The automobile is 125 years old

[This appeared in Aug 2011 issue of OUTLOOK TRAVELLER]

A test driver for Porsche gets out for a pit stop at the Hockenheim racetrack

It hit me first at the visa counter of the German Embassy in Delhi. Sharply dressed executives, several of them deutschsprechend, discussing the conferences they intend to attend. Indians go to Germany for business only; for recreation they go to neighbouring Switzerland or France or Italy or the Netherlands.

As stereotypes go, few nations can hold a candle to Germany. In my case, it started during lunchbreak conversations in school, in which German football teams were unanimously condemned for Teutonic utilitarianism: disciplined, hardworking, physical, ugly. Because the flair all drifts from Latin aesthetics, from Europe’s Mediterranean coast or from across the southern Atlantic. (It doesn’t matter if the brightest side at last year’s World Cup was Germany and the most defensive, negative formations were Brazil’s. Nor does it matter that, while the Bundesliga teams sparkle, Italy’s Serie A makes the beautiful game look like an atavistic ritual connecting us to the ungulates.)

So, when I landed at Stuttgart, Europe’s industrial and financial engine in Germany’s southwestern province of Baden-Württemberg, with an oversized suitcase (what if it gets cold?) and lots of cultural baggage, I was looking forward to not meeting Gujarati tourists. I was also looking for a sign.

I found it immediately, visible from every high point in the city. It is the sign of our species’ engineering conquest of the three elements—land, air and water. It is a circle connected to the hub with three radial arms. It signifies Mercedes-Benz.

The sign as well as the design of Mercedes-Benz’s automobiles is the hallmark of Swabian understatement, Hans Hadbawnik of Stuttgart Tourism told me, winking an eye and making an OK sign with the digits on his right hand. Swabia was a medieval duchy in southwestern Germany and now signifies that region’s culture; the Swabians are much like the Marwari traders of Rajasthan—understated, entrepreneurial, miserly.

Hans should know. Born in Romania of German stock, he has the requisite mix of proximity and distance. He’s the sort you can rely on. At our first dinner together, he suggested a traditional Swabian sausage-bacon-lentil-spaghetti number. It was yummy but the huge portion would have fed a medieval farmer well.

The terracing on the surrounding hillsides told us we were deep in wine country and, on Hans’s advice, I sampled the local red wine Trollinger, served in a little glass mug with a handle. It was nice, but I lean towards the brews. Before long, I was working on the local Pils-type beer. Over the next five days, I sampled the local brews at every town I visited. Southwestern Germany is serious Pils territory, and if that particular variant of lager tickles your tastebuds, it is reason enough to spend a few days here.

The big reason, though, is automobiles. And 2011 is all about Automobilsommer, being held to celebrate the 125th year of the automobile’s invention in 1886. This is where the cycle, the motorcycle and the car were invented. Of course, our journey began at the Mercedes-Benz Museum. As the seasoned museum visitor knows, a good museum takes a day. An automobile museum bearing the name of the inventor of the car, Karl Benz, can take a lot more, depending on how big a petrolhead you are. I’m on familiar territory: I learned to ride motorcycles at nine and cars in my early teens.

All of that had not prepared me for the opening exhibit, on the top floor (you begin up there and then wind your way down). The statue of a large, white horse and under it, engraved in gold, the words of Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1886: “I do believe in the horse. The automobile is no more than a transitory phenomenon.” It’s one of those things; you are never sure what to make of it. At first, it seemed like a cruel jibe at a monarch who can’t have his head chopped off now. But while I may not know how people in Stuttgart like to treat dead kings, I do know that they will not mess about with the horse. (Stuttgart means ‘stud compound’, and the city’s coat of arms is a black prancing horse, which is used in Porsche’s logo.)

The museum is an entertaining experience for those with only a mild interest in the automobile. For a motor-maniac, it is an adrenaline-laced ride down five storeys and 170-odd classic vehicles. Seven levels of Legend rooms with enough trivia to leave your head reeling; and all the classic Mercs you can Google. For somebody familiar with the histories of some of those models, it can get a little overwhelming.

Take the 600, for example. There was never a dictator who did not want one of these stately cars. The first gull-wing coupe, an improvisation to deal with a low design and high side bars on the chassis. There isn’t another automaker with so much history in innovation. The internal combustion engine, the honeycomb radiator design, brakes on all four wheels, airbags, traction control, crumple zones…and you get to see the models that first embodied each of these innovations. It was all too intense—the histories, the awe-inspiring building, the time frame. It left me exhausted, with a strong desire for some Pilsner and a creeping dread of museum fatigue: the next morning we were expected at Porsche’s.

Much like their cars, though, Porsche’s museum was light and did not carry the weight of history that Mercedes-Benz did. In fact, Porsche is a unique carmaker—it has stuck with one design paradigm for ever (critics call theirs the laziest car design team in the world, but guess who’s been laughing their way to the bank all these years?). And it is best revealed in a large display which shows the outlines of their models over the years—rather, the one shape, with minimal changes. Rear-engined, stylish, light, agile, sporty. It reminded me of a Leica camera advert, which had a model displayed several decades apart, with vastly different price tags, but the same camera. Why change a great thing?

Immediately after, we packed ourselves in a Ford van and hit the autobahns, the world’s only public roads where one can cross 300kmph. Hans stuck to about 150, and that did not delay us much from hitting the Hockenheimring. Along with the Nürburgring, it hosts the German F1 grand prix. Our guide Jochen Nerpel, who had spent all of the previous day driving his Audi R8 around the track, first took us to the stands, from where we watched as a team from a motorsport magazine tested their own limits of destroying the latest offering of BMW’s M-series, the most powerful sedans in the world. Then, he took us to the pits, where several drivers were trying their best to waste some really fast cars to the accompaniment of engine noise that would make a concert of The Who seem sedate. Just outside the Hockenheimring, we visited another museum: this one has the most incredible collection of classic motorcycles. I delayed everybody, and had to be dragged out.

As we pressed on to Mannheim, we caught sight of the university town of Heidelberg. During World War II, there was an unspoken understanding between the Germans and the British: the former would not bomb the towns of Oxford and Cambridge and the latter would not bomb Heidelberg. I made a mental note to come back.

Mannheim is a city that lies between the rivers Rhine and Neckar. Known for music and for Karl Benz’s invention of the car here, it is a marvel of town planning where you can’t get lost; keep walking straight and you arrive where you started. On our walkabout, I was impressed by the 250-year-old Jesuit Church. But the high point for me was yet to come. For I had no inkling that the Technomuseum here has all the papers and prototypes of Felix Wankel, the only man in the twentieth century to invent an internal combustion engine that actually went into production. It is called the Wankel rotary engine, and it once challenged the piston design. In fact, some still believe that with a little research and development, the rotary engine will emerge. It is smoother, quieter, smaller and more powerful than a piston-based design—a Wankel half the size of a piston engine can produce double the power.

The next stop on our automobile quest was Audi’s factory at Neckarsulm, where they make the R8, the monstrous supercar. A tour of the ten-kilometre-long premises ended at the plant where they make the R8—eighty per cent of it by hand, to make it exclusive, and it takes five days to make one car. I’d never seen an aluminium frame become a sportscar before this.

By now, some of us had had an overdose of automobiles. Our itinerary had just the antidote: the spa town of Bad Wimpfen, which started as a Roman garrison for its commanding views. It is all medieval charm, the high point of which is the Blue Tower, the resident of which is watchwoman Bianca Knodel. Bianca is a force of nature and treated us to her excitement, her stories and her sparkling wine. Just meeting her was worth the climb; the views were a bonus. Later, at an old inn with stained glass windows, we were treated to a selection of local cakes and details of the town’s half timber architecture. We spent the night in a castle-turned-hotel, the Schloss Lehen.

Our last non-automobile stop was the university town of Tübingen, which produced a Swabian quite popular in India: Hermann Hesse. We wound our way up cobbled lanes to the castle on top, and then descended to the banks of the Neckar river for an older mode of transport: punting. We were entrusted to a Kazakhi-Korean doctoral student of particle physics, who told us that the young mayor of Tübingen, an ambitious Green Party bicyclist, had done the unthinkable: returned the mayoral Mercedes car.

We returned to Stuttgart for the showpiece the next day: a rally of classic Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Audi vehicles. After rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of southwestern Germany at Porsche’s headquarters, we headed out to the parking lot, where most of the classics we had seen in the museum were warming up. The noise was almighty, peppered with manifold misfires. The enduring sensation, though, was the smell of exhaust fumes, of old engines cranking up, the oil warming up and combining with dust along the packing lines to intoxicate anybody who has laboured over an old vehicle.

This was the launch of the Automobilsommer 2011. A vintage Mercedes-Benz bus, the O3500, took us through Stuttgart, where thousands had lined the streets to cheer. I noticed the faces of old people lit up at the sight of our bus. “They all have memories of this model, it was very popular,” Hans told me. We waved back in excitement. A fellow traveller said she finally knew what it meant to be royalty.

It was reflected glory. And, as old Wilhelm would have insisted, a transitory phenomenon. But Der Kaiser transited the world 123 years ago to meet his maker’s horses. The automobile has been around for 125.

Categories: Automobiles, Technology, Travel

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