Woebcken's efforts to Americanize Volkswagen might seem ambitious, but they're just the latest in a long line of strategic attempts by the German mass-market brand to become a bigger player in the U.S. It has been a hard learning curve.
In the late 1970s, Volkswagen bought a half-completed assembly plant outside Pittsburgh from Chrysler, becoming the first foreign automaker to manufacture its vehicles in the U.S. in the modern era. A decade and several hundred million lost deutsche marks later, it closed the plant and retreated to Germany.
There was also Moonraker, a 2005 pet project of then-VW Group CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder, undertaken after back-to-back losses of more than $1 billion in the U.S. in 2003 and 2004.
Derived from the original name for the Apollo missions, Moonraker was a kind of German spy mission. Nine Volkswagen executives (including Oliver Schmidt, the engine executive sentenced to prison for his role in Volkswagen's diesel-emissions scandal) moved into a swanky Malibu, California, mansion in an attempt to assimilate into American culture and understand why Volkswagen's cars weren't selling well in the states. The visitors traveled across the country by plane, train, subway and bus, visiting drag strips and NASCAR races, a Dallas rodeo, spring break at Daytona Beach, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Mall of America near Minneapolis.
They once walked — for three days — from Long Beach to Hollywood, just to observe how Americans parked their cars in parking lots and on streets, according to press descriptions at the time, and they combined their intel into posters, charts and photos that filled the walls of their 12,000-square-foot home. Each month, the Moonraker team made movies for their superiors in Germany to report their findings.
The multimillion dollar Moonraker project, which ended in the second half of 2006, arguably showed some positive results. In 2005, Volkswagen brand's U.S. market share was an anemic 1.3 percent. By 2009 — thanks largely to the advent of its now-discredited "clean diesel" technology — the brand's share had again reached 2 percent, before climbing as high as 3 percent in 2012. In 2017, following the first sales gain in four years, the share was back to 2 percent. But its sales of 339,676 represent about 60 percent of the 1970 total.