Heinz Heinrich Nordhoff orchestrated the post-World War II revitalization of Volkswagen, which played a major role in Germany’s economic recovery. Emphasizing service first, sales second, he created a world market and helped restore pride in the phrase “Made in Germany.”
Born in Hildesheim in 1899, Nordhoff attended technical college in Berlin and took a position working on BMW’s airplane engines where he was first noticed for his technical drawings of the company’s current aircraft engines.
In 1929, General Motors hired Nordhoff as a service manager for Adam Opel AG. In 1936, he was named commercial technical director, the same year the company introduced the Opel Kadett, a small family car.
The Third Reich took over Opel in 1942 and sent Nordhoff to run their primary truck plant in Brandenburg, on the eastern side of Berlin. As the Soviet army approached, Nordhoff fled west.
Even though he had not been a member of the Nazi party, Nordhoff was dismissed under the American denazification guidelines. Equipped with leadership experience, technical skills and mas production expertise, Nordhoff took a job following the war with a Hamburg–based Opel dealership, Dello & Co.
At the end of WWII, the Volkswagen factory, in ruins, was in the hands of the British REME (Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers) Major Ivan Hirst and in need of new leadership to run daily operations.
It is thought that Nordhoff’s initial contact with Ivan Hirst took place in the drawing room of Dello’s owner, Lisa Praesent, in the autumn of 1947, when Hirst recruited Nordhoff and hired him as the managing director.
The British had restarted production of the Beetle, but raw materials were in short supply, and it was a constant struggle to source the steel, the glass, etc. Large sheets of steel were unavailable, so two smaller sheets had to be welded together to form the roof section. The workers, who mainly consisted of freed soldiers, Wehrmacht officers and refugees from the East, suffered from war-era malnutrition; food was also in short supply. With Nordhoff’s hiring, the British receded from daily operations of the factory.
In 1948, Nordhoff knew he had to expand the Volkswagen model range and improve exports to drive revenue. In 1949, Volkswagen AG was established, and the British Army officially handed the company back to the Germans. In a year’s time Nordhoff was ready, introducing two new Beetle models and an export version.
He pioneered the idea of constant improvement – upgrading the car’s underpinnings while keeping the styling essentially the same. He provided generous benefits and pay and by 1954 had reduced the number of single car man-hours from 400 to 100, a 75 percent reduction. His commitment to improving the workmanship at Volkswagen made the Beetle famous for its bulletproof reliability.
In 1955, Nordhoff set up Volkswagen of America and engaged renowned marketer David Ogilvy to design a global ad campaign for the Beetle. That year, the company sold 32,662 Beetles in the United States, becoming the country’s top selling import.
His former colleague Carl Hahn, while head of Volkswagen of America, remarked, “Nordhoff has a sure instinct … He never butts his head against a wall; he just manages to walk through a door in the wall which no one else sees.”