Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. Everyone knows the old rhyme about Guy Fawkes’ foiled scheme to blow up Parliament in 1605, but motor industry executives may in future have more cause to remember, remember the fourth of November, the day in 2019 that Volkswagen commenced production of its mid-sized all-electric ID.3 model at its Zwickau plant in the former East Germany.
The arrival of the ID.3 may not quite blow up, or even reinvent, the motor industry as we know it – that’s probably the job of start-ups like Rivian, Tesla and BYD – but it’s certainly going to set off a few tremors that will be very widely felt indeed. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was at the ID.3’s production start, which shows just how important the transition to electric propulsion is for the country’s mighty motor industry, both as an existential threat and as an unparalleled opportunity. Pretty much everything is at stake.
As a place to make cars, Zwickau has already handled a few dramatic changes of direction, which are documented in an excellent local museum that is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. First, there was the prestige manufacturer Horch, a forerunner of today’s Audi. After the Second World War, luxury and style were replaced by basic utility, as the Sachsenring factory started churning out smokey, plastic-bodied Trabants. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 could have spelt the end of car manufacturing in Zwickau, but the town saw another huge shift when Volkswagen decided to build a new plant there. If any car making centre can handle drastic change, it’s probably Zwickau.
And the arrival of the ID.3 represents a major shift, not just for Germany and for Zwickau, but for Volkswagen itself. Back in the early seventies, the company was at a crossroads. It had relied for far too long on air-cooled rear-engined models, which were being eclipsed by much more modern rivals. In 1974, the company took the bold move of launching the Golf, a fresh front-wheel drive hatchback design by Giugiaro that soon saw off the Beetle in Europe at least, opening up a new chapter of success in the company’s history.
I think the arrival of the ID.3 marks a similar revolution. Just as half a century ago Volkswagen held on to its rear-engined models for too long, so in recent years it has probably relied too heavily on its turbo diesels, honing an established technology rather than starting again with a clean sheet. It takes courage to bet the company in this way, but once every generation or two, it probably becomes unavoidable. The Golf has carried the baton for forty-five years, but now it is probably time to pass it on to the ID.3.
The Golf wasn’t Volkswagen’s first front-wheel drive model, but it was the one that mattered, because it was at the core of the range and ultimately replaced the Beetle. By the same token, the ID.3 isn’t Volkswagen’s first electric car; the ground has been prepared with electric versions of the up!, and of course the last-generation Golf. But again, it looks set to be the important one. Just as the Golf marked a clean break in technical terms with the Beetle, so too does the ID.3 compared with the Golf – and it’s not just about the method of propulsion. The electric version of the last Golf, the front-wheel drive e-Golf, shared Volkswagen’s MQB platform with its petrol, diesel and hybrid counterparts. The ID.3 uses a different architecture optimised for electric cars codenamed MEB. That makes a radical break with decades of front-wheel drive, returning Volkswagen to the Beetle’s old rear-engine/rear-wheel-drive layout, a change nobody would have thought remotely possible, or even likely, ten years ago.
So, is there any thread of continuity at all between the smokey old Trabant and the super-advanced ID.3, its successor in the production halls of Zwickau? I can think of only one. East Germany’s planned economy could never make enough Trabants, so there was always a waiting list. Today, electric models from manufacturers such as Tesla, Kia and Hyundai are also in short supply as more buyers try to make the switch. I suspect that Volkswagen, too, may have difficulty keeping up with demand, just as long as the ID.3 is as good as it looks.