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“The Bulli Builders”: Celebrating 60 years of the Volkswagen Transporter in Hanover

  • On 8 March 1956, the first Bullis came off the production line of the new Volkswagen plant in Hanover
  • The exhibit in the Historical Museum of Hanover shows living industrial history and Bulli vintage cars
  • Eyewitness accounts describe the early days of Transporter production in Hanover
  • Millions of these vehicles were exported across the globe – and the success story continues

On 8 March 1956, production began in Hanover for the legendary Bullis, as the VW bus was endearingly called. The Historical Museum of Hanover is organising a retrospective on the beginning of Transporter production with a special exhibit that runs from 9 March to 26 June 2016. Exceptionally beautiful vehicles from the factory’s own Bulli collection can be seen as well as video reports by eye witnesses to that time period, as well as in photographs and exhibits that depict the plant’s very interesting history. On three work days per week, Volkswagen apprentices will show visitors the latest production processes at interactive and presentation stations and offer information about their vocational fields.

Professor Thomas Schwark, Director of the Art History Museums of Hanover: “The exhibit shows living industrial history, which began when the Bulli came on-line and also shows the effects the plant had on the development of the state capital in the post-war time period. The Bulli is indispensable, especially in our historic museum, because it is an expression of the role and importance of the VW Transporter plant for Hanover and the entire state of Lower Saxony. We have brought together many exhibit items to create an interactive exhibit that is very fitting to the anniversary year “775 years of Hanover”.

Hanover’s mayor Stefan Schostok is also aware of the importance of Transporter production to Hanover: “60 years of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles – that stands for 60 years of secure jobs for Hanover and the region. It stands for 60 years of exciting automotive history, for an every growing group of fans for the VW Bulli and for employees who contributed with their dedication and continual readiness to come up with innovations for the models and production systems.

The VW Transporter has not only safeguarded the jobs of many thousands of people at the plant and in the region. Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has also been an important partner of the city in coming up with transportation strategies for the future, which we wanted to develop together with them.

For Hanover and for VWN it was stroke of good fortune that the state capital won out over more than 230 other towns in the search for a production site six decades ago. This led to a success story which proved that plants in Germany could still be competitive in automotive production.”

“The VW bus is as much a part of Hanover as Leibniz cookies, the Pelikan fountain pen and Continental tyres,” stresses Dr. Eckhard Scholz, Chairman of the Management Board, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles brand. To date, around nine and one-half million vehicles of the T-Series have been produced in the state capital of Lower Saxony.

This not only includes a highly capable factory, but above all a workforce of very special people – the Bulli builders. “Our employees handle this challenging job with pride and passion. With a love for this special vehicle,” says Scholz. Transporter production in Hanover is characterised by tradition and expertise. And this is often passed on within families: “Bulli-building DNA has definitely been inherited in these families – and there are several at the plant. In one case, a great grandfather helped to build the factory, and his great grandson is currently training to be a mechatronics specialist,” says the Chairman of the Management Board.

Production of the vehicle that would become the “workhorse of the economic wonder” began in 1950 in Wolfsburg. When the hundred thousandth Bulli came off the assembly line in 1954, it was clear that the Transporter needed its own dedicated plant. Production capacity at the main Wolfsburg plant was no longer sufficient to cover demand. Alongside Beetle production, it was possible to manufacture 80 Bullis per day, but 330 were needed.

Prof. Heinrich Nordhoff, General Director of Volkswagenwerk GmbH, chose Hanover for the production site. Initial construction work began in mid-February 1955 – in the middle of an ice-cold and very snowy winter – at the north of the city, south of the Mittelland Canal and right next to the autobahn at Mecklenheidestraße in the city district of Stöcken.

Simultaneously Volkswagen was already training its new employees in Transporter manufacturing. An extra train was added to the train schedule, and these employees took the 4:10 am train from the main train station to Wolfsburg where they were instructed in production of the Bulli.

After just one year of construction time, the first Bullis came off the assembly line of the just built Transporter plant on 8 March 1956. Bertina Murkovic, Vice-Chairwoman of the Works Council of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles: “The production launch of the T1 in Hanover-Stöcken was the start of a decades long success story that has lasted right up to today. In an extremely short period of time, a pioneering production site was created from scratch, and it would develop into one of the main pillars of the corporate group with the great commitment of many thousands of employees. What distinguishes this site are the experience and passion of its employees who believe in their plant, because they have secure jobs here and can shape their own future.”

Jobs at the new Volkswagen plant were highly coveted. They paid more than twice the typical wage in other jobs: an average hourly wage of 2.50 German Marks instead of 1.20 German Marks. In 1955, a kilogram of coffee cost around 10 DM – and a kilogram of bread just 68 pfennigs. In the 1950s, many people quit their secure jobs in order to build the Bulli at the new Transporter plant in Hanover. In general, courage, expertise, inventiveness and self-confidence were required – attributes that applied to each one of the Bulli builders.

Eyewitness accounts are presented in the exhibit. Heinz Hilbich and Gerd Mogwitz, who would both later serve consecutive terms as Chairman of the Works Council, organised the first strike of Hanover commuters to obtain reimbursement of half of employees’ travel costs from the company – and with success. Then there was Günter Noltemeyer, who – to the horror of his parents – gave up his secure job as a bank clerk to start at Volkswagen. The family told him: “To go to such a car plant, it would be much better to just forget about it.” And then there was Noltemeyer’s wife Hanni, whom he met at Volkswagen and to whom he has been happily married for 39 years. “In 1957, I earned 200 German Marks take-home pay, of which I paid 50 Marks in basic living expenses. That left me 150 Marks, and I took ten Marks of that money to buy a large can of Nivea Creme – a luxury wish fulfilled!” reports Hanni Noltemeyer.

At first, 4,000 employees worked at the Hanover plant in March 1956 – including 25 women. And they produced 230 Transporters per day. By the end of 1956, there were already 270 women employees on the team, and in 1959 1,044 women. An eyewitness account is given by Margot Krey who was hired in 1959 as a general labourer in engine manufacturing, was later voted trade union steward and finally served as the employee representative for women’s issues from 1964 to 1993. “I implemented maternity rooms at the Hanover plant in 1974 against much resistance. Back then it was a unique facility both at Volkswagen AG and in the Federal Republic!” Krey happily recounts today.

The Bulli developed into a successful model far beyond the domestic market. In 1962, the workforce celebrated production of the millionth VW Transporter, ‘Made in Hanover’. After the T1, production of the successor model, the T2, began in 1967. In turn, it was followed in 1979 by the T3, by the T4 in 1990 and by the T5 in 2003. The sixth generation of the successful model has been coming off the production line in Hanover since 2015 and continues successful model line. Today, the production site is the largest industrial employer with 14,500 jobs, and it is the largest training operation in the Hanover region with 750 apprentices.

Scholz stressed that the production site has every reason to be optimistic about the future. “The order books for the T6 are well filled,” he said and noted that in past years Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles has specifically invested in new facilities such as the largest press shop in Europe and in “new assembly processes for the future” as well as in new technologies such as 3D printing and the future use of lightweight robots. “We have done everything we can to continue to build Transporters that are ‘Made in Hanover’ over the next 60 years,” said Scholz.

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