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With the third-high­est pro­duc­tion world­wide, the Ger­man au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try has come a long way since its hum­ble begin­nings in Baden-Würt­tem­berg. With vi­sions of BMWs rac­ing through her head, Lau­ren Oyler traces the his­tory of some of Ger­many’s most iconi

Where Berlin - - Contents - BY LAU­REN OYLER

Take a ride through Ger­many's au­to­mo­tive his­tory – Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and a Trabi sa­fari.

It’s dif­fi­cult – if not im­pos­si­ble – to de­ter­mine the ex­act date the car as we know it was in­vented. A man with a bushy, an­tique mus­tache didn’t just wake up one day with a clear pic­ture of the Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle in mind, say­ing: “Eureka! An at­trac­tive, fast, and cost-ef­fec­tive mode of trans­porta­tion!”


No, the mod­ern au­to­mo­bile was de­vel­oped grad­u­ally, and in parts. In Mannheim in 1886, Carl Benz li­censed his “Benz Patent-Mo­tor­wa­gen,” an open-air, three-wheeled ve­hi­cle pow­ered by a gas en­gine. It was the first com­plete au­to­mo­bile built from scratch – in other words, the first au­to­mo­bile that wasn’t es­sen­tially an en­gine strapped to a car­riage. Benz’s wife, Bertha, also played a ma­jor role: she hi­jacked an im­proved ver­sion of her hus­band’s in­ven­tion be­hind his back and took their two sons on the world’s first road trip. After suc­cess­fully com­plet­ing a jour­ney of around 180km, the car was proven ground-break­ingly prac­ti­cal.

The fol­low­ing decades saw great strides for the growth of the au­to­mo­bile: Benz solved many prob­lems by de­sign­ing and patent­ing parts like the spark plug, car­bu­re­tor, gearshift, clutch, and a speed-reg­u­la­tion sys­tem. In 1926, he merged with his for­mer com­peti­tors Daim­ler-Mo­toren-Ge­sellschaft (DMG) to be­come Daim­ler-Benz AG, and it be­gan pro­duc­tion as Mercedes-Benz. (The “Mercedes” comes from Daim­ler’s “Mercedes” model, wildly popular after its de­but in 1901, when DMG built it for the Jewish aris­to­crat Emil Jellinek and named it after his beloved daugh­ter, Mercedes.)


Still, the turn-of-the-cen­tury au­to­mo­bile was far from ubiq­ui­tous. Ini­tially in­ac­ces­si­ble to any­one but the Euro­pean elite, car own­er­ship didn’t re­ally spread un­til after World War I.

With Ger­man spir­its low and bank ac­counts empty, Hitler in­tro­duced his Mo­torisierung pol­icy in the late 1930s to raise the stan­dard of liv­ing (and his own pop­u­lar­ity) through

the ex­ten­sion of ma­jor high­ways and the Volk­swa­gen project to pro­duce a strong, af­ford­able “peo­ple’s car.” Aus­trian de­signer Fer­di­nand Porsche, who’d been work­ing on a “bee­tle”-shaped Volk­sauto along­side his own lux­ury ve­hi­cles and race­cars, was en­listed to help.

But of course there was about to be another type of en­list­ing go­ing on. No sooner had the Volk­swa­gen fac­tory been built in Wolfs­burg than it had to be con­verted to pro­duce mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles for the Third Re­ich in WWII. In 1945, its bombed-out car­cass was res­ur­rected by

the Bri­tish. Given that firms like the Bay­erische Mo­torenwerke (BMW) had had to start man­u­fac­tur­ing pots and pans to keep business alive, the Al­lies pegged the Volk­swa­gen as the best hope they had for sav­ing the Ger­man au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try. After suc­cess­ful ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns in the UK and US, pro­duc­tion hit one mil­lion in 1955. In 1972, the Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle took the world record for the most-pro­duced car ever.

With such a top-notch four-wheel legacy, it is no won­der that Ger­many soon be­came one of the world’s lead­ing coun­tries for lux­ury cars as well. Fer­di­nand Porsche’s baby was not the Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle he helped de­sign, but his ex­pen­sive and aero­dy­namic jewel, the Porsche, to­day still on the wish lists of many celebri­ties and car lovers. But de­spite the Ger­mans’ love for sports cars, what they seem to wor­ship even more is the sturdy, pow­er­ful, and strong halo be­hind their na­tional car­mak­ers. The com­bi­na­tion of power, safety, and dura­bil­ity in a Mercedes or a BMW is some­thing Ger­mans are ex­tremely proud of. Pro­duc­ing a va­ri­ety of mod­els from ur­ban ve­hi­cles and fam­ily-friendly sta­tion wag­ons to sports cars and even trucks, th­ese Ger­man brands are ap­pre­ci­ated world­wide for their re­li­a­bil­ity and horse­power.


The rest, as they say, is his­tory. The per­ma­nent road traf­fic ex­hi­bi­tion at the Deutsches Tech­nikmu­seum charts it all with more than 200 cars and trucks on dis­play, in­clud­ing a replica of the 1886 Benz Patent-Mo­tor­wa­gen.

If you’re more into kitsch than au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­ogy, a Trabi Sa­fari (www.tra­bisa­fari. de) might be more your speed. The most common car in East Ger­many, the Tra­bant de­buted in 1958 and, de­spite be­ing pro­duced un­til re­uni­fi­ca­tion in 1990, saw few up­dates. Thou­sands of East Ger­mans chose their not-sotrusty Tra­bis to carry them into the West when the Wall came down – trade­mark thun­der­ous en­gines, thick smoke, and all – but the model was quickly aban­doned, and many were ac­tu­ally given away. Since then, how­ever, the Trabi has be­come an af­fec­tion­ate nod to the by­gone GDR. Ev­ery Satur­day at Alexan­der­platz, you can drive one as part of a car­a­van-style sight­see­ing tour around Berlin, or book your own pri­vate guide to chauf­feur you around solo.

A for­mer turn-of-the-cen­tury tram de­pot sets the mood for a wan­der through Clas­sic

Remise Berlin (Wiebe­str. 36–37, www.remise.de), a cen­ter for new and vin­tage cars in Char­lot­ten­burg. Take a guided tour from one of the cen­ter’s ex­perts, peek in on one of the spe­cial­ist restora­tion garages, or just browse the rows of cars for sale be­fore tak­ing a break at the restau­rant or beer gar­den, where you can imag­ine your­self be­hind the wheel of a Porsche 911, the wind whip­ping through your hair.

The in­te­rior of a vin­tage BMW.

The aero­dy­namic jewel of the Ger­man car in­dus­try, the Porsche 911.

Clas­sic Remise Berlin

The Mercedes is an

icon of style .

For­mer East Ger­many's one and only car model: the Tra­bant.

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