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Most people who have ever owned a Volkswagen Beetle or, say, an early, split-windshield VW bus or even a Karmann Ghia will swear that those uncomfortable, relatively bare-bones vehicles were among the favorite cars they’ve ever driven. They’re not for everyone, of course — but for a certain breed of driver, the old-school VWs offered a rare combination of economy, ease of maintenance (this writer, stranded far from any garage, once repaired a busted accelerator cable on a ’67 bug with 12-pound-test fishing line) and, most importantly, personality that so many other mass-produced automobiles lacked.
The story of Volkswagen, meanwhile, is among the most fascinating and, in some regards, most troubling of any car manufacturer in existence. One well-documented example of VW’s paradoxical history: in its early days, during World War II, Volkswagen used slave labor (the company has admitted as much) to build vehicles for the Nazi war effort; decades later, the archetypal Volkswagens, the Beetle and the T1 bus, would become the four-wheeled symbols of the “peace and love” movement of the 1960s. From Hitler to hippies: not many other companies, automobile or otherwise, can lay claim to that sort of stranger-than-fiction corporate narrative.
Here, on the anniversary of the founding of Volkswagen on May 28, 1937, LIFE.com offers a series of photos made by Walter Sanders at the company’s famous Wolfsburg plant in 1951. A refugee from Hitler’s Germany himself, who fled his native country the same year VW began making cars, Sanders captures in these pictures of the factory and the factory workers a nation in the process of recreating itself. Here, in black and white, is a portrait of the labor and mechanization that would again make Germany (well, West Germany, anyway) one of the world’s most powerful economies before the end of the century.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.