A look at the ten vehicles which have come from Germany and have had a major impact on both the social history of the German nation as well as the roads.
The stereotypical image of a German is of one who drives his brand new Audi to the football, clinically scores the winning penalty in the game and then celebrates by drinking litre Steiners of beer in a Bavarian beer hall until the early hours of the following day.
Germany is far more diverse than that, with a fascinating motor vehicle history that tells a story about the nation from its first flirtation with motor carriages through to the modern day BMW vehicles. Just to prove that stereotyping is not simply lazy journalistic practice, there won’t be another mention of Audi in this article.
The article is a history of the cars that made Germany and the stories that they tell, not an article about the best German made or owned cars around. Therefore the Bugatti Veyron and Porsche 917 won’t be mentioned either, despite their speed and magnificent designs.
German car history would be nothing without Karl Benz, who created the first motorised vehicle for German roads in 1886. The Benz Patent Motorwagen was funded by Karl Benz’s wife Bertha, who was also the first motorist to drive the vehicle and the first to use a refuelling station. The irony of motoring being perceived as a male pursuit is surely not lost on anyone.
The first trip took place in Mannheim, an industrial city in the southwest of Germany, most famous for being the birthplace of Sepp Herberger. The car also took on long distance rides to nearby Heidelberg, before driving further still to Pforzheim. The publicity gained from seeing the vehicle on the road allowed investment for the project which in turn led to the creation of the Mercedes Benz company.
Mercedes of course eventually benefited from the help of one Ferdinand Porsche, an Austro-Hungarian who found fame in Germany and would later be voted the Car Engineer of the Century. Porsche himself channelled some of his money made in the 1920s to founding a racing company with the Horch Factory in Zwickau used as the base.
From 1933-39 this Zwickau factory produced the Auto-Union, which won a plethora of Grand Prix races of the late 1930s. The cars offered over 500 brake horse power from a V16 engine and due to the nature of the company’s formation created a fierce on-track rivalry with Mercedes-Benz until the start of the Second World War.
For Porsche, who himself was a Nazi and SS member, the 1930s were the golden decade for him as his creations and innovations dovetailed perfectly with Adolf Hitler’s ambitions for European and global domination. It was Hitler who set up an artificial town in Lower Saxony, with Porsche happy to oblige when asked to create an affordable car for the people from the plant which could be mass-produced.
Porsche’s design morphed into the Volkswagen Beetle and following the war, the town was purged of its previous history by being renamed Wolfsburg. The Beetle would go on to turn into a much loved car thanks in part to its role in the Herbie films and become one of the flagship models for the revived Volkswagen group after World War Two.
Post 1945 Germany was on its knees as a nation with its car industry close to non-existent, symbolised by the arrest of Porsche and his son by the French for war crimes. By 1949 the country had been weakened further after being carved up by the Allies leading to the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), with car production the last thing on many people’s minds.
However by 1956, things began to look up, for the west at least. Aided by the ‘Miracle of Bern‘ in 1954, Germany began its own economic miracle which culminated in BMW producing one of the first true classic cars, the BMW 507.
Designed by naturalised American Albrecht von Goertz, the BMW 507 won rave reviews for its style, easy handling and iconic shape. Although it only ran for three years the 507 put BMW’s name and German auto-mobile engineering firmly back in the world’s conscience. It also allowed the country’s international pariah status to be left behind. Here was proof that German designs and ideas could be used for good (even if it was later discovered that BMW were not ‘clean’ about their role in World War Two).
Not to be outdone the East Germans designed their own car which would attain iconic status for the country and vehicle, just not in the way previously considered. There are so many jokes about the Zwickau-produced Trabant that people forget when it was originally built in 1957 the car won plaudits for its lightness, speed and space for passengers and luggage.
The problem with the Trabant was that it was unable to live up to its promising start. Its poor safety record, coupled with the inability to meet supply demands from the Eastern and Western blocs meant that it came with a stigma attached. The car was often derided but it became a symbol of the divided German nation, with Trabant festivals set up in its honour after the unification of Germany.
Back in the west, Porsche rediscovered their verve and in 1963 unleashed a beauty. The 911 has entered the lexicon for being synonymous with style, sleekness and excellence. Produced in the heart of the Porsche Empire at Stuttgart, the Porsche 911 showed a new-found confidence that Germany had found in itself since the end of the war.
Built as a two door rear engine drive, the Porsche 911 was a revelation for motorists who were able to afford the car. Still being produced today under the new name 991, the Porsche has lost none of its charm or sophistication which has made it a favourite amongst motoring enthusiasts.
Whilst the glamorous could cruise around in their Porsches, the public took to driving the ‘people’s car’. The Volkswagen Golf was released in the early 1970s and thanks to various makeovers and updates has remained a popular part of the global public’s conscience ever since. Named after the German word for ‘Gulf Stream’, the car attained an air of prominence through its phonetic name which implied style, elegance and middle class respectability.
The Golf’s arrival coincided with the completion of the major motorway and Autobahn projects across Europe, making long distance driving a reality for many. It was also convenient that thanks to the exploits of German experimental bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! and Faust, the perfect long distance soundtracks for driving arrived during this time too.
Launched in the mid-1970s, the Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 was seen as an executive car oozing class and one that came to symbolise the perceived decadence of Germany. It was a period when the younger generation were uncovering their nation’s past and were upset that many who served in the Nazi Party had been able to forge successful careers instead of being shamed.
Believing they could initiate a left wing revolution and force Germany to take a hard look at itself, the Red Army Faction decided to take action against high society. The gang murdered 34 people including banking financiers Jurgen Ponto and Albert Herrhasuen as well as Hanns Martin Schleyer (kidnapped from a Mercedes car) and Siegfried Buback, two prominent public servants who had joined the Nazi Party in the 1930s and 1940s. The German autumn of 1977 led to the country questioning its values and just who the ‘good guys’ were.
By 1987 the Germans had moved forward and despite the on-going problems of the RAF, the auto industry still found time to produce exclusive modern day classics, in the shape of the Ruf CTR. There were only 29 cars of the CTR which were manufactured from scratch by Ruf Automobile, with the remaining models created from different car parts, usually Porsches.
Those changed cars in many ways were a metaphor for Germany towards the end of the 1980s. The country was open to investment and new ideas, finding its second wind and looking forward to the future. Little did Ruf Automobile or the rest of the German speaking public realise that in less than three years west and east would be united to form a single German nation. For the time being the Ruf drivers were happy to listen to their David Hasselhoff tapes, little realising the effect he would have in relation to end of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
By 1995 Germany was united as one nation and striding forwards, ready to assume its position as the dominant player in European politics. Its auto industry meanwhile produced what critics have described as the best car ever created pound-for-pound. The BMW E39, known as the 5 Series rolled off the production line in 1995 and was lauded for its style, strength and its ease to drive. The car fittingly enough promotes all of the Germanic stereotypes, with it being sleek, industrious and technically superb.
As the twentieth century closed Germany could look back on its car history with a mixture of emotions. The history behind some of the German cars makes for fascinating story telling and in a further hundred years there may be newer cars with even more interesting tales behind them. Who knows, Germany may be divided once more, especially if ‘Ostalgie‘ develops into more than a nostalgia-tinted phenomenon.