Heinz Heinrich Nordhoff (6 January 1899 – 12 April 1968) was a German engineer who led the Volkswagen company as it was rebuilt after World War II.
In 1929 he went to work for Opel, where he gained experience of the automotive industry and, since the company had been acquired by General Motors not long before, of American practices in the field. He was rapidly promoted: in 1936 he was the Commercial-Technical director who presented the company's innovative new small car, the Kadett, to the public. In 1942, with passenger car production much diminished on account of the war, he took over from Gerd Stieler von Heydekampf as Production Director at the company's flagship truck plant at Brandenburg.
During his first year in post, Nordhoff doubled production to 19,244 cars. By the end of 1961 annual production exceeded a million vehicles. He became legendary for turning the Volkswagen Beetle into a worldwide automotive phenomenon; he developed export markets and ultimately manufacturing facilities abroad. He pioneered the idea of constant improvement while keeping the styling the same. He gave liberal benefits to Volkswagen workers and increased pay scales. Within six years after taking over Volkswagen, Nordhoff reduced the number of man-hours to produce a single car by 75 percent, from 400 to 100. His commitment to improving the workmanship at Volkswagen made the Beetle famous for its bulletproof reliability.
In 1955, shortly before the Wolfsburg factory celebrated its millionth Volkswagen, Nordhoff was awarded a Federal Service Cross with star.
Nordhoff's ability to sell cars and his achievement in first placing the Wolfsburg factory on a firm footing and then making Volkswagen a domestic and international success have not been questioned, but he has been criticised on various bases. At Brandenburg during the war, he used slave labour, although he reportedly ensured the workers had adequate food, shelter and clothing. He took full credit for the company's successes and has been seen as overly self-promoting; in the 1950s he was nicknamed "King Nordhoff" by the German press. Finally, as became apparent in the 1960s, under him Volkswagen was too slow and inefficient in developing new designs. While publicly championing the Beetle, beginning in 1952 Nordhoff spent DM200 million behind the scenes seeking to develop new models, some in partnership with other manufacturers, but his indecision led to the abandonment of all such prototypes. By the late 1960s, the Beetle faced serious competition from Japanese, American, and other European models in different markets. Ultimately, Nordhoff's takeover of Auto Union in 1964 to provide still more manufacturing capacity for Beetles ended up both providing the group with both what would become its performance-luxury brand - Audi - and also the expertise to finally replace the Beetle and its 1970s stablemates.
Nordhoff had wanted Carl Hahn, head of Volkswagen of America, to succeed him on his retirement, but the Board of Directors chose Kurt Lotz. Nordhoff had a heart attack in summer 1967, and although he returned to work in October, he died six months later, in April 1968; he was to have retired that autumn.