Carl Hahn, VW CEO behind the Beetle’s success in America, has died at the age of 96

Carl Hahn, leading Volkswagen AG’s international expansion in the 1980s after overseeing the rise of the Volkswagen Beetle in the US in the 1960s, died. He is 96 years old.

Hahn died in his sleep on Saturday at his home in Wolfsburg, Germany, according to a spokesman from his charitable foundation. A ceremony is planned for January 24.

“Carl Hahn is a great visionary and a great personality,” Oliver Blume, current CEO of the German carmaker, said in an emailed statement on Sunday. “Volkswagen AG and Wolfsburg owe Carl Hahn a great debt of gratitude and condolences with his family.”

As the head of New York-based Volkswagen of America Inc. from 1959 to 1964, Hahn took a hands-on approach to selling cars. He toured the US in a VW bus, using his charisma and excellent English to get Americans to be “the Volkswagen way,” writes Andrea Hiott in “Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Journey of Volkswagen Beetle” (2012). He computerized Volkswagen’s offices and standardized service to increase efficiency.

Most importantly, he brought Volkswagen to Madison Avenue, choosing Doyle Dane Bernbach — which became DDB Worldwide, part of Omnicom Group Inc. — to design what Advertising Age magazine called the top campaign of the 20th century.

As conceived by art director Helmut Krone and copywriter Julian Koenig, the plan included unconventional print ads “Think Small,” which celebrated the Beetle’s compact size, and “Lemon,” which focused on quality control.

At a time when US automakers run “stupid advertising” focusing on the ever-changing appearance of their cars, VW and DDB present “our philosophy of a car that doesn’t change because of change, just for the benefit of the consumer,” Hahn said in a 2011 speech at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley.

Hahn’s marketing skills helped the Beetle become the best-selling single car model in history, with over 21.5 million produced between 1945 and 2003. Although commissioned and envisioned by Adolf Hitler, the Beetle was embraced by America , where it inspired artists, brought hippies. and starred as Herbie in the Disney film franchise that began with “The Love Bug” (1968).

Hahn returned to VW headquarters in Wolfsburg after his election to Volkswagen’s governing board in 1964 and headed the sales department. He lost his seat in a shakeup that took effect in early 1973 and left VW to head Continental Gummi-Werke, Germany’s largest rubber company, a predecessor of Hanover, Germany-based Continental AG. .

In 1982, Volkswagen reinstated Hahn as chairman and CEO after the resignation of Toni Schmucker. During Hahn’s tenure, Volkswagen became the No.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hahn put Volkswagen’s industrial might behind German unification, built plants in the former communist East, and entered into a joint venture with Czech carmaker Skoda Auto.

Upon his retirement at the end of 1992, Hahn told Automotive NEwS that his biggest regret is losing market share in the US, where he first made his mark.

Global vision

“My goal is to create a global network from a company that is a large exporter and has many foreign subsidiaries,” he said.

Carl Horst Hahn Jr. was born on July 1, 1926, in Chemnitz, part of the Saxony region of eastern Germany, to Carl Hahn and the former Maria Kusel. His father headed sales for Auto Union AG, the car maker that was the predecessor to what became Audi AG.

Drafted as a teenager into the German military, Hahn ended World War II in a US-run prison camp in Ingolstadt, he told a German newspaper in 2011.

He fled communist East Germany for the West after the war, earning a doctorate in economics from the University of Bern in 1952. He trained in Italy for Fiat and worked in Paris for the Organization for European Economic Cooperation.

Rapid rise

From Paris, he wrote to Heinz Nordhoff, the post-war leader of Volkswagen, offering his idea to export cars throughout Europe. Nordhoff liked Hahn’s “way of thinking,” if not his specific proposal, and hired him in 1954 as a personal assistant, Hiott wrote in “Thinking Small.” Hahn was soon promoted to the export department, then landed the task of opening the US market.

At that time, writes Hiott, the US “finally began to see the small car that had long been dismissed and ridiculed” – the Beetle. “In the mid-1950s, while most American adults still identified the automobile with Hitler and the war, today there is a new generation that has come of driving age with little connection to that troubled history. in the car.”

“They didn’t assign anyone to America,” Hahn recalled in 2011. “I’ve never been to America. I learned, apparently very quickly, to know and understand America. And I love it.”

With the US-born former Marisa Traina, whom he married in 1960 and died in 2013, Hahn had four children and nine grandchildren.

-With help from Chris Reiter.

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