Germany's auto museums are serious business – and serious fun
Wendelin Wiedeking,CEO of Porsche, Wolfgang Porsche, chairman of the supervisory board, and Guenther Oettinger, governor of Baden-Wuerttemberg, pose in front of the first Porsche sports car, the Porsche 356 "no.1" from 1948, during the inauguration of the new Porsche museum in Stuttgart, Germany, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009. (AP / Thomas Kienzle)
Published Wednesday, October 31, 2012 8:20AM EDT
Four of the most spectacular car museums in the world are separated only by an exciting 200 km/h autobahn blast in a corner of southern Germany. Stuttgart is the hometown of both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche; BMW is based in Munich, a couple of hours away, and Audi is an hour north of Munich, in Ingolstadt.
All four companies have built amazing museums both as monuments to themselves and to feed the passion of car-crazy Germans. I’ve been to them all and revisited the Audi Museum recently.
These are true museums and not merely showrooms full of old stuff. They are led by scholarly curators who take as much pride in their work and its historical accuracy as do curators of great museums elsewhere.
The Audi Museum is currently running a show called Gute Zeiten (Good Times): Audi in the DTM. The DTM is the German Touring Car Masters, a hugely popular racing series in Europe. The series has had its ups and downs but it’s riding high now with the German Big Three (BMW, Audi and Mercedes) all competing head-to-head for the first time.
The Audi exhibition features seven successful Audis that have run in DTM since the late 1980s, along with a winning car from BMW, Mercedes and Opel. It’s interesting to look at such famous cars, but that’s only scratching the surface. Lengthy explanations and supporting material surround each display, detailing the circumstances and the technology. Serious automotive historians can spend hours here.
The Porsche Museum is a $200-million car cathedral dedicated to promoting the glory of Porsche sports cars. It is located on Porscheplatz, next to the company's headquarters in the Zuffenhausen district of Stuttgart. Containing more steel than the Eiffel Tower, the building sits on three huge columns, which make it appear to float above the ground.
The museum contains 80 of the most famous Porsches of all time including the original Volkswagen Beetle designed by Ferdinand Porsche himself in the 1930s and the Porsche Type 64, a handmade aluminum-bodied race car, which was the first to carry the Porsche name. There are no fancy exhibits or much in the way of interactivity. The cars are on an architectural pedestal to be worshiped with little interference.
About ten kilometres away, in Stuttgart Untertürkheim, is the Mercedes-Benz Museum, located just outside the main gate of the Daimler factory. This museum was opened in 2006 and looks like a gigantic cloverleaf with three overlapping circles; it’s a massive structure containing more than 160 vehicles.
This museum pays as much attention to the historical period surrounding the cars as the cars themselves. You ride an elevator to the top of the museum -- where you meet a horse -- and then spiral your way down through the horseless vehicles in chronological order. It sounds dull but definitely is not. The 120-year history of the company is brilliantly put into the context of the times. You could spend days here. The museum provides free headsets for audio tours in a variety of languages. It has become immensely popular, drawing a million visitors a year.
Munich, capital of Bavaria, is the home of Bavarian Motor Works (BMW) and its museum is BMW Welt (World). Consisting of a high-tech pathway through a series of seven concept-boxes on multiple levels, interactive displays are everywhere. Even the walls have moving images projected from within. These same walls speak to you in English or German, depending on where you stand. There is a huge touch-panel where you can explore the company history on your own.
BMW began, of course, as a motorcycle company and about 80 of its greatest motorcycles are displayed and explained. The cars range from the two-seat Italian designed Isetta, which was propelled by a BMW motorcycle engine, through to the emergence of premium sports cars in the 60s and 70s, and finally up to the racing champions of today.
These are serious museums and are not to be dismissed as corporate ego-trips. They are also a sign of the strength of German car culture. And they certainly help sell cars: If you love our museum and are impressed by our history and our successes, then maybe you’ll buy our car.
I presume the strategy works; and, at the very least, it has created four of the greatest museums any car buff could wish for.