Herbie the Love Bug was dreamt up by Adolf Hitler. The iconic Volkswagen Beetle, as it came to be known, was originally marketed to the subjects of the Third Reich as the KdF-wagen, or “strength through joy”-car. Few Beetles were actually produced during the Nazi era, as the firm’s Wolfsburg factory put its resources mainly towards the war effort. But eventually, in occupied postwar West Germany, the brilliantly designed little VW, air-cooled, cheap, and surprisingly spacious, started rolling off the line in big numbers, and a car born from fascism became an unlikely phenomenon, especially among free Europe’s rising middle class and, later, the anti-authoritarian counterculture that developed on both sides of the Atlantic. By the new millennium, VW Group was one of the biggest players in the global auto industry, and it owned a bouquet of prestigious marques, including Rolls Royce, Audi, and Porsche.
In 2016, the company met an audacious, seemingly impossible goal set by a string of single-minded chief executives: It beat the GMs and Toyotas of the world to become the top-selling automaker globally, two years ahead of schedule. But by then, it was no time for celebrating, with the automaker fighting against an ongoing scandal that threatened to destroy everything it had built: In the relentless drive to reach ambitious benchmarks imposed from the top, the company perpetrated one of the great frauds in corporate history, producing millions of diesel-powered cars fitted with “defeat devices” that modified the engines’ real-world performance when they sensed they were in lab-testing conditions. Once caught, VW didn’t come clean, choosing instead to stall, twist the truth, shirk blame, and to a remarkable degree refuse to change. (Volkswagen did not offer comment on specific facts mentioned in this article, but in a statement said that the company had “taken significant steps to strengthen accountability, enhance transparency and prevent something like this from happening again,” and pointed to a “series of agreements which offer a resolution to all customers with affected vehicles” in the U.S.)