Carl Hahn transformed VW into global powerhouse


Carl Hahn, the visionary German executive who championed the Beetle and Microbus in the U.S. and later led Volkswagen Group’s international expansion into China in the 1980s, died Jan. 14. He was 96.

Hahn died in his sleep at his home in Wolfsburg, according to a spokeswoman from his charitable foundation. A ceremony is planned for Tuesday, Jan. 24, Bloomberg reported.

A native of Chemnitz, Germany, Hahn joined VW in 1954, where his father had been a top executive, and rose to lead the Germany automaker in 1982.

He had been head of Volkswagen North America when the Beetle triggered a cultlike following in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In a 2006 interview with Automotive News, Hahn recalled building VW’s following in the U.S. into what became the German automaker’s market share zenith.

“We had the dramatic advantage of having the Army GIs return to America with our product, which gave it a certain image and mystique,” Hahn said. “The distinction in our basic design philosophy and styling allowed us to stick out from the rather anonymous automotive scene of the 1950s, which was quite superficial and not caring for the customers. The American-brand dealers were making money, but there was not so much engineering thinking. The companies changed the fenders and that was it.”

He said consumers had grown “tired of Detroit, and they woke up to our vehicle. Americans wanted our cars as fast as we could sell them, as soon as we could build a structure of dealers that would give excellent service and as soon as we could get a parts supply that would be a model case.”

Hahn later left VW for 10 years, starting in 1972, to become CEO of supplier Continental.

In his 11 years as VW chairman, Hahn transformed Volkswagen AG from a parochial German manufacturer living largely off the Golf into a diversified international automotive giant. Hahn brought VW to China, presided over the automaker’s acquisition of Spain’s Seat and the Czech manufacturer Skoda, and formed joint ventures across the globe.

Hahn took over VW at an awkward time for the German automaker, which had become a “Golf empire” with a fierce concentration on its primary car model and its European sales, mimicking its earlier experiences with the Beetle. The concentration limited VW’s future options, which Hahn set out to broaden.

Hahn was instrumental in leading VW into China through a joint venture with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. that launched production in 1985.

The fruits of those efforts continue to pay off handsomely for VW, which has long dominated the combustion engine car market in China, even as it lags domestic competitors there on electric vehicles.

During his tenure with VW, Hahn also introduced several joint ventures, including a 1987 deal with Toyota Motor Corp. and a 1990 deal with Ford Motor Co. to jointly produce minivans in Setubal, Portugal.

He was also at the forefront of German reunification. In 1990 as the Soviet Union broke up, VW invested heavily in the former East Germany, changing the automotive landscape there.

Hahn retired in 1993, succeeded by Ferdinand Piech. Hahn chronicled his career in his 2005 autobiography My Years With Volkswagen.

Long after he left VW, Hahn remained an astute observer of the global auto industry, and a talented prognosticator.

For example, in 2010, at an event in South Korea at which he was a featured speaker, Hahn predicted that China would come to dominate the global auto industry, and that its fostering of electric vehicles would serve as a way to “leapfrog its competitors in the traditional automotive industry.”