Carl Hahn, VW CEO behind Beetle’s success in America, dies at 96

Karl Hahn, who led Volkswagen AG’s international expansion in the 1980s after directing the rise of the Volkswagen Beetle in the US in the 1960s, has died. He is 96 years old.

Hahn died in his sleep on Saturday at his home in Wolfsburg, Germany, a spokesman for his charitable foundation said. The ceremony was organized on January 24.

“Karl Hahn was a great visionary and a great personality,” Oliver Blume, the German carmaker’s current CEO, said in an emailed statement on Sunday. “Volkswagen AG and Wolfsburg owe Karl Hahn a huge debt of gratitude and offer condolences to his family.”

As 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 sway Americans to the “Volkswagen way,” wrote Andrea Hiott in “Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the 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 part of DDB Worldwide, Omnicom Group Inc.—to design the top campaign of the 20th century for Advertising Age magazine.

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Conceived by art director Helmut Krone and copywriter Julian Koenig, the project includes unconventional print ads “Think Small,” celebrating the Beetle’s compact size, and “Lemon,” which focuses on quality control.

At a time when U.S. automakers are running “stupid advertising” that focuses on the ever-changing appearance of their cars, VW and DDB presented “the philosophy of a car that doesn’t change for the sake of change, just to profit the customer,” Hahn said in a 2011 speech at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

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After being elected to Volkswagen’s management board in 1964, Hahn returned to VW headquarters in Wolfsburg and headed up the sales department. He lost his position in a shakeup that took effect in early 1973 and left VW to lead Germany’s largest rubber company, Continental Gummi-Werk, a forerunner of Hanover, Germany-based Continental AG.

In 1982, Volkswagen brought Hahn back as chairman and CEO after the resignation of Tony Schmucker. During Hahn’s tenure, Volkswagen became the no. 1 carmaker, opening new plants in China and Eastern Europe, acquiring Spanish car company Seat SA and introducing new versions of its Golf model, known as the Rabbit in the US.

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

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At the time of his retirement in late 1992, Hahn told Automotive News his biggest regret was losing market share in the US, where he had first made his mark.

A global vision

“My intention was to make a global network from a company that was a big exporter and had many foreign subsidiaries,” he said.

Carl Horst Hahn Jr. was born on July 1, 1926, in Chemnitz, part of the Saxony region of East Germany, to Carl Hahn and the former Maria Kusel. His father headed sales for Auto Union AG, the flagship carmaker for Audi AG.

Hahn, who was drafted into the German military as a teenager, 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 for Fiat in Italy and worked for the Organization of European Economic Cooperation in Paris.

Fast rise

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

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At that time, Hiott wrote, the US “finally began to see the last of the small car it had despised and derided” — the Beetle. “In the mid-1950s, most adult Americans still identified the car with Hitler and war, now a new generation has come of a driving age with little connection to the car’s tumultuous history.”

“They had no one assigned to America,” Hahn recalled in 2011. “I had never been to America. I obviously learned very quickly to know and understand America. And I loved it.

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

-With help from Chris Reiter.

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