The hush shatters as a mechanic revs up the engine of a champion 1984 Porsche 911 Carrera 4×4. It’s earsplitting business as usual at Porsche’s lavish new car museum. In 2009, the company became the latest of Germany’s major auto makers to relaunch its headquarters as a tourist destination.
It’s now possible to travel across Germany, the birthplace of the automobile, with nothing but cars on the brain and car museums and factory tours on the itinerary.
The museum race began in earnest in 2006 with the opening of Stuttgart’s Mercedes-Benz Museum. In buildings designed by leading architects, the museums signal a change in how cars are built and marketed, says Stefan Müller, chief executive officer of ADAC, Germany’s century-old auto club. Technology today, he says, “can be copied by the competition rather quickly, so what is becoming more important for car companies is the heritage of the brand.”
Wolfsburg, two hours’ drive from Berlin, is Volkswagen’s company town, and also home to Autostadt, the brand’s auto-and-science museum complex. The city has become a magnet for German car buyers, who increasingly like to pick up their cars directly from the factory. Autostadt started out in 2000 resembling an American-style theme park, and its ZeitHaus historical car museum displays about 100 cars (there are about a dozen buildings, including a Ritz-Carlton hotel, all told). Next weekend, Autostadt fetes its 10th birthday with bands, acrobats and fireworks.
Last June Autostadt unveiled Level Green, an exhibit on sustainable development designed by Berlin architect Jürgen Mayer H., who has created a shining-green jungle gym of user-friendly activities. Interactive sites show, for example, how traffic jams form. Autostadt also shows vintage Peugeots and Fords, along with a jewel-studded Beetle, the millionth VW, that rolled off the Wolfsburg assembly line in 1955. Beyond the Autostadt, train-like buses, which suggest an amusement-park ride, tour the vast factory complex.
Drive 310 miles south to Stuttgart (via German’s high-speed Autobahn highway network, of course). The home to Daimler-Benz and Porsche may be Germany’s answer to Detroit, but it feels more like a fairy-tale version of Silicon Valley, with high-tech office parks surrounded by hillside vineyards. In 2006, Daimler-Benz opened a museum in a silver-and-glass building that treats the company’s cars, trucks and buses as giant sculptures. A floor shows off the company’s fleet of vintage race cars. No detail is spared in the two-hour public tours of a largely robotized factory, including a disquisition on the site’s new parking rules.
In the north of Stuttgart, at Porsche, there’s hardly a robot in sight. Every Porsche is made to order, and the factory, with its own leather works, feels as collegial as a theater prop shop. Porsche’s pavilion-like museum, whose façade reflects street traffic, may be the best of the museum fleet. Porsche had a very small museum before, says Porsche chief executive Michael Macht, but “it was more like a garage.” The new venue shows 80 fully operational vintage vehicles, such as the Porsche 356 “No. 1,” the 1948 prototype for all Porsche sports cars.
The race-car start-ups, a few times a day, require a mechanic to install special funnels, needed to catch the exhaust flames. Crowds gather, holding up their cellphone cameras to capture the spectacle. The roar of the engine is so strong that it makes your whole body shake.
Around 85% of Porsche buyers are men, and the in-house restaurant is an upmarket steakhouse, with beef and grills imported from Porsche’s most important market, the U.S. For decades, Porsche has inspired makers and collectors of kitsch, and a memorabilia display shows off a toy pink Porsche designed for Barbie and a teapot in the shape of the classic 911 sports car.
Next, Munich’s BMW-Welt (BMW World), 135 miles southeast. Opened in 2008, the brand’s showroom now competes in popularity with Bavarian attractions like fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle. Inside the striking BMW-Welt building, designed by Vienna’s Coop Himmelb(l)au, customers pick up cars on a dramatic ramp-like stage.
There are user-friendly exhibits about BMW’s car technology. Visitors can sit in much of the current fleet, but there’s not much else to do (other than wait around for the occasional poetry slam, held in the building’s premier showroom). Across the street, the recently revamped BMW Museum beautifully documents the brand’s history, and the Munich factory also offers tours.
The August Horch Museum, relaunched in 2004, gets its name from the car pioneer who built up Audi in the years before the First World War and is housed on the site of the original plant. It’s in small Zwickau, 220 miles north of Munich in the former East Germany, hometown of the Trabant, the Iron Curtain’s attempt to copy the VW Beetle. Here are early-20th-century touring cars, luxury Nazi-era sedans and prototypes from the communist years.
Finish up this tour in Leipzig, a 90-minute drive north. In 2005, BMW opened a s tate-of-the-art factory outside town, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid. One innovation: partly assembled cars, without a human in sight, moving on a line above managers’ offices.
Where to stay the night on the German auto tour
Porsche refers visitors to the Hotel Friedrich von Schiller (above), in the picturesque town of Bietigheim-Bissingen near the Neckar River, about 12 miles north of Stuttgart. The adjoining restaurant, specializing in regional specialties, is a
favorite watering hole for Porsche executives. A double room costs €128 ($149).
www.friedrich-von-schiller.com. Telephone: +49-7142-90200
If you like the smell of a new car, you will like the new Eurostars Grand Central Hotel, a four-star property opened by the Barcelona-based hotel chain. Built in an area of Munich recently reclaimed from the main train station’s old
railway yard, the hotel is done up in state-of-the-art Spanish retro. Across the street is the Augustiner beer garden, one
of the city’s best.
www.eurostarsgrandcentral.com. Telephone: +49-8951-65740. Double rooms average €129.
Opened in January, the Vasano Suites offers stylish duplex apartments (€145 per night, including continental breakfast) and an in-house spa in the heart of Leipzig’s restored historic center. Standard suites start at €95.