VW trotting out new models -- and new management; Troubled firm gets chief who made US waves

Volkswagenwerk AG, rocked by a worldwide auto depression and plummeting profits, is getting much more than new-model cars as it moves toward 1982. The top management of the company is being restyled as well.

Carl H. Hahn, head of the fledgling VW operation in the United States from 1959 to 1964, takes over as chairman Jan. 1, succeeding Toni Schmucker, who resigned because of ill health. Too, for the first time the West German auto giant will get a vice-chairman, Horst Munzer, who now heads up the purchasing division.

Friedrich Thomee, finance director and acting VW chairman, quit in October and a successor has not yet been named.

Mr. Thomee, 16 years with Volkswagenwerk AG, was the keystone in launching VW's first US assembly plant in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, in 1978. Recently, he has been under attack for the sharp losses of Triumph-Adler AG, the company's office-machine unit whose purchase he had backed.

When Mr. Hahn takes over the wheel at Volkswagenwerk AG in January, he'll face a troubled company, in which profits plunged from $94 million in the first six months of 1980 ($140 million for all of 1980) to $6.6 million in the same time period this year. For the full year, however, VW expects to break even. Car sales are down about 5 percent worldwide.

Even so, the company was in far deeper trouble when Mr. Schmucker took over the chairman's job from Rudolf Leiding in the mid-1970s. The West German automaker at the time was reeling from the financial impact of switching its car lineup from the beetle concept of rear-drive, air-cooled engines to the water-cooled, front-engine, front-drive system of the Rabbit.

Too, the worldwide auto market was in a deep depression as a result of the Arab oil embargo in 1973-74.

Declining VW sales in the US have already delayed the start-up of Volkswagen's second US assembly plant from July till September next year, and a further delay is possible unless VW sales pick up soon. However, James McLernon, president of the US subsidiary, says the assembly plant will definitely go on stream.

''The plant is important to us in meeting our long-term goals between now and 1990,'' he asserts. The first assembly plant has yet to make a profit.

VW, like many other carmakers these days, is having a tough time as Rabbit sales plunge from a year ago in response to high prices and interest rates and a bad economy. VWs are sold in the worst-hit segment of the market - $7,500 to $10 ,000. US Rabbit sales are down 12.2 percent in 1981.

''Interest rates must come down before sales can go up,'' sighs Mr. McLernon, who adds: ''It's going to take some doing to recapture the momentum in the auto market.'' Even so, VW is projecting the sale of 337,500 cars in the US in 1982, up from 290,000 in '81, plus 60,000 Audis and 12,000 Porsches.

Besides the US, VW sales are off sharply in Brazil as well as West Germany itself.

Dr. Hahn left VW in 1973 to head up Continental Gummi-Werke AG, a West German rubber products company. While in the US he is credited with setting the path for VW's early successes at a time when the import competition with Detroit was small.

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