Volkswagen AG is an automotive giant that has far reaching tentacles across the globe. The German automaker has a full stable of brands, some of which are household names, others are less known. Many readers might be hard-pressed to name all of them.
Unsurprisingly, several have German roots, starting with the namesake Volkswagen brand sold in huge volumes around the world, along with the luxury Audi brand and iconic Porsche. But Volkswagen has owned Spanish brand SEAT since 1990 and the Czech brand Škoda since 2000. Britain’s Bentley and Italy’s Lamborghini were added to the company’s portfolio in 1998, along with the then-dormant French brand, Bugatti.
In 2019, Volkswagen experimented with its first sub-brand: JETTA, complete with its own dealer network, but only in China.
The Volkswagen Group is headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany, but many of its brands center their operations elsewhere, while reporting back to the mother ship. Volkswagen Group is most known for making passenger vehicles, but it also owns heavy truck brands MAN and Scania, the latter once part of the company that also made Saab cars, as well as Ducati motorcycles, which is owned by Audi via Lamborghini.
Here’s a snapshot of the car brands currently under the Volkswagen Group umbrella.
Volkswagen is the mainstream, high-volume brand of the Volkswagen Group, based in Wolfsburg, and famous for creating the Beetle.
VW was founded in 1937 in Berlin by the German Labour Front at the direction of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who wanted an affordable “people’s car”—in German, a Volkswagen. Though he couldn’t drive, Hitler was an auto enthusiast, and is said to have mandated the car have an air-cooled engine, and that it be able to cruise at its top speed—62 mph—on the autobahn with two adults and three children aboard.
Hitler himself unveiled the car, officially named the KdF-Wagen, at the 1938 Berlin Motor Show. And though thousands of Germans had pre-ordered and made payments on one, little more than 200 civilian versions were built before the outbreak of World War II halted production.
After the war, various automakers, including Ford, were offered the opportunity to take over production of the car, which had been restarted in December 1945 under the guidance of a British Army officer, Major Ivan Hirst. All rejected the Beetle, and Hirst appointed a German engineer, Heinz Nordhoff, to run the plant as its own entity in 1948.
The Volkswagen brand entered the U.S. market in 1949 with a whopping two units sold the first year, but the Beetle’s easy drivability, and its high quality and reliability, which had been dramatically improved under Nordhoff’s guidance, quickly turned a cult following into mass market appeal. The success of the Beetle cajoled Detroit’s Big Three into building their own low-price compacts in the late 1950s.
VW struggled for years to find a successor to the Beetle before the water-cooled, front drive Golf took off in the 1970s. And even though the Golf became VW’s heartland car—and in its eighth generation is still a segment benchmark—many other VW models missed the mark in the US, offering too few amenities at a premium price point compared with rivals. There were times when it appeared the Volkswagen brand would pull out of the market altogether.
Audi is one of VW’s luxury brands and operates with some independence from its parent from a head office in Ingolstadt, Germany.
The Audi name was first registered in 1910 by German engineer August Horch—who had founded an automaker in his own name in 1904—and is derived from a latin translation of Horch, which means ‘listen’ in German. The logo of four rings represents the four automakers that merged in 1932 to form Auto Union—Audi, Hord, DKW, and Wanderer.
Volkswagen acquired Auto Union from Daimler-Benz in 1965, and the brand was relaunched with the return of the Audi name after 25 years and the introduction of the Audi F103 series.
Initially Volkswagen did not want Auto Union to operate as an independent entity—VW just wanted the capacity of the plant in Ingolstadt. Auto Union engineers resorted to developing the first Audi 100 in secret and the car impressed VW brass and was launched in 1968. A year later Auto Union merged with NSU Motorenwerke, known for motorcycles, small cars and rotary engines. The new company, Audi NSU Auto Union AG, was incorporated Jan. 1, 1969, with Audi was a separate brand.
Volkswagen introduced the Audi brand to the U.S. market in 1970. In 1986, the company name was shortened to Audi AG and headquarters were back in Ingolstadt.
Though introduction of quattro all-wheel drive was well received—the 1980 Audi quattro Coupe, which featured an all-wheel drive system developed from the Volkswagen Iltis military vehicle, was set the template for modern rally cars—recalls for reports of sudden unintended acceleration, perpetuated by a fraudulent 60 Minutes report, almost killed the brand in North America in the ’80s.
While Audi initially provided Volkswagen with engineering skills it did not possess in-house, its impact on the company proved far greater: It nurtured the career of one Ferdinand Piech, who joined Audi from Porsche in 1972 when it was decided no member of the Porsche family (he was a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche) should have a role in the day-to-day running of the German sports car maker.
Piech became chairman of Volkswagen Group in 1993, and was instrumental in the aggressive acquisition of brands—and development of halo products such as the Golf 4, Audi R8, Bentley Continental, and Bugatti Veyron—that helped transform the company into the global powerfouse it is today.
Audi was stung by scandal again in 2015 as part of the larger Volkswagen emissions testing scandal, but today is a well-known and respected brand of sporty luxury cars and crossovers. Following the overall mandate for the Volkswagen Group, Audi also is expanding into electric vehicles, starting with the Audi E-Tron.
Porsche is a brand synonymous with high-performance sports cars. The German brand is owned by the Volkswagen Group and based in Stuttgart.
Porsche was founded by Ferdinand Porsche in 1931 and initially helped develop vehicles for others, like the Volkswagen Beetle. It was not until after World War II that Porsche started building cars under its own name, starting with the 356, which borrowed many design characteristics, including its rear-mounted air-cooled four-cylinder engine, with the original Beetle. The 911, developed as a roomier, more powerful, more comfortable replacement for the 356, but powered by a rear-mounted air-cooled engine, appeared in 1963 and over eight generations has become not just the brand’s lode star, but one of the world’s most iconic sports cars.
Voting-share ownership by the Porsche and Piëch families have made the corporate structure a bit of a soap opera over the years, made no easier when Porsche and Volkswagen each both tried to take over the other in the early ’00s. A denouement was arranged to merge their manufacturing operations—and there were other complicated arrangements concerning who owned what at different corporate levels, but it amounted to Porsche AG being owned and run by Volkswagen AG in 2012.
Luscious Lamborghini is an Italian brand that is part of Germany’s Volkswagen Group.
Lamborghini was founded in 1963 by Ferruccio Lamborghini in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy, to compete with Ferrari. It is known for its mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, low-slung exotic cars. It has evolved from sports cars to luxury sport crossovers, as well, with the introduction of the Lamborghini Urus with a twin-turbo V-8.
The brand has seen three ownership changes and a bankruptcy since 1973. Ferruccio retired and sold the company in 1974 to a pair of investors who were forced to file for bankruptcy in 1978. The receivers bought it in 1984. Then in 1987 Chrysler bought Lamborghini but in 1994 sold it to investment firms in Malaysia and Indonesia. They in turn sold Lamborghini to the Volkswagen Group in 1998, which rolled the brand into its Audi division.
Volkswagen Group, through Lamborghini, took a majority stake in the Italian design house Italdesign Giugiaro, in 2010, and iconic Italian motorcycle make Ducati in 2012.
Bentley is a brand of Bentley Motors, a British maker of luxury vehicles that is part of the German Volkswagen Group. Headquartered in Crewe, U.K, Bentley has been part of VW since 1998.
Bentley was founded in 1909 by Walter Owen Bentley and his brother Horace Miller Bentley. The automaker went into receivership in 1931, during the Great Depression, and was sold to British Central Equitable Trust, which later turned out to be a front for Rolls-Royce.
With Rolls-Royce in financial trouble in 1971, the British government nationalized the company, and then created Rolls-Royce Motors in 1973 to separate the Rolls-Royce and Bentley car-making operation from the strategically sensitive Rolls-Royce aerospace business. Rolls-Royce Motors was purchased by engineering conglomerate Vickers in 1980.
In 1997 Vickers decided to sell. BMW was comprehensively outbid by Volkswagen AG, the deal closing in 1998. Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piëch presumed he’d bought all Rolls-Royce and Bentley assets, but the fine print revealed that Rolls-Royce plc, the aerospace business, actually owned the Rolls-Royce name and the logo, and had merely licensed it to the car business. Worse, it then decided to sell the license to BMW, its partner in commercial jet engine manufacture.
Volkswagen had no leverage as the engines in both the Rolls-Royce Seraph and Bentley Arnage were supplied by … BMW. From 1998 to 2003, when BMW had completed development of the all-new Phantom, Volkswagen built Rolls-Royce cars for BMW.
This ultra-high-performance, French luxury brand was purchased by Volkswagen in 1998. Ferdinand Piech urged Volkswagen to buy the rights to produce cars under the Bugatti marque as a logical follow-up to the acqusitions of Lamborghini and Bentley. In 2000, Volkswagen officially incorporated Bugatti Automobiles as a wholly owned subsidiary.
Piech then personally set down the criteria for the Bugatti he wanted Volkswagen to build: The car had to have more than 1000hp; it had to be able to accelerate to 60mph in under 3.0sec; it had to have a top speed of 250mph; and it had to be luxurious and even tempered enough to allow him to drive Mrs Piech to the opera in it in the evening.
The targets were straightforward. Meeting them was anything but, however. For a start, a tire capable of supporting a car as big, heavy and powerful as the Veyron at 250mph simply didn’t exist. Plans were made for the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 to go into production in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2005 that a Veyron was delivered to the first customer.
The Veyron was discontinued in 2014 but Bugatti set the world abuzz again with the almost $3 million, 1,479-hp Chiron shown at the Geneva Motor Show in 2016. Bugatti is following up with the Divo and La Voiture Noire special edition car—a one-off 1,500-hp car built and sold for $18.9.5 million. The Centodieci, a re-bodied Chiron, was shown in August 2019, and all 10 sold, despite a $9million pricetag. The Chiron Super Sport 300+ has been clocked at 304mph, maintaining Bugatti’s position as the fastest production car in the world, and the company has just announced the handling-focused Chiron Pur Sport.
Volkswagen expanded outside Germany with a co-operation agreement between Audi AG and the Spanish car manufacturer SEAT in 1982. The Volkswagen Group took a majority and controlling stake in SEAT in 1986. When Volkswagen took full ownership of SEAT in 1990, the Spanish brand became a wholly owned subsidiary.
SEAT was the first non-German marque for the German conglomerate. It also provided greater inroads for VW’s other brands to make inroads in the Spanish market.
The SEAT name dates back to 1950, founded by a Spanish state-owned industrial holding company, Sociedad Espanola de Automoviles de Turismo (S.E.A.T.) and it quickly became the country’s largest supplier of cars. Fiat was a key partner for many years, at times viewed as controlling the business. The relationship with Fiat ended in 1982 after nearly 30 years.
The high-performance motorsport division SEAT Sport was renamed CUPRA in 2018.
In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Volkswagen signed a joint venture agreement with Czech automaker Skoda and took a 30 percent stake in the automaker. VW continued to increase its equity, purchasing a controlling stake in 1994, and more in 1995. In 2000, Skoda became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group.
Skoda was founded in 1895 as Laurin & Klement, a bicycle maker, which was acquired in 1925 by arms maker and industrial conglomerate Skoda Works. During the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Skoda made tanks and other armaments, and after the war became a state-owned automaker under the control of the Communist regime.
Skoda’s reputation for engineering excellence suffered during the Communist era, but under Volkswagen, Skoda has become the smart choice for those who want the quality and drivability of a Volkswagen product at a value price. Skoda vehicles are now sold in more than 100 countries.
The JETTA sub-brand was launched in China in 2019. Volkswagen took the unusual step of creating a model-based sub-brand because the Jetta model is so popular in China. The new brand targets young, first-time car buyers.
The brand launched in September 2019 with two entry-level models, the JETTA VS5 compact crossover and VA3 compact sedan. JETTA, which has its own dealer network, reported sales of nearly 30,000 in the first three months, making the newcomer an early success. The third vehicle in the lineup will be the VS7, a slightly larger crossover. All the vehicles were designed in Wolfsburg but are assembled at the FAW-VW joint-venture plant in Chengdu, China.