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Travel Across German Four Leading Automakers’ Museums

Touring the Temples of German Automaking, much of my time — a total of five days — was spent ogling old cars. Also, new cars. Racing cars. Some Americans tour Europe not to enjoy the food, or to pay homage to the cathedrals, or to shop on Oxford Street or Boulevard Haussmann. They go to see the museums.

Which is what I did. Except instead of staring at the art of Rodin, Raphael and Rembrandt, I studied the works of Chris Bangle and Walter de’Silva.

In the last five years, four leading German automakers — Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche — have opened or reworked the museums dedicated to each brand’s heritage and history. My plan was to travel across southern Germany in a triangle from Munich (BMW) to Stuttgart (Porsche and Mercedes) to Ingolstadt (Audi) and back to Munich. The total distance was a bit more than 300 miles.

This trip did not include a visit to Volkswagen’s Autostadt (Car City), an ambitious auto theme park dedicated to the history of VW and its subsidiaries. But I had been there previously, and a detour to Wolfsburg — some 250 miles north of Stuttgart — would have added considerable time to the tour.

I admit that I ate some terrific wurst and schnitzel along the way, visited a monument or two and shopped for face creams for my wife. But much of my time — a total of five days — was spent ogling old cars. Also, new cars. Racing cars. Cars that won Grands Prix, cars that rolled on 6 horsepower, cars with roofs and back seats and steel wheels, and cars with none of this. There was also the occasional motorcycle or bus.

Though I traveled alone, imaginary companions sometimes joined me. Each time a BMW designed by Mr. Bangle passed me on the autobahn — he was chief of design until February — his “flame surface” body panels came to mind. The view from my Ingolstadt hotel one golden morning revealed not one, not two, but five flavors of the gorgeous Audi A5 shaped by Mr. de’Silva.

Devoting a day, give or take, to each museum and the accompanying attractions — usually a gift shop, bistro or cafe, and a delivery center for people who pick up their new toys at the factory — I came away with different impressions. “Cars are cars, all over the world,” Paul Simon sang. But they’re not — and neither are car museums.

Aside from the cars within, a couple of these structures are architectural delights in their own right. The huge wedge of the Porsche Museum, created by a small Austrian architecture firm, Delugan Meissl Associated, seems to levitate above rail tracks and access roads. The “double helix” Mercedes-Benz Museum, done by a Dutch firm called UN Studio, would have delighted Frank Lloyd Wright with its nine stories of spiraling ramps and terrific views of Stuttgart from the top floors.

Here, in no particular order, are my findings:

Porsche Museum

Let’s start with the newest, and perhaps the most radical, of the museum quartet. There is nothing here to diffuse the focus: it’s on Porsches, everywhere, all the time. Even the escalator is fast. Since opening last Jan. 31 more than 500,000 people have visited the museum in the Zuffenhausen district of Stuttgart. Above the V-shaped concrete pillars the theme of diagonals is carried inside.

From the atrium lobby a long escalator ascends — it has been called “a stairway to heaven for Porsche enthusiasts” — and deposits you in front of an aluminum- body Type 64 racecar, considered the ancestor of all Porsches (if you discount the VW Beetle nearby).

For those who do museums by the numbers, you’ll find the models 356, 917, 911, 550, 924, 928 and so on. One estimate puts the value of all 82 machines on display at about $200 million (and there are about 360 more cars in storage).

There’s no touching, of course, though you want to run your fingers across the sheet metal of the seductive concept, racing and street-legal cars parked along clean white ramps. (Yes, there’s a Cayenne S.U.V. here, too).

Visitors are invited to tour chronologically — cars are divided into pre- and post-1948 groups — but no one will scold you if you hop from the 911 Carrera RSR Turbo to the plastic-body 908. Engine noises from a 911, a 550 Spyder and others are piped in. If you can’t resist the urge to touch a Porsche, there’s a dealership across the street.

BMW Museum

To visit this museum is to immerse yourself into BMW’s corporate culture. Shaped like a big bowl, the Munich museum is adjacent to the massive hall called BMW World, with the company’s unmistakable headquarters — four skyscrapers in the form of engine cylinders — just beyond, along with a factory.

The museum has a certain clinical quality, which seems odd because many BMWs are so, well, sexy. They evoke passion. But while this place is stylish, cleverly arranged and full of those sexy cars, the experience can be rather dry unless you’re a committed BMW fan. But my guide, Anne Schmidt-Possiwal, was deliciously animated as she walked me past a kinetic sculpture — 714 steel balls forming constantly changing car shapes — and through the seven exhibit “houses” linked by a series of ramps, bridges and squares. (Like the other guides I encountered, she spoke perfect English.)

The approach here is nonlinear, although one exhibit begins with history and BMW’s aircraft engine. Other exhibits focus on design, technology, motorsports, motorcycles, BMW brands and a tower that showcases the modern model lines.

Among the fascinating machines are the Brabham that won Nelson Piquet the 1983 Formula One drivers championship and BMW the constructors’ cup, and the stately 502 Baroque Angel of 1954, designed for the autobahns.

The world’s iconic sports sedan, the 1968 BMW 2002, resides under a wash of orange light; across from it is a funky 1955 Isetta, a tiny bubble car powered by a 13-horsepower motorcycle engine. Funkier still is a concept car with a shell made almost entirely of fabric. Something, as they say, for everyone.

Mercedes-Benz Museum

Open since 2006, this may be the Louvre of car museums, and it should be: this pioneering automaker’s history was enriched by inventors and engineers including Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

And while the inventor of the automobile may forever be a matter of debate — Benz’s case is a certainly strong one — there’s no question that in Germany Mercedes-Benz invented the modern car museum. It came in 1936, 10 years after the merger of Benz & Cie. and DMG created Daimler-Benz. That first museum was on the factory grounds in the Untertürkheim section of Stuttgart, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Benz’s 3-wheel Patent Motorwagen.

This latest museum, chronicling 124 years of auto history in 1,500 exhibits, is an architectural tour de force. (It has been featured in Mercedes commercials in the United States.)

It is also rich in anecdotes: my guide, Volker Lückenkemper, pointed out the four ashtrays in a 1950s era limo. “After the war,” he said, “Germany had three times more smokers than before it.” If you take the “time capsule” elevator up eight stories, you alight in 1886 to be greeted by a horse. It’s all downhill, and fast-forward, from there.

Unlike the other museums, the blocky, postmodern, Guggenheimesque house of Mercedes places its vehicles in perspective with their time. Lining the interior and the spiraling ramps that descend though the ages of the marque are photographs and picture tableaus, some of them profound (Hitler, Einstein, the Titanic) and others less so (Elvis, Mickey Mouse). But all point to humankind’s turbulent history as it paralleled the development of cars from the Patent Motorwagen of 1886 up to the Mercedes SLS AMG that made its debut in September at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

The sense of Mercedes-Benz authority is especially felt among the racecars, exemplified by the indomitable “Silver Arrows” of the 1930s. Among these is the W25 Grand Prix racer of 1934 that became the stuff of legend when, reportedly, its white paint (Germany’s race color) was sanded off at the Nürburgring racecourse so the car would make the race’s weight qualification. Voilà! The white car became silver.

Audi’s Mobile Museum

Every enthusiast has a favorite German brand, and in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit mine is Audi. For those of similar persuasion, the Mobile Museum will not disappoint.

As at Mercedes, the visitor strolls top to bottom, down four floors, following a timeline of the company through the four brands that formed it: Horch, DKW, Wanderer and Audi — initially called Auto Union — in 1932. (A fifth company, NSU, was added in the 1960s.) Audi was liquidated after World War II and its factory in Zwickau, in eastern Germany, was taken by the Soviets. But buoyed by Germany’s economic rise in the mid-’50s, Audi re-emerged. Daimler- Benz owned Audi for seven years before VW gained control in the mid-1960s. The Audi 100 was the first model to reach the United States, in 1970.

There is convincing evidence that VW has had a powerful influence on Audi, which celebrated its centennial in 2009. But the early models also showed a sense of grace: the elegant 12-cylinder Horch 670 limousine looks fast even planted in a museum. The striking midengine R8 sports car carries the theme to the present.

If vorsprung durch technik (advancement through technology) resonates with you, there’s plenty of that on view. In the 1920s, Audi was the first German company to begin series production of left-hand-drive cars, to provide a better view of oncoming traffic. (Germans always drove on the right, even when their cars had right-hand drive.)

More examples of the company’s technology advances include a pair of 1980s Audi quattro coupes and the R15 TDI that finished second in 2009 at the 24 Hours of LeMans (after a string of Audi victories with the R8 and R10). It’s easy to spend a full day at the Audi complex, since it offers various factory tours, a gift shop and a cafeteria with soups, pastas, Bavarian desserts and, of course, those schnitzels.

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