than allowed by law. After having denied for 15 months that emissions defeat software was deliberately installed, Volkswagen finally acknowledged to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) that their diesel cars’ emission controls systems were rigged.

Between 2009 and 2015, Volkswagen sold close to 500,000 diesel automobiles in the U.S. and 11 million worldwide. Following the news of defeat software installation, Volkswagen stock declined 20% on the first day and another 17% the following day. United States federal penalties may include fines of up to $18 billion and possible criminal charges. Legions of potential buyers will never purchase another Volkswagen. And, no doubt, there will be other consequences.

Looking at corporations, financial institutions, churches or politicians – worldwide – have moral integrity and ethical conduct been replaced by greed? Why else did Volkswagen executives conspire to defraud the public? And what made them think they would get away with it? (Also visit nordhoff/ and

Now, Volkswagen is hoping to make a comeback with the production of an all-electric, fully integrated e-generation bus. The vehicle should hit the market by 2022 and is intended to make Volkswagen a worldwide bestseller once again.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.