Carl Hahn Dies at 96; Made the VW Beetle Ubiquitous

Carl H. Hahn, the German automobile executive who helped transform the humble Volkswagen Beetle into an American pop culture icon and one of the most widely produced cars in the world, died on Jan. 14 at his home in Wolfsburg, Germany. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by his son Christopher Hahn.

During Mr. Hahn’s chairmanship of Volkswagen A.G. from 1982 to 1993, the company graduated into a global brand and Europe’s leading automobile manufacturer.

He was still in his 20s in 1954 when he wrote an unsolicited letter to Heinrich Nordhoff, the German engineer who had rejuvenated Volkswagen after World War II, persuading him to hire Mr. Hahn. He became Mr. Nordhoff’s assistant and was quickly promoted to chief of export promotion.

Mr. Hahn served as president of New York-headquartered Volkswagen of America from 1959 to 1964, and upon arriving in the United States he toured the country in a VW minibus.

“I learned, apparently very fast, to get to know and understand America,” he would later say. “And I loved it.”

Volkswagen avoided the fins and other frills with which U.S. manufacturers larded their vehicles. Instead, the company and its advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, promoted “our philosophy of a car that doesn’t change for the reason of change, only for the benefit of the consumer,” Mr. Hahn said at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011.

The ads persuaded buyers to “Think Small,” embrace their cars’ distinctive rounded back and bug-eye headlights and to prioritize efficiency and quality control.

Mr. Hahn, then chairman of Volkswagen AG, stands next to a VW Beetle at the company’s Wolfsburg, Germany, headquarters in 1987.Credit…Wolfgang Weihs/picture-alliance, via dpa, via Associated Press Images

Coupled with marketable if less visible engineering advances, the campaign transmogrified the cookie-cutter low-cost automobile that Hitler commissioned as “the people’s car” in the 1930s into the American counterculture’s adorable “Love Bug.”

“Without him, there would likely not have been the ads, which did indeed change the whole story for VW outside of Germany and did indeed result in a lot of needed healing, as well as revenue,” Andrea Hiott, the author of “Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle” (2012), said in an email.

While Detroit was wooing car buyers with luxurious behemoths, the black-and-white Volkswagen ads featured a photograph of the diminutive Beetle surrounded by an expanse of white space that spoke simplicity.

The campaign, which Advertising Age ranked as one of the best of the 20th century, featured another ad with the headline “Lemon.” It touted the car’s reliability and resale value and boasted that Volkswagen had more quality-control inspectors in its factory than cars.

In 1964, at the age of 38, Mr. Hahn was named the parent company’s head of sales and left the States, moving to Wolfsburg, the city in the Lower Saxony region of northern Germany where Volkswagen AG is headquartered.

Carl Horst Hahn Jr. was born on July 1, 1926, in Chemnitz, in eastern Germany, to Carl Hahn Sr. and Marie (Kusel) Hahn.

His father, Carl Sr., was a director of DKW, which became the world’s biggest motorcycle maker in the 1920s, and a founder in 1932 of Auto Union, a forerunner to what became Audi AG. He was a practicing Catholic who joined the Nazi Party in 1933 after Hitler signed a treaty with the Vatican in which he guaranteed the church’s rights in Germany, Carl Jr. wrote in a memoir.

Carl Jr. was drafted into the German military as a teenager and served in the tank corps. He was captured near the end of the war and released from a U.S.-run prisoner-of-war camp in late July 1945.

After the war, Carl Jr. left Communist East Germany.

He studied business administration at the University of Cologne and the University of Zurich and received his doctorate in economics from the University of Bern in Switzerland in 1952.

He worked as an economist for the European Productivity Agency (EPA) in Paris before he was hired by Volkswagen.

In 1972, the Beetle became the world’s best-selling car. That same year, Mr. Hahn left the company to join Continental Gummi-Werke, Germany’s biggest rubber and tire company, which he helped turn around as chief executive.

Returning to Volkswagen in 1982, he promoted the Golf model, and the company began producing vehicles in China, the former East Germany and Eastern Europe.

“The unification of the two German states puts an ultimate end to the chapter of horrors of World War II and its consequences,” Dr. Hahn told The New York Times in 1990.

At the end of 1992, Mr. Hahn left his job as chief executive but remained on the company’s supervisory board until 1997.

Meanwhile, high labor costs in Germany and competition from less expensive Japanese and even American cars were challenging Volkswagen’s pre-eminence.

After leaving his full-time role at the carmaker, he was chairman of a Swiss engineering group and board member of numerous U.S. and European corporations. He also established the Carl and Marisa Hahn philanthropic foundation.

His wife, Marisa (Traina) Hahn, died in 2013.

In addition to his son Christopher, he is survived by two other sons, Carl and Peter; a daughter, Pia Hahn; 11 grandchildren; a brother, Wolfgang; and two sisters, Anna Renata Schulz and Caroline Odefey.

On numerous occasions, he predicted confidently that the automobile industry’s future rested less on individual ownership of vehicles than on the provision of transportation through readily available self-driving cars and other means.

As the head of Volkswagen, he would routinely forsake his chauffeur-driven vehicle to try the latest models by his own company and its competitors.

“He loved his Trabant convertible he had at his summer house,” his son Christopher said, “besides riding motorcycles on weekends, which my mom did not appreciate.”

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