Home » Carl Hahn, The Man Behind The VW Beetle’s Success In America, Has Died

Carl Hahn, The Man Behind The VW Beetle’s Success In America, Has Died


Volkswagen has a lot of well-known names associated with its formation and growth — more so than most companies. Some of these names are legendary, like Ferdinand Porsche, some even better known but not exactly positive, like one Adolph H., and then are people like Heinz Nordhoff who pulled VW from a ragtag factory in war-torn Germany to a major European powerhouse, and more recent visionary leaders like Ferdinand Piëch. There’s one key name that I feel like doesn’t get the same recognition as many, but absolutely deserves it: Carl Hahn, the man who was crucial in making VW a success in America, and in doing the groundwork to give VW its strong presence in China (which helped the company become truly global). Carl Hahn died two days ago at the age of 96.

I think Hahn’s most impactful and best-known work came from an extremely important decision Hahn made after becoming president of Volkswagen of America in 1959. VW’s lineup at that time was something very peculiar to American eyes: diminutive cars with the engine in the wrong end of the car, making funny noises and shaped like either like a mechanical igloo or a rolling loaf of bread. Hahn needed to make the many positive qualities of these cars appealing to the masses of American buyers, who were used to being shown flash ads of cars as idealized dream-chariots, long and low and gleaming.

That wasn’t what a Volkswagen was.

Hahn saw this, and hired advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (now DDB) who came up with an idiosyncratic ad campaign that literally changed the world of advertising. Instead of showing cars as these fashionable glamour-barges, the DDB VW ad campaign showed a Volkswagen with a dented fender, or covered in snow or mud, or smashed into a cube or called a lemon, and somehow the ad could still convince you that these were smart, durable, economical, enjoyable cars to own.

Fine, we’ll look at some:


Of course DDB deserves the credit for coming up with this revolutionary campaign, treating readers like intelligent friends instead of idiot marks to be dazzled and conned into buying a car. But it’s worth remembering that Hahn was the one who pulled the trigger on this, the man with the vision to see that VW’s unique offerings in the American market needed to be treated like something new and different. And it sure as hell worked.

During his tenure as VW of America’s president from 1959 to 1973, VW was the best-selling imported car in America, year after year, and became a massive juggernaut of small car sales in America.

Hahn left VW in 1973, but came back in 1982 as Chairman, where he began an expansionistic policy, acquiring carmakers like SEAT in Spain, and this move was indicative of a larger global vision for the company. When the Iron Curtain finally collapsed and access to the former Soviet states became more open, Hahn saw an opportunity and joined forces with Skoda of the Czech Republic, and his work led to VW being one of the earliest European carmakers to forge alliances with Chinese carmakers, helping make VW a huge player there.


Hahn was excellent at keeping VW from falling back into its old trap of focusing so much effort on just one basic model/platform, as it did in the air-cooled era, and under his leadership the Golf/Rabbit became hugely successful. Despite this, competition from Japan and other factors saw VW’s American marketshare fall, something Hahn always regretted.

The simple truth is that VW would not be the global powerhouse it is today without Hahn, and his savvy decision making regarding how the Beetle should be advertised – and, really helping to define what the character of the Beetle should be – is a massive contribution to automotive culture and beyond.


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15 Responses

  1. My favorite VW commercial was the one asking if you knew what car the snowplow driver drove. Because air-cooled, the Beetle was popular in certain niches in the Midwest: they would just start & run when American iron required a block-heater & charging the battery in the warm kitchen overnight. There was a teacher in Kalamazoo in the early 70s with a small kerosene heater bolted in the former rear seat area for her commute. They kinda fit the Midwest ethos of, ‘Eh, it could always be worse’ of the time.

  2. Not to diminish Hahn in anyway, in fact he was smart enough to leverage this, but us ‘yunguns’ seem to forget that the US also suffered recessions in the 50’s and was not totally the postwar consumer paradise that has been romanticized. Small practical cars were very successful in parts of the world rebuilding or even developing for the first time. They actually had a fit in North America too. It just so happened that in those other parts of the world, there was lots of competition for small efficient and simple vehicles, but over here VW was one of few players. Outside of Nash, there were no real indigenous competitors,. Kind of exclusive, you might say. Hahn was smart enough to execute well on the opportunity.

    Now come the seventies, VW had to hold it’s head up to competition. The application of the DKW/Auto Union FWD architectures they acquired was a smart and successful move, particularly in markets outside of North America. Somehow, they just didn’t knock it out of the park here. Don’t get me wrong, VW did well, but just never dominated the same way again. I attribute it to their seesaw commitment to bringing European product to enthusiasts and then u-turning to making local market me too vehicles every few years (say, starting with German Golf to Pennsylvania Rabbit). Nobody knows who they are. Their current SUV flea market is an example to the market pandering trend. At some pint they will probably shift back to not chasing market share as much, but the customers will only remember the crap.

  3. In the mid-60s I had a built up ’57 Chevy. It was the quickest car in our high school parking lot. But my daily driver was a stock ’57 bug. It was the slowest car in that same parking lot. The more I drove and worked on the VW the more I loved it. With the Chevy every couple of months I’d win $25 at one of the local SoCal drag strips. I’m sure it cost me $500/600 to win that $25 every time. My bug saved me a shitload of money as I could drive it for 2 weeks on $3.00 worth of gas. I would watch a local guy named Dean Lowery race a bug at the drag strips. It ran in the low 13s and he won Street Eliminator at the largest national events a lot. I finally saw the light, sold the Chevy, and seriously got into VWs. My story would have been different if Mr. Hahn hadn’t led Volkswagen down the path he chose. RIP sir.

    1. If I can’t have another T3 Squareback, I would love to have a 411 wagon. Back in the early 1990s, a Master Sergeant I knew was parting out a 411; the drivetrain was already promised to someone, and the rest was going to be scrapped (!!??) so he let me and my friend strip it for any spare parts we could use.

      I took the hard plastic door pockets off of the door cards and used them to replace the sagging elastic pockets in my Super Beetle; that was a lovely fix and the price was definitely right. The other bit that stands out is the combination Philips/common screwdriver from the factory tool kit. It is a clever little item and I still use it.

    1. I’d forgotten that one!
      Needs an asterisk: “airtight unless the heat exchangers crack due to thermal shock” —the 3rd time I hit a long stretch of standing water in my parent’s 74 Super, the car filled with steam about 1/2way through it, and definitely had an exhaust leak after I got through the water. I try to be less of an idiot these days

  4. It’s strange to think that he was at the helm when my (previous) Super Beetle and Squareback were made. I owe him a debt for giving the US a highly-functional air-cooled option.

    “even better known but not exactly positive, like one Adolph H”

    That guy spelled his first name Adolf.

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