By Sandy Myhre
On the flat, featureless plains between Hanover and Berlin, lies a tangible testament to the automotive industry’s holy trinity – design, production and sales. And if it wasn’t for an English army officer this car cenotaph might never have existed at all.
Post World War II, the heavily-bombed Volkswagen factory (which had switched from manufacturing the Beetle to making munitions for the war effort) was handed over to the British under the control of Major Ivan Hirst REME. He first thought of using the factory for military vehicle maintenance but saw enough potential in the ‘Bug’ to persuade the British Army to order 20,000 for light transport.
He also some sold to the German Post Office and by 1946 the factory was producing 1000 cars a month even if it was still unclear what was to eventually become of both the car and the plant.
He sent five Beetles to the British Rootes Group for assessment. They were making Hillmans, Sunbeams and Singers at the time. The chairman was Sir William Rootes, First Baron Rootes no less, who thought it ”unattractive, too ugly and too noisy” before adding what must be one of the 20th century’s biggest commercial gaffes when he sagely advised Major Hirst that if he thought the Major was going to build cars in that place, in Wolfsburg, then he was a “bloody fool”.
He wasn’t the only critic either. Henry Ford II examined taking over the VW factory but when he looked up Wolfsburg on the map, decided it was too close for comfort to East Germany which by then was under Russian control.
Both these decisions backfired, if you’ll pardon the obvious pun. In less than a decade Wolfsburg was producing half the cars in West Germany and, ironically in 1972, the Beetle overtook the Model T Ford as the world’s best-selling car. The Rootes Group ceased to exist in 2007 while, yes, VW has continued manufacturing.
Production was later switched to Mexico and the last original-design Beetle rolled off the line in 2003 after more than 21 million had been produced.
Today, the VW plant is so large the Principality of Monaco could fit inside the boundaries. Standing sentinel to the entrance as a manifestly visual symbol to Germany’s prosperity of the past half-century and more are four giant chimneys. The plant’s power plant supplies not only its own power but that of Wolfsburg as well.
The newest building is 2.2km long while the oldest is a “mere” 1.3km. The old Beetle production area is now used for metalwork but today, of course, 98 percent of production is automated via robots whose busy arms are mounted on pneumatic controls. They look like disembodied versions of stick men on steroids and wheeze like they have collective consumption.
Adjacent to the VW factory is the Autostradt which literally means car street but is, in fact, the only theme park in the world built as a corporeal temple to the automobile.
The facility was constructed as part of the 2000 World’s Trade Fair held in Hanover but there are very few cars here except in the museum and in two conning towers on the outer reaches. Even fewer cars are allowed to drive through which is somewhat curious given it’s a shrine to the motor car.
Entrance to the Autostradt is via The Piazza and the focal point is a 20-metre-high glass atrium. A plate-glass floor covers Ingo Günther’s art work and from the ceiling is suspended his Exosphere, a giant five-ton aluminium globe. The largest glass revolving doors in the world can be opened on both sides to convert the hall into a portico to the park.
One observer commented that anyone viewing the atrium for the first time is ‘witnessing art and the inter-relation creativity has with the motor car’. It’s a pertinent thought.
Numerous automotive basilicas are dotted around the park – Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, Seat, Bentley and Lamborghini – and not all feature cars, either. The Skoda pavilion, for instance, hosts a stunning collection of bronze models depicting in miniature Czech life through the ages and in the centre of the oval building is a 350-degree multi-dimension theatre.
In another biosphere is the Sun Fuel Laboratory. Cress seeds are potted beneath a glass floor and you can choose your own to germinate to eventually grow into fuel.
A dreamland this might be but there are practical applications. In the Auto Lab you can ‘construct’ your own car with the aid of an interactive computer. If only the ‘teachers’ spoke good English. Or any English at all.
The park’s two 48-metre-high cylindrical towers dominate the Wolfsburg skyline like the plant’s quad of chimneys and these, in essence, are the entire raison d’etre of Autostaft because in here await cars bought by the volk.
Car purchasing in Germany is still through car dealers, but customers select the model and add their own bits, slotting in specifications like a bespoke dressmaker to a general pattern until it all fits. The order is then sent to Wolfsburg. From the plant, each car is ferried across a glass bridge, lifted into the tower automatically and stored electronically into a pre-allocated position. Each tower holds up to 400 new cars on 20 floors and every 45 seconds, every day, a new car is delivered to the new owners.
There are a staggering two million visitors a year to the Autostradt, literally catered for by nine restaurants including one specialising in the famous Volkswagen curried sausage, of which 1.5 million are produced annually. Underpinning the entire complex is an intrinsic message of customer capture even from an early age. Children can drive micro-cars on a specially designed street and, at the end, are granted their ‘licence’ to drive.
As for the adults, men can imbibe horsepower and statistics; women can seek out the Frau and Auto pavilion. There is art for art’s sake and eventually, cars for heaven’s sake.
Almost dwarfed by this automotive enterprise and in a small corner of the museum shyly stands a little car from a bygone era and you have to wonder why it’s there. In fact, it’s a reminder that this car is, and was, a pointer to the future, way ahead of its time, and look what we have here because of her.