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Behind every great brand is a group of customers who support it with messianic faith. These are the true believers, the word-of-mouth acolytes the business world now refers to as "brand ambassadors."

Few companies have had as many as Volkswagen. This is The Cult of VW, which began back the early 1960s, a time when Volkswagens had the kind of insider cachet that Apple computers have today: They were small, cool and different.

My first VW was a 1960s Beetle, an inexpensive machine that served multiple roles: transportation device, social statement and mechanical project. I adjusted the valves myself, repaired the gasping heater and installed twin carburetors.

Driving a VW told the world you didn't run with the crowd, and that you looked beyond Detroit's obsession with size, horsepower and status. The VW managed simultaneously to symbolize German engineering and The Summer of Love.

Even VW's advertising was iconic. In 1959, the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency created a magazine spot with a tiny image of a Beetle on a vast white space. The tagline was "Think Small," a precursor to Apple's "Think Different."

But the cult of VW has taken some blows, none bigger than this week's revelation: VW admitted it installed cheater software to pass emissions tests, and that its "Clean Diesel" motors are anything but.

For the hard-core VW fan, Volkswagen's rise in the automotive world has been bittersweet. The company grew beyond its wildest dreams. But there has been a price.

When the cult of VW was in its infancy, automobiles still had powerful national identities. American cars were rolling cruise ships with high style and mediocre quality. Swedish cars were safe, well-built and often quirky. Japanese cars were low-cost knock-offs. England made cars that were cool but unreliable.

Then there were the Germans, who occupied an engineering class all their own. Companies like Porsche, BMW and Mercedes built cars that were renowned for both high mechanical quality and superb driving dynamics. The shifters were slick, the steering was perfectly weighted and the metalwork was perfect.

VW offered German engineering and build quality at a lower price. The car that made the company famous was the Beetle, which many owners thought of as "the poor man's Porsche." There was justification for this claim: the Beetle was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, and his early Porsche models used numerous Beetle components.

Countless magazines catered to VW owners, and clubs formed around the world. In the mid-1970s, the Beetle was replaced by the Golf, a hatchback car with a front-mounted engine. As sales climbed, VW maintained its connection with enthusiasts by releasing cars like the GTi, a high-tuned Golf that combined practicality with performance.

VW's reputation was forged on cars that were built in Wolfsburg, Germany, where the Beetle was first produced in 1938. But as the company expanded, it opened manufacturing facilities in lower-cost locations, including Mexico and Brazil. By the 1980s, VW was experiencing significant quality problems. Highly respected reviewers like Consumer Reports regularly ranked VW cars below their Japanese competitors for reliability.

And yet the cult of VW has survived, thanks to the company's knack for making cars that appeal to driving enthusiasts. Even though Japanese carmakers are now ranked at the top for reliability and build quality, the mystique of the German car prevails.

But the diesel software scandal strikes at the very heart of VW's appeal. When Doyle Dane Bernbach created its famous VW ads back in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the inspirations was what the agency termed the "honesty" of the VW Beetle itself.

Contrast that with this week, when the world learned that dishonesty was actually encoded into the software of VW cars.

"The half-a-million people who own these cars are furious, and with good reason," said Steve Berman, a managing partner at Hagens Berman, a Seattle law firm that has launched a class-action lawsuit against VW. "Not only did they pay more for something they never received, but they've been victim to a tremendous act of deception."