Cathedrals of Chrome

Why are auto museums so much more popular in Europe?
The BMW Museum in Munich includes the Welt, which offers a conference center, cafe, and nightclub.

It’s become one of Europe’s most popular — if unlikely — theme parks, drawing visitors from all across the continent. Entire families take the day off, calling in sick from work and sending excuses off to school. But if you’re expecting to find Mickey Mouse at the AutoStadt theme park, forget it.

The name, in German, means “auto city,” an appropriate nickname for Wolfsburg itself, the town that grew up around Volks-wagen’s headquarters, barely a two-hour drive from Berlin, alongside the former East/West German border.

Skeptics mocked the idea of an automotive theme park, and there were plenty of reasons to dismiss its chances. In Flint, birthplace of General Motors, a similar concept — dubbed Auto World — failed miserably, losing investors and costing the struggling city millions of dollars. Indeed, Michigan and the Motor City itself have had relatively little success creating auto-based destinations.

There are a few exceptions, such as the “Driving America” collection at The Henry Ford in Dearborn and Greenfield Village. And Ford Motor Co. itself can still draw a crowd for the tours of its big River Rouge Assembly Plant. But even the well-conceived Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills recently closed its doors, while General Motors’ Heritage Center opens its collection only for special events.

There’s no question there were skeptics who thought VW’s Autostadt would be a fiasco to match Flint’s Auto World, but it has turned into a hit. And the same is true at a wide range of German auto-themed museums, parks, driving courses, and other attractions.

Autostadt continues to attract visitors in steady streams — more than 2 million a year, and more than 25 million since the park opened in 2000.


The company says Autostadt is now Germany’s second most popular theme park and generates enough revenue to cover most of its operating costs. The park, built at a cost of nearly $600 million, is designed to celebrate the auto industry — VW in particular — and also to sell cars.

It definitely isn’t Euro Disney. There are no roller coasters, Ferris wheels, or giant mice posing for pictures with the kids. But if you’re into cars, you’ve come to the right place.

At the entrance, visitors stride under a giant aluminum globe and across the piazza’s transparent floor, where a cluster of 64 globes touch on a political, social, or environmental idea. Indeed, the park has taken on an increasingly green hue since it opened, reflecting both the German focus on the environment and the auto industry’s effort to appear to be part of the solution.

The museum traces the evolution of the automobile from the first crude, horseless carriages to today’s 200-mph supercars. Even the competition has a place — albeit small — in the exhibition, with the occasional Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, and even a Messerschmidt, the bizarre little two-seater that helped revive Germany’s auto industry from the rubble of World War II.

As one might expect, each Volkswagen brand has a place at Autostadt, from Audis to Bentleys to Lamborghinis. And the Beetle has a special place of honor, with several early prototypes on display as well as a rhinestone-covered model — the 1-millionth to roll off the assembly line.

Autostadt sits alongside the heart of the Volkswagen empire, the decades-old Halle 54 assembly plant, which visitors can tour by tram. Each day, the factory turns out roughly 1,000 vehicles, and a number of them are diverted to one of the theme park’s central landmarks: a glass-walled twin-tower delivery center where customers arrive daily to take the keys to the new vehicle they have ordered. Free admission to the theme park is part of the special delivery package.


Naturally, there are plenty of trinkets for sale, along with several restaurants and a Ritz-Carlton hotel. The factory’s former power plant has been converted to a hip nightclub that attracts big-name talent and young clubbers from Berlin and other cities.

The number of visitors to Autostadt from outside Germany continues to grow. To keep things fresh, VW has been updating most of the exhibits at least every other year. What’s particularly surprising is that the number of visitors has remained relatively strong, despite the weak European economy and the ongoing struggles of the automotive market.

While Autostadt may be the most ambitious of the German auto museums, it’s by no means the only successful effort. In fact, VW’s cross-country rivals have stepped up their game in recent years as they seek out buyers, collectors, and fans.

Standing at the edge of an earlier industrial landscape transformed into park space for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the circular towers that serve as BMW’s iconic headquarters are a symbol of the city’s phoenix-like postwar rebirth.

The corporate park has become nearly as much of a draw as the city’s busy Hofbrauhaus Munchen beer hall, thanks to the addition of the sprawling BMW museum, which houses an inspiring collection of classic cars and motorcycles. First opened in 1972, when Bavarian Motoren Werke was still an aspiring little brand, the facility went through a massive renovation before reopening a few years ago.

The museum is set alongside the futuristic BMW towers in a silver building that’s alternately known as the “salad bowl” or “white cauldron”; its layout is vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York.


Visitors enter at the bowl’s base and spiral upward. Along the way, they are given a glimpse of the automaker’s long history, starting with its early days in the aircraft industry, which inspired the familiar BMW “spinner” logo.

Inside, there are engines and aircraft and, of course, plenty of BMW motorcycles and automobiles, both classic and modern. Among the highlights, the collection reveals concepts and show cars. The museum also offers a variety of detours and sideshows in design and engineering, the latest in automotive technologies and, as with VW’s Autostadt, plenty of emphasis on environmental issues.

Where Volkswagen has Halle 54, the BMW Museum is linked to an assembly plant that produces the automaker’s most popular model, the 3-Series. Visitors can watch as 1,000 vehicles a day roll down its line, or detour over to the Welt, or World — a vast glass-and-steel structure that might serve as the setting of a sci-fi flick.

The newest portion of the complex, the Welt serves a variety of duties: conference center, café, and nightclub. It hosts a steady stream of parties, including some of the city’s biggest on New Year’s Eve. There’s also a jazz club, where authors come to perform readings. Beyond that, the facility serves a more functional purpose, as thousands of the automaker’s customers discover each year.

Stepping inside the bright and airy main hall, a BMW buyer is whisked past the Welt’s restaurants and coffee shops into a private space set aside for those who sign up for an enticing delivery program that covers many BMW models, not just the 3-Series.

An American customer who has come to pick up a 750iL orders an espresso as the guide begins a well-rehearsed process that is part tour and part familiarization guide. Over the next half hour they will get a preview of what it will be like to drive the new 7-Series sedan, and a lesson on how to operate its iDrive infotainment system.


Do you really need a Gehry-class architect to help celebrate your heritage? Apparently it helps, as Porsche has proven with the company’s new, $130-million museum — a monochromatic steel-and-glass building anchoring Porscheplatz and designed to represent the “Porsche Idea.”

When the museum opened in 1976, fans had to settle for a dumpy little space the sports car producer had established in a nondescript corner of Stuttgart. But the company opened its own futuristic museum in 2009, not far from where Ferdinand Porsche first set up his automotive “consultation” nearly eight decades earlier. The distinctive, cantilevered building appears to float above the pavement.

As with its German rivals, Porsche has created a multipurpose center that offers a museum, a well-reviewed restaurant, and a conference center. The heart of the facility, however, remains the interactive Porsche collection.

Visitors enter the building and descend down a sloping ramp; it’s a 30-foot chasm covered in reflective stainless steel panels. The exhibitions are at once stark and dramatic. As with the BMW Museum, a visitor typically follows a chronological path through Porsche’s history. The oldest Porsche on display is a 1948 vintage 356 Roadster, although the automaker does celebrate the founder’s roots, dating back to the late 19th century.

While the new museum expands Porsche’s presence in the Schwabian capital, Stuttgart is dominated by the tri-star logo of Mercedes- Benz. Lying alongside the Nekar River, the distinctive Mercedes-Benz Museum is a round, fluid building with a ribbon of windows that appear to spiral upward toward its asymmetric roofline — one critic describes the look as a “warped wedding cake.”

For the $200-million facility, Mercedes opted for a tall building with a distinctive interior layout it likens to the “double-helix” of a DNA strand. One of the largest automotive museums in Germany, it boasts 178,000 square feet of exhibition space — enough to keep as many as 160 different vehicles on display.


Those include a running replica of what is widely considered to be the world’s oldest true automobile, the little gasoline-powered runabout patented by one of the company’s founder’s, Karl Benz, in January 1886.

There are also some early pieces from parent company Daimler AG’s other founder, the eponymous Gottlieb Daimler, who did his own tinkering in a greenhouse just up a hill. That includes a Reitwagen he designed in 1885, billed as the world’s first motorcycle.

Among the vehicles on display is an assortment of Silver Arrow race cars and vehicles owned by figures as diverse as the Pope, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Japan’s Emperor Hirohito.

German automakers aren’t content to limit themselves to corporate museum complexes. Volkswagen offers visitors to the once-devastated city of Dresden a chance to watch its big Phaeton model assembled at the unique “Transparent Factory,” a nearly all-glass assembly plant that also serves as a community center and offers several different dining options. Meanwhile, the Audi brand has its own museum near its headquarters in Ingollstadt.

The Germans also operate a variety of facilities outside their home country. Mercedes-Benz World, near London, is not only a combination museum, showroom, and conference center, but also features several test tracks and other driving activities.

Porsche, meanwhile, is set to open an all-new U.S. headquarters near Atlanta. The complex will include corporate offices, a technical service and training center, and a customer experience center with its own road course. (An even larger test track complex will soon open in the Los Angeles suburbs.) db