A little over 70 years ago, the first Volkswagen Beetle was shipped to the United States by Dutch importer Ben Pon. Just two VWs were sold that year.
By 1955, on the back of growing publicity and the introduction of the Bus in 1950, Volkswagen of America sold 35,851 vehicles. It added the Karmann Ghia in 1956, and the convertible version of the Beetle in 1958.
Riding a wave of social rebellion as the first baby boomers came of driving age, the Beetle became a pop-culture icon: "The anti-establishment automobile, an underpowered, flower-powered middle finger to Detroit's self-obsessed excess," as Motor Trend's Angus Mackenzie remembered it.
The self-deprecating Doyle Dern Bernbach ads - still studied in many a Marketing class - broke all of the rules. One of them didn't show the car at all.
In 1970, Volkswagen sold almost 575,000 vehicles in America, including about 65,000 vans. Yet the Beetle was the enemy within. Impending exhaust emissions threatened to doom the air-cooled Volkswagen engine. At the same time, there was growing concern about the safety of rear-engined cars, whose handling could be tricky at the limit.
The summer of love was coming to an end, and VW found itself in desperate need of a new design that would meet the emissions, fuel economy and safety challenges of the '70s.
1970 would prove to be a record year, with more than 5.5 percent market share - a record for any import. Despite the 1973 introductions of Dasher, Scirocco, and Rabbit - all of them front-wheel drive with water-cooled in-line engines as - VW never again quite cracked America.
The trouble began when the Rabbit was launched without proper testing it for American driving conditions and maintenance habits. Then Americanized versions, replete with color-coded steering wheels, were built in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, at an unfinished Chrysler plant.
Realizing that it had made a mistake, VW of America revered to promising European flair without the European price. By the turn of the '80s, it had a popular car in the Jetta, a Golf with the trunk that Americans preferred to hatchbacks. VW's marketing hopefully focused on conveying a unique sense of freedom and road-bound expressionism. At the top of its cars' window stickers, under Equipment/ Options, the first item a buyer saw was "Fahrvergnügen." The German word loosely translated to "The joy of driving," and implied suspension built for the German autobahn with handling honed on Europe's winding, scenic roads.
Cars like the GTI and Jetta GLI could indeed make the claim of being budget BMWs. Volkswagen of America's marketing head promised more, telling Road & Track that the company would emphasize handling and braking. "You should be able to drive quickly on all types of roads without feeling that you're having to work hard."
Volkswagens were still expensive compared to Japanese offerings. Given the paucity of their standard equipment, the reason wasn't always clear. Road & Track criticized VW of America planners for being seemingly locked into a mindset that its competition was European; yet the Japanese, the magazine wrote in May 1985, were its primary foes.
Larger VWs, first Dasher then Quantum, never made much of a mark in the American market. Their successor, which now retained the European "Passat" name, took two years to arrive in America. Though priced more reasonably than expected, it lacked the V-6 engine Americans wanted in a midsize car.
Still, the third-generation Golf and Jetta offered buyers a greater sense of individuality; a way to stand out without paying a high price tag. Their vertical body panels and rounded corners continued to convey a German indomitability not seen in the more fluid look of Japanese competitors. Sales were helped along by clever, funny, unpretentious advertising directed at the younger generation who made the Jetta one of the more desired cars on campus.
The Passat finally got a six-cylinder engine for 1993, but bigger changes were in the works. Under the leadership of Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Beetle designer Ferdinand Porsche. The somewhat dowdy line-up was replaced with cars that looked sharp and set new standards for interior design and presentation for a tasteful, more premium look and feel. One quick glance was all it took to appreciate the results, but needless flash was studiously avoided.
In 1994, with sales at a new nadir of just 62,000 or so, VW had shown a concept version of a reimagined Beetle. Though never itself a big seller, it would at its launch in 1998 invite the public to come and see the radical transformation of the VW brand that had begun.
Growingly, however, those visiting their VW dealer would experience sticker shock. The humble Cabrio, based on the Golf and for years a fixture in sorority parking lots, was no more. The hardtop convertible Eos - VW's only open-topped car - now started at $30k. At the far end of the range was the $65k Phaeton, which resembled an enlarged Passat but shared its platform with a Bentley and offered up to 12 cylinders - for up to $95k. It was a remarkable achievement, but dubbed a case of "right car, wrong brand." Meanwhile, tensions continued between VW of America and its parent, the Germans grumbling that Americans didn't understand that quality cost money.
The Golf, the car that overwhelmingly drove Volkswagen sales volume in its European home market, remained a relatively niche product in America. Meanwhile, VW took too long to develop the SUVs and crossovers that American consumers demand. 63 percent of GM and 50 percent of Toyota vehicles sold in America, in 2015, were light trucks; VW's sales of the same amounted to just 14 percent of its total.
Despite an ambitious 2007 plan to triple sales in the U.S. by 2018, Volkswagen finished 2014 with just 2.2 percent of the market - and that was before "Dieselgate" exposed it to have lied about the emissions of its diesel vehicles, costing the company billions in buybacks and environmental restitution and badly damaging its image. Reports that emissions had been tested on animals were particularly galling to those who remembered the flower-power days.
In a move to reduce its costs and make vehicles more appealing to the American market, Volkswagen in 2011 opened a factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It assembled Passat sedans and Atlas SUVs, both of these specific to the U.S. The plant's 3,500 workers have turned out nearly 900,000 vehicles to date.
Now, they're reportedly preparing to build electric vehicles, in an $800 million expansion which will employ an additional 1,000 people. "Volkswagen will be the company that brings electrification to the people," says Scott Keogh, CEO and president of Volkswagen of America.
"We're known as 'the people's car' for a reason, and we plan to build EVs for millions, not millionaires.
"But I also feel, personally, that nobody has a greater responsibility to make electrification happen in light of the disastrous diesel issue."
You can already buy an electric Golf, but VW says four more vehicles - each of them electric only - are coming. Each is expected to have a range of over 250 miles off a single charge.
Its new electric-vehicle platform is called "Modulare E-Antriebs-Baukasten" (MEB). Translated, this means "modular electric-drive toolkit," and it's designed to be the basic building block of the Volkswagen brand's electric transportation future.
In March 2019, Volkswagen announced that it would aim to sell the platform to other companies to help create affordable electric vehicles.
"The iconic car of the electric age must be a Volkswagen," Chairman of the Board of Management Dr. Herbert Diess has said. "We want to reignite America's love for VW."
VW plans to sell 150,000 EVs worldwide this year, increasing to one million by 2025. By 2028, the company says, it will have sold 22 million.
Long term, VW has said that it is working towards being carbon neutral across its fleet, production and administration, globally, by 2050.