Volkswagen/Audi in Britain

The Editor visits Milton Keynes

The success story of Volkswagen after the British Army authorities decided to revive production of Dr Porsche’s war-vehicle at the end of WW2, to provide work for the Wolfsburg population in war-tom Germany – remarkable, romantic, stupendous, phenomenal, call it what you will – has been told so many times that it need not be repeated here. A lot of people still remember that I became a VW Beetle fanatic in the mid-1950s. Should that now seem astonishing the reasons will become clear should anyone care sufficiently to re-read or turn-up what I wrote in road-test commentaries on the car and my impressions of VW after going to Wolfsburg for the one millionth Beetle celebrations, at a time when most of the British and European small-car offerings were mainly mediocre.

The story of VW marketing in this country is also extraordinary. My awareness of the VW Beetle came from letters Motor Sport began to receive from Service personnel in Germany towards the end of hostilities, suggesting that here was an unusual insect, well worth investigating. The same view was held by Stephen O’Flaherty, the foresighted Irishman who founded Volkswagen Motors in January 1953, operating from a small sales-office in London’s West End. His share-capital was £25,000 and it was predicted by many pundits that his Beetle franchise was doomed to early failure. Only two had been sold here in 1952 but O’Flaherty set up dealerships among those who wanted to expand and particularly those who had lost the Jowett franchise on the demise of the Yorkshire manufacturer. In his first year 945 Beetles were sold; the 1961 figure was 5,381. 

Good show, that Irishman! In fact, I was able to first sample a post-war Beetle when Colbourne Baber, a vintage Bentley man, took over a VW Dealership at Ripley in Surrey. The car he lent me was, like all Beetles, splendidly “different”, and very acceptable at the time. When VW put a synchromesh gearbox and hydraulic brakes on the Beetle our order was placed. 

I still remember, with some enthusiasm, how well the VW was promoted in those early days. There was the opening of smart showrooms in St James’s Street, where I once took my black Beetle after its oil-cooler had burst, leaving it with the engine-lid up, dripping oil onto the exclusive Mayfair street. A salesman rushed out and shut the bonnet. But, as ever, VW made no excuses. They knew that the early batch of oil-coolers had weak seams and this had been quickly rectified. When I returned that evening the latest type of cooler had been fitted. It was like that, when James Graydon was building up Volkswagen prestige in this country, aided by clever promotion schemes and customer-liaison from Wolfsburg. VW didn’t make excuses, like some other manufacturers who would say you had driven too fast, had over-revved with cold oil, hit something, or whatever. No machine is 100% perfect and VW readily admitted to shortcomings, as when my Beetle ran a front-wheel bearing, or later when its timing-gears stripped. They were unruffled when that tall, handsome Naval-person tried to cross the Channel in a Beetle and it eventually sank – proving, however, how dust-proof and water-tight the things were. In those days VW were so thorough that when the size of the Beetle’s fuel fillter was altered, a new colour plate was made for the Instruction Book, just to illustrate this correctly. 
The Spares Depot was then in the grim London district of Plaistow, where if your windscreen shattered or whatever, you received good and gracious service. Then the Mayfair showrooms closed and new ones were opened, with the workshops, at St. John’s Wood, near Lords Cricket Ground – many were the evenings when I would go up the narrow lane at the back to collect my Beetle after it had been serviced. The air of personal interest and these VWs being rather exclusive, under Graydon’s influence, remained. Somehow the customers in the waiting-room were made to feel they were in the same category as Rover clients at Seagrave Road or Rolls-Royce owners at Conduit Street or Hythe Road, even though they were running the 1950s equivalent of the Model-T Ford …. 

Much of the success in those times stemmed from the efficient VW spares service. I recall one of the newly-appointed, ex-Jowett dealers telling me that he was required to install a comprehensive supply of parts before he even saw his first Beetle and how, when soon afterwards he received a very urgent call for an obscure running-gear item from a user of an early VW pick-up, there was the part in stock, for instant fitting. Mark you, when my Beetle, after a considerable mileage, sheared its fan/dynamo drive key things didn’t work quite so smoothly. On the way for some Tiger Moth flying at Fairoaks, an MG enthusiast who saw my plight (we missed the aviating) very kindly went into his home workshop and made me a new key. But when, seeing a VW garage in Staines a few days afterwards and thinking that perhaps the improvised key should be replaced with a hardened one, that tiny object was about the only spare not in stock! Generally, though, the service was notably efficient. Incidentally, it is rather encouraging to see that today’s VW Instruction manuals have a similarity with those of the great Beetle era and that VW sales-literature is very much of that style. 

Later VW(GB) Ltd moved again. I was not so much in touch then but I used to see the circular VW office-block at Purley each year on raw November Sunday mornings, as the veteran car I was driving or riding on circumnavigated the premises on its way to Brighton. By 1968 Mr Graydon had retired, after building the concern into one of the largest British importers of foreign cars, and Alan Dix, who had been running one of the largest American VW distributorships, took over as Managing Director of VW-GB, with a free hand to reorganise VW enterprise here, as competition sharpened. Phasing out 27 middlemen-distributors, he created a one-tier structure in which the importers distributed direct to retailers; thus ensuring control over VW standards all the way from maker to customer. 

Thereafter the story goes, briefly, like this: ­Thomas Tilling, owners at that time of VW-GB, also owned the then-independent Audi-NSU franchise. In Germany Mercedes-Benz then owned Auto-Union and Tilling set up the British branch through Mercedes-GB, whom they also owned. (They acquired Auto-Union from AFN, NSU from Layford Trading Co) In Germany Mercedes-Benz had hived off Auto-Union to VW. John Wagner vastly increased Audi-NSU sales in Britain and by 1973 Tilling merged VW-GB and Audi-NSU-GB under Mr Wagner. This led to the merging of British Audi and VW Dealerships in 1974, by which time the new model range, of cars in which power-packs and drive were at the opposite end of the body-shells to those in the Beetle, were selling strongly. Long before this, around 1970, plans were started for the centralisation of VW and Audi activities in this country but the fuel crisis of 1974 retarded them. Meanwhile, in 1975, the Lonrho Group purchased the entire share-capital of VW-GB from Tilling. They encouraged the centralisation to go ahead, with the result that work on the Milton Keynes Headquarters of VW-GB began in 1976, with full co-operation and financial inducement from the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, under the Chairmanship of Lord Campbell. This new building in this ambitious new town was opened in September 1978, as the focal point of Volkswagen (GB) Ltd, the Managing Director of which is Michael Heelas, who was formerly with Mercedes-Benz. It took 18 months, for the 23-acres of muddy fields to be transformed (as a conservationist I will not write “improved”) into a giant modern office complex and spare-parts store. It is nice to be able to record that not one day or one hour was lost due to industrial dispute from the commencement of building to completion of the project, a tribute to all concerned, not least to the good sense of the Unions and the co-operation between VW(GB)Ltd and IDC Ltd of Stratford-on-Avon who were responsible for the design and construction. It was to look at this VW Headquarters that I drove recently to the industrial complex of Milton Keynes, where, by the way, Opel are now setting up a similar headquarters close to VW’s, both key-sites adjacent to the sailing lake. 

After seemingly-endless miles of dual-­carriageway punctuated by roundabouts you turn right for Blakelands, come upon the imposing VW logo, swing right again and through the entrance gates. You are then confronted with this smart three-storey building, set down in the open, and off-set by big, uncrowded car parks, neat topography, a fountain playing, all contributing to a sense of peaceful efficiency which has long been the Volkswagen aim. Most of the area within the main building is devoted to spacious, well-lit open-plan office-accommodation, with lime green or fawn fitted-carpets. Lifts and rubber-covered stairs connect the different floors. The visitor can hardly fail to be impressed with the way in which it is possible to walk right round the complex without ever retracing a step, so strategically are the swing doors arranged. He will also notice the preponderance of plants used as decoration, at a cost of £12,000, and the polished-teak handrails of the staircases – VW dignity emerging. 

It cost £17½-million to set up this place; IDC who built it began as the idea of Welsh-born Civil Engineer Mr Howard Hicks, who was educated at Pontypridd and what is now the-Polytechnic of Wales, and his Company now employs 1,200 staff, and has an annual turnover of £22-million. IDC used a three-sided square for the office blocks, with the open space laid out with lawns and shrubs; beside it rises the enormous spares depot. The ground floor of the building is largely given-over to computers, for the control of the day-to-day work of the various departments. The Departments include Business Management, liaising with the 350 or so dealers, with a field-force to consolidate this work, the Market-Research Unit which works closely with the SMMT and has to look five years ahead in a hardening market, an Accounts Department, a Training School whjch instructs some 5,000 dealers’ mechanics a year, about 20 at each course, on VW and Audi maintenance, in four fully-equipped workshops to Certificate level, and the computerised Parts Distribution control centre. In addition there is a Photographic Studio with two resident photographers, the Financial, Sales, Publicity and non,executive departments each with its own director, an Executive Suite for the use of the Heads of Departments, a very modern glass-walled Board Room and a 120-seater Lecture Theatre which can be sub-divided into three classrooms, with audio-visual facilities and closed-circuit TV. Between the first and second floors are the large and cheerful self-service canteen and grill-room, open to all Staff grades and subsidised to the extent of some £80,000 a year so that a full-course lunch costs under 50p, the floor-space of which can be converted for disco-dances. Changing rooms and sports facilities are also provided for employees.

On the ground floor there is a service-garage able to accommodate six cars, equipped with a rolling-road dynamometer and Bosch and Sun electrical diagnosis machines. Here Press and Company cars are serviced, and examination of any “rogue” vehicles that may have puzzled dealers checked over. From this you go to the Warranty laboratory where faulty parts returned by dealers are examined and passed for full or partial warranty reimbursement, or rejected, depending on the engineers’ findings. Impressive as all this is, it is the Spare Parts Store that overrides the rest. It measures about 150 x 200 yards in area, equal to five acres or if you like, five football pitches in floor area, and parts are stacked in 25-foot-high containers. Yet the place is spotless, in spite of the immense daily activity, and the wide runways permit easy operation of the carrying trucks. I have seen many such Stores Depots but this is one of the most commendable. Around £15-million pounds’ worth of parts are kept here, from complete body shells to nuts and bolts and washers, totalling over 45,000 different items, and some 6-million actual parts. It is possible to get 95% of dealers’ requirements, representing some 100 orders per hour, to them on the day the order is received. The bigger spares are housed in 4,000 tall bins, served by ten Demag hoists. An interesting aspect of this Demag system is that small parts are sent separately to the dispatch-bay, boxed, numbered, and run down a chute. Trucks leave each morning with the packaged spares. When Tilling owned VW these were mostly Mercedes-Benz vans but now the delivery is done by National Carriers, using largely British trucks, who deliver to dealers every other working day. Spares for quite early Beetles and NSUs are included in the stock, which is replenished under computerised ordering, shipped in to Kings Lynn, from where road-transport brings the cargo, twice a week. Of the 500 employees at Milton Keynes, half of them recruited locally, 125 work in the Spares Department. In the exceptional case of a dealer needing an unusual spare urgently the VW aeroplane with personal pilot is available, clearing customs at Coventry Airport. It is a Cessna Titan, able to cope with a ton of freight, or 12 passengers. Naturally, to aid dealers to supply the rarer new VWs and Audis Milton Keynes operates computer coverage for quickly locating unsold models and a scheme for advising which parts from his order a dealer can expect to receive first, to speed up the repairing of damaged cars, in the unlikely event of a big order causing delays. Some services are still dispersed at other places, such as London, for matters like Export Sales to British customers, etc. 

It should be emphasised that new cars shipped from Germany into Britain are not readied for dealers at Milton Keynes. This is done at the depots at the entry ports at Ramsgate and Grimsby, from whence cars reach the showrooms within two to three days. They are distributed by road, under control from Milton Keynes, by Toleman International Ltd., on Volvo and Magirus-Deutz trucks. 

VW Polo/Golf/Derby British sales totalled 46,594 cars last year. 

When I was enthusmg over Volkswagens not all that long after the war I faced fairly heavy criticism that I must be anti-British and pro-German. I answered this by saying these allegations were most certainly not true (my father had been killed in WW1) but that I thought motoring writers should be completely impartial in recommending good cars, no matter what their Nationality. In the 1980s, with memories of Nazi concentration-camps, Pearl Harbour, and other atrocities either non-existent or fast-fading, the former indictment has diminished. But at a time when “Buy British” makes very good sense it has to be taken into account that the advent of the EEC has levelled things up, so far as European products are concerned. In this context, when Lord Duncan-Sandys spoke at the formal opening of the VW Milton Keynes’ Headquarters two years ago he said that VW was rapidly becoming one of the largest foreign customers for British vehicle-components (estimated at £17-million worth in 1978, with parts worth a further £5-million used by VW on imported cars) and that his Lonrho Group would see that Hadfields of Sheffield supplied steel to Wolfsburg (this was before the unhappy strikes and closures in the British Steel Industry) and that GKN, Lucas, Perkins, Avon and Michelin would supply British products through Lonrho to Volkswagenwerk. 

To reacquaint myself with VW motoring, while seeing how firmly established in Britain Volkswagen (GB) Limited is, I have been driving a Continental-shod Golf GTi Convertible and a Michelin XVS-shod Scirocco Storm. We have already bestowed so much praise on the five-speed fuel-injection Golf GTi and on the Convertible version of it that I do not propose to add much more, for, to employ a cliche, one should not gild refined-gold. If Reliant and BMW had not introduced their more expensive Convertible models VW would have been alone for the first time for a decade with a new four-seater in this fresh-air field, by a major manufacturer. As it is, this is a great little car, either for fun or very quick serious motoring. That the hood, very specially constructed and padded so as to retain the warmth of a saloon and not to drum at 100 mph, (it has in fact, five layers of rubberised hair and plastic, and a glass, heated, rear window) has to live in an exposed bag when it is down is nicely in the tradition of the beautifully-made pre-war German cabriolet bodies found on such luxury chassis as Mercedes-Benz, Horch and Audi, etc. Because of the high-quality detail construction of the Karmann body this top is surprisingly easy to erect or stow. I enjoyed the VW Convertible, getting 31.5 mpg of 4-star petrol overall from the car. No oil was consumed by the smooth and willing ohc engine in more than 1,300 miles. Going back a bit, it is interesting that the VW Golf Convertible relates to the old Beetle Convertible, of which a total of 330,280 were sold. The current Golf Convertible is likewise a “chic” little car, and already VW-GB have doubled there order for it; it is being built at the rate of 117 per day, compared to an overall Golf output of 3,789 a day. Sales of the Convertible in Britain are expected to run to around 1,000 this year, against estimated UK overall Golf sales of more than 20,000. The body has a roll-over bar, additional stiffening in the area of the scuttle that provides some extra oddments stowage, and if the boot-opening is restricted, the luggage space measures 9.9 cu feet, or 21.8 cu ft with the back seat folded. I can see this Golf GTi Convertible, which costs £6,852, in manual-gearbox form, becoming one of the “in-cars” in the present-day petrol-saving stakes. The Scirocco Storm is mechanically much the same car as the Golf, but in very refined form. DSJ used to say that you should be able to lean an elbow comfortably on the roof of a sporting closed car. Admittedly I am taller, but I could easily do this with the Storm, and Karmann of Osnabruck have certainly given the low-roofed body- Mind your head! – very stylish, exciting lines. I liked the real-leather upholstery (even as a conservationist!), the easily-read instruments and the control arrangements, with flick-dipping from the lh control-stalk, all of course very much as on the Golf, and the good “feel” to steering that has quick castor-return on this FWD car, but I thought the suspension damping to be somewhat softer than that of the Golf GTi. I got home in the VW Storm, which means almost to Rhayader on the A44, from Milton Keynes, comfortably in three hours, using very little of the M1 and M5/M50 Motorways, going via the Fosse Way to Stowe, an average of some 55 mph without being in any hurry, at 33.1 mpg. Both cars are geared to do an indicated 70 mph at 3,500 rpm in 5th gear, but maybe the Storm has a lower drag factor. That is a measure of the VW Scirocco Storm, top-model of the VW range, with which I had such an enjoyable week’s motoring. As of old, I tried flashing the headlights at Beetle owners, the Scirrocco easily identified as a VW by its Reg No. VWW-1, (for Volkswagenwerk) and was saddened when I got no response!

Volkswagen/Audi have an impressive run of models to sell, from the £3,115 Polo to the £7,176 Storm in five-speed form, and from the £5,388 Audi-80 to the £12,950 Audi-200 Turbo, the last-named an indication, perhaps, of the high-living standards now prevailing in West Germany, with Audi moving into the BMW-type market, just as BMW has invaded Mercedes-Benz territory. And then there is the 4WD Audi-Quattro, that very significant technical breakthrough, of which they expect to sell 3,000 in the next three years. Allied to this and the specialised customer facilities operated by Auto-Union finance, VW Insurance (GB) Ltd, VAG World Servicing and MIAC parts market, etc., VW are very firmly established in Britain and are in a very good position to serve their multitudes of customers. If Mr. Heelas can maintain the standards initiated by James Graydon, the Company should achieve ever greater success.-WB.