Carl Hahn died at the age of 96

Wolfsburg As early as the summer of 2014, the top city representatives agreed that Carl Hahn had achieved something very special not only for Volkswagen, but also for the city of Wolfsburg. The VW municipality therefore decided to take an unusual step: A vocational school on the outskirts of downtown Wolfsburg was to be named after the former Volkswagen CEO.

Hahn received such an award during his lifetime, a very rare exception. “The naming is an expression of respect for Carl Hahn’s life’s work,” said former mayor Rolf Schnellecke at the time. The city is setting a monument to the former VW colonel. “But now we have to be careful that this doesn’t degenerate into a personality cult,” Hahn himself said when a portrait of him was unveiled at the vocational school.

The Volkswagen Group and the Lower Saxony municipality should now really cherish the memory of Carl Hahn: The car manager died in Wolfsburg on Saturday at the age of 96. Hahn was the CEO of VW for more than a decade. Important strategic decisions were made during his tenure that have shaped the Group to this day. His birthplace of Chemnitz, the former headquarters of Auto-Union in the Saxon industrial belt, also played a decisive role.

Carl Hahn comes from a family with close ties to the automotive industry. In this respect, it was no surprise that, following his father, he quickly made a career in the industry that is so important for Germany. From 1922, Carl Hahn senior played a key role in developing DKW into one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world.

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In the 1930s, he was one of the founders of Auto-Union, which was formed from Audi, Wanderer, Horch and DKW. After the Second World War and the division of Germany, Hahn senior was a member of the group of managers who ensured a new start for Auto-Union and Audi in Ingolstadt.

Young Carl Hahn’s automotive career began in December 1954 when he accepted a position at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg. There he first worked as an assistant to the then VW boss Heinrich Nordhoff. As in so many other companies, executive board assistants at Volkswagen are considered future managers with great potential. Carl Hahn did the same. He made the leap across the Atlantic at the age of 33 and headed “Volkswagen of America” from 1959 to 1964.

Switch to Continental

Hahn conquered the USA with the VW Beetle: During this period, he played a key role in Volkswagen’s exceptional export successes in North America. In addition to the Beetle, VW also recorded good US sales figures with the Transporter, the “Bully”. As a foreign car manufacturer, Volkswagen was able to establish itself in the not-so-simple US market. Under Carl Hahn, VW experienced a preliminary high point there.

Later, things went downhill again with Volkswagen in the United States – right up to the diesel scandal of 2015, the absolute low point in VW history in the USA. The Wolfsburg-based group is still trying to build on the sales successes of the very early days. In the meantime, the VW brand is finally back in the black on the American car market.

For Carl Hahn, the five years in the USA were an important building block for a further rise as a car manager, initially at Volkswagen. Immediately after his return to Germany and at the age of just 38, he became a member of the VW board. Careers do not always run in a straight line, as the example of Hahn shows. After nine years on Volkswagen’s top management body, he did not agree with the further strategic path that the Wolfsburg car manufacturer had taken at the time. Hahn left the company in which things had only ever gone up for him before.

At that time, the successful Volkswagen manager was drawn 80 kilometers to the west – where he once again made a remarkable leap up the automotive career ladder. In 1973 he became CEO of the supplier group Continental, an important supplier to Volkswagen, in Hanover. Things were not going well for the Hanover-based company during this period. But Hahn managed the turnaround as the new boss. Under his leadership, what was initially a purely German company had grown into an important global manufacturer of tires and other rubber products.

Market entry in China

Today, Conti is one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world. The Hanover-based group has long since ceased to limit itself to the production of tires. The company has significantly expanded its range and now covers all important products from the supplier spectrum. Carl Hahn laid the foundations for this as CEO.

In Wolfsburg, what was happening at Continental in Hanover was observed very closely. When a new CEO was sought for Volkswagen in the early 1980s, Carl Hahn was chosen. So in 1982 he moved 50 miles east back to the VW Group headquarters to become the automaker’s new chief executive. An office that he would ultimately hold for eleven years.

The fact that the city of Wolfsburg honored Hahn with his own school during his lifetime was essentially due to these eleven years as CEO. The successor models to the Beetle are particularly associated with the name Carl Hahn, above all the Golf and the Passat.

The idea of ​​turning Audi into a new competitor to Mercedes and BMW as another premium brand also matured under his aegis. At Continental, Hahn decided on a comprehensive globalization strategy. He applied the same principle as CEO of Volkswagen.

From that time, a decision by Hahn changed the face of the VW Group quite significantly. In the early 1980s, the decision was made for Volkswagen to go to China. In spring 1983 the first VW Santana was assembled in Shanghai. While most of its competitors hesitated to enter the People’s Republic, the Wolfsburg car manufacturer had gained a significant head start.

The VW management around Carl Hahn is counting on the Chinese economy to grow strongly. In order to achieve a standard of living based on the Western model, the huge country would also need an efficient automotive industry, that was the calculation of those responsible at VW at the time.

Consistent globalization strategy

Carl Hahn and his colleagues were to be right. In the past 40 years, China has made a great economic leap forward – and that to Volkswagen’s advantage. With a market share of a good 15 percent, the Wolfsburg-based company is the market leader in the People’s Republic. The VW Group now sells about 40 percent of all its cars in China. Last year it was 3.2 million.

China has become the most important sales market in the world for Volkswagen. Market observers sometimes criticize that VW has become too dependent on the Chinese market. Without the billions in profits from China, however, the Volkswagen Group would be doing much worse today. Most recently, Volkswagen has come under pressure in China. Because the success founded by Carl Hahn was based exclusively on cars with combustion engines. With the new electric drive, Volkswagen is having a much harder time in China.

VW Beetle

The successor models to the VW Beetle are primarily associated with the Hahn name.

(Photo: dpa)

Two other important milestones are associated with Carl Hahn. With the purchase of the Spanish brand Seat in 1986, the Volkswagen Group initially rose to become the market leader in Europe, and for the past three years VW has also been the world’s largest car manufacturer. At the end of 1990, and thus at the end of Hahn’s term in Wolfsburg, Volkswagen joined Skoda in the Czech Republic. The purchase of the brand turned out to be a stroke of luck for the group. Skoda now transfers substantial surpluses to the Wolfsburg group accounts every year. New production sites in Spain, Portugal, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia were also added under Hahn – all reflections of a consistently implemented globalization strategy.

After the Berlin Wall fell at the end of 1989, Carl Hahn was able to turn to a very special matter. He had never forgotten his old Saxon homeland, his hometown of Chemnitz. That is why he paid great attention to ensuring that Saxony remained an important production location for the automotive industry. After reunification, at Hahn’s insistence, Volkswagen became the largest investor in East Germany.

The most important decision was the construction of a completely new plant in Zwickau. Production of the ID.3, the first new electric car from VW, started there at the end of 2019. The fact that Volkswagen started its entry into electromobility in Zwickau of all places is indirectly based on a decision by Carl Hahn. That’s why he was there himself when the then Chancellor Angela Merkel approved the production of the ID.3 in Zwickau in November 2019. Carl Hahn’s home town of Chemnitz is now an important location for engine construction within the VW Group.

A school in Wolfsburg was named after Carl Hahn during his lifetime. In view of the services to the city and the group, it shouldn’t be long before the Wolfsburg city fathers will soon be naming a street after him. And probably the same in Zwickau and Chemnitz.

More: China boss of VW on electromobility and digitization.

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