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Except for maybe Henry Ford and the Model T, no person has ever been more closely associated with the success of a single car model than Heinz Nordhoff is with the Volkswagen Beetle. But Nordhoff could so easily have taken a direction away from Volkswagen.
As a student, he was focused on shipbuilding. His first job was in aeronautics. His early career was spent at two other auto companies. Only the Great Depression of the 1930s kept him from emigrating to America to join a third automaker.
Nordhoff was almost 50 before he joined Volkswagen. But that's where he flourished, and his leadership helped turn a company ravaged by war into Europe's largest automaker. Born in 1899 in Hildesheim, Germany, this banker's son studied mechanical engineering in Berlin and preferred ships to cars.
Nordhoff joined BMW as an aero-engine apprentice and nearly moved to America to work for the US carmaker Nash. The Great Depression put an end to those plans.
Instead, Nordhoff joined General Motors' German unit Opel and concentrated on production processes. GM rewarded him with a trip to Detroit, where he studied American sales and production methods. He climbed the ladder at Opel and was appointed managing director of the Berlin-Brandenburg truck plant.
Initially, Nordhoff did not like Opel's cheap competition, the KdF designed by Professor Ferdinand Porsche. But he soon realized the potential of the car, which eventually became known as the Beetle.
After World War II, Nordhoff was determined to regain a senior management position in the automotive industry. Working at Opel, he was soon noticed by Major Ivan Hirst of the British occupational force, who was put in charge of the ruined Volkswagen plants after the war. On January 1, 1948, Nordhoff was appointed Volkswagen's managing director and was given a free hand to organize the reconstruction of the factory and to restart production.
Nordhoff was involved in many initiatives, from building the city of Wolfsburg to financing the first runs of Beetles after Germany's monetary reform in the summer of 1948. He called dealers to Wolfsburg and told them to bring every deutsche mark they could with them. By the end of 1948 he had 15,000 domestic orders and 7,000 export orders.
Nordhoff increased production from 19,244 units in 1948 to half a million by 1958. He was helped by the German economic boom, the Wirtschaftswunder. But Nordhoff could only achieve what he did through vision and skills, including the American production ideas he learned at GM. Volkswagen flourished with the Beetle. Nordhoff later added variants of the Beetle platform, such as the VW minibus and Karmann Ghia coupe and convertible.
Though he realized that Professor Porsche's concept - with rear-mounted, air-cooled engine - was becoming outdated, Nordhoff did not allow new developments. He died suddenly on April 12, 1968, following an earlier heart attack in January that year. By that time annual production had reached 1.7 million units.
His successor, Kurt Lotz, inherited a model range based on the aging air-cooled engine concept and VW temporarily lapsed into trouble. But the more than 21 million Beetles that have been produced are all a tribute to Heinz Nordhoff.
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