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
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!”
MOBILITY ON THREE WHEELS
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.)
STOP AND GO
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.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
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.