If you like automobiles, you possibly know the story of how Volkswagen came into being. But in case you needed a refresher, here it goes. The German dictator in the 1930s gets a barely lettered but genius Austrian automobile designer to develop a ‘people’s car’ as part of his socialist dream state. The said vehicle is called ‘Volkswagen’ and the German populace can save up money to buy this vehicle through government-controlled savings schemes. A large factory is built in the central German state of Saxony in a newly created industrial township called Volksburg.
Unfortunately, the dictator in question decided that he wanted more ‘space’ for his people and invaded his neighbour Poland. Ergo, World War 2. In that war, huge flying Armadas of American B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators bombed the German industrial machine to oblivion, including Volksburg whose car-making tools had been repurposed to make Panzers (tanks). Long story short, Germany lost that war, Volksburg was left in ruins and the story might have ended there.
Enter Major Ivan Hirst, who served in the engineering corps of the British Army. After the defeat of the Germans, he was sent to the ‘British Zone’ and to the town of Volksburg, now called Wolfsburg. While American and Soviet troops had noticed a factory in that town, they were not interested. But Hirst and his colleagues went to see the bomb-damaged plant. What they found was that the plant had survived relatively unscathed along with a couple of pre-war ‘Volkswagens’. Hirst realised that these cars could help the British as an occupying force, as it would provide mobility. In fact, much of the machinery had survived the war, and by 1946, the plant was producing a thousand cars every month. Sure, the windows were still blown out and production stopped when it rained, and material shortages plagued post-war Germany, so getting steel and rubber was a problem.
In what has gone down in automotive history as one of ‘those’ stories, Hirst and the British offered the plant to the Ford Motor Company, free of cost, as part of the plan to rebuild West Germany. Henry Ford II himself came to Germany, saw the plant, saw the odd-shaped car that the British had started to call the ‘Beetle’ and promptly refused the offer. Thus, the British recruited Heinrich Nordhoff, a German automobile engineer to revive the company. Long story short, Nordhoff took the factory that Hirst had saved from being dismantled as reparations and set in motion one of the greatest success stories of post-war rebuilding.
The India story
Today, the Volkswagen Automotive Group stands alongside Toyota Motor Company, another amazing post-war success story, as the two largest automobile manufacturers in the world.
So when Volkswagen came to India in the 2000s, great things were expected from them. But frankly, they did not deliver. Not only was there a brand confusion inside the group about who would lead the charge in India, Czech brand Skoda or Volkswagen themselves, the carmaker had made a play in only the high-end luxury segment.
So when in the late-2000s, it was announced that Volkswagen would establish a new plant at Chakan outside Pune to build cars in India, it was seen as a sign of seriousness. After all, India was a small hatchback market and Volkswagen specialised in making small hatchbacks for Europe. They came to India with the Polo, and their own perceived superiority of German engineering.
For average Indians raised on a steady diet of Marutis and Hyundais that convinced them they had the best (don’t forget they had also seen Ambassadors and Padminis), Polo raised the bar high. That an average European mass-market model—a shrunken Golf—could become a driver’s enthusiast in this part of the world tells a lot about where India’s car market stood just a decade ago. The car was also one of the first few to have brought the safety debate to the Indian passenger car market. The ‘Made-In-India’ Polo actually did poorly when it was first tested, primarily due to a lack of airbags, forcing Volkswagen Polo to became the first hatchback in the Indian market to offer front airbags for the driver and passenger as standard from the base model onwards. So the Polo did leave an impact, but sales numbers will tell you a different story.
The Polo, in the early days of production in India was not the best car, it was slightly underpowered and lacked features compared to the competition. But as Sirish Chandran, Editor, Evo India, an automotive magazine targeting enthusiasts, remembers, “It took time to get up to speed, but once at speed, it was amazing. Plus the torsional rigidity (the stiffness of the body) of the car was evident, it handled better than any other hatchback. Once Volkswagen put engines like the 1.6 and then the 1.2 turbo with the DSG (dual-clutch) gearbox, it really brought out the full potential of the car.” Indeed, the Polo was a fun car to drive, especially the GT TSI variants over the years, which matched the fun of responsive small turbocharged engine along with the DSG gearbox. In September 2014, I spent a whole day around Aamby Valley City in the hills above Lonavala driving this variant around one of the strangest complexes in India. It was surreal and a lot of fun all at once, driving a small hot hatchback through deserted lanes that overlooked dilapidated multi-crore villas.
Volkswagen was also very proud of its production facilities at Chakan, the Polo and the vehicles derived from the Polo platform, the Vento sedan and the Ameo compact sedan all had a unique laser-welding technology — the side-panels and the roof were welded using laser. Look at a Polo or Vento, or even an Audi or Skoda; they don’t have a rubber strip running down the side of the roof to hide the welding marks.
Despite gaining rave reviews and a fanbase among enthusiasts, and strangely among women car buyers, who seemed to love the size and convenience of the Polo for self-driving, the German hatchback could never match the sales success of competing products from Maruti-Suzuki and Hyundai, and later on, Tata Motors. A part of that was to do with the fact that Volkswagen India continued with the older Polo while Europe got the new version. This was mainly to do with the so-called ‘4-metre rule’ in India, which gives cars below that length and a certain engine capacity an excise rebate. The new Polo was more than four metres long and wouldn’t qualify.
“While the Polo remained a great car to drive, and even today handles better than any hatchback sold in India in my opinion, it lacked the interior space and the feature set that its more modern rivals had,” says Chandran. Sales also stalled, towards the end, the Polo was selling barely a thousand units every month. However, the Polo gave Volkswagen a strong presence in the market and with the Volkswagen Group announcing its ‘India 2.0’ strategy underpinned by their new ‘MQB-A0 IN’ platform, the success of new products like the Taigun and Virtus can be traced to the Polo.
And the Polo story, which might have ended for now with over 250,000 units sold in India over the 12 years of production, could have just been paused. The next-generation Polo is on its way in Europe and according to Chandran, India could see this Polo come in later in 2023 or early 2024. “The Polo is a strong brand in India as well, and I don’t think Volkswagen will let it slip away.”
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
Source: The Print