DETROIT — For a moment on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox grew wistful about Volkswagen’s past.
That was before Cox imposed a $2.8 billion criminal fine that is part of a larger $4.3 billion plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that includes civil penalties.
Before he characterized the automaker’s actions as “massive fraud.”
And before the judge said he hopes that both U.S. and German investigators continue to investigate top Volkswagen executives and pursue additional criminal charges.
Before all of that, Cox paused for a moment and said he recalled a time when Volkswagen occupied a more prominent place in the U.S. automotive industry.
“This is a very serious and troubling case involving a very iconic automobile company,” Cox said from the bench in federal court in Detroit.
In the 1960s, sales of the Volkswagen Beetle grew into the hundreds of thousands as it captured the attention of Americans. When the Beetle was at its peak in 1970, VW’s U.S. sales topped out at 570,000 vehicles, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Beetle was viewed as a lovable, thrifty car for the budget-conscious buyer.
“I just remember VW’s reputation, at least in our community, growing up — the quality of the product and the structure of how the car company operated,” Cox said Friday. “It was a leader in its field.”
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The way Cox viewed it, Volkswagen’s history made its transgressions even worse. Volkswagen spent the better part of a decade developing software for a diesel engine that was able to cheat on federal greenhouse gas emissions tests. Essentially, the engine performed one way during laboratory tests and another way when it was actually being driven on the road.
The company sold more than 590,000 cars before it was caught by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board.
“I just can’t believe that VW is in the situation that it finds itself in today,” Cox said.
Today, Volkswagen is among the largest global automakers in the world. In the U.S., Volkswagen is ranked eighth in sales, behind Hyundai, Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors.
Volkswagen General Counsel Manfred Doess said the company is committed to changing its culture and rebounding.
“I stand before you today with remorse,” Doess said. “We let people down and for that we are deeply sorry.”