Volkswagen doesn’t just dominate the city of Wolfsburg; the company basically gave birth to it.
Eighty years ago, the area was still a backwater when the state operated Kraft durch Fruede (KdF) organisation selected the village of Fallersleben as the site to build the new KdF-Wagen. The new settlement was unimaginatively but descriptively christened the Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben, but plans for car production soon gave way to military requirements. By 1945 the British controlled the territory in which the damaged factory stood and a team lead by Major Ivan Hirst and Colonel Charles Radclyffe surveyed the plant with a view to salvaging scrap for war reparations. Instead, Hirst discovered that most of the tooling and machinery had survived hidden in outbuildings, as had a complete prototype KdF-Wagen. By September of 1945 he had already persuaded the British Army that the car was the answer to their light transport needs and an order of 20,000 units resulted. With the car rechristened Volkswagen and the town renamed Wolfsburg after the nearby castle, this most German of car firms and cities owes its beginnings to a Yorkshireman with the vision to create rather than destroy. The plant is now the largest car factory in the world and the city is a product of the 20th Century, much like the motor car that laid its foundations.
With Volkswagen and Wolfsburg being synonymous it should come as no surprise to learn there are in fact two Volkswagen visitor attractions in Wolfsburg. Autostadt is an impressive complex opened in May 2000 at a cost of €435m, showcasing VW Group brands in their own pavilions and allowing customers to collect their new car from 60 meter tall glass storage silos. By contrast, the AutoMuseum Volkswagen is a considerably more modest affair, easily missed from the road and housing 130 heritage cars in a former clothing factory. The admission fee is a very reasonable €6 per person. The latter is a much more ViaRETRO destination, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I’ll lay my cards on the table at this point. I’m not a big Volkswagen fan. I can appreciate some of the individual models but I don’t buy into the cult of the VW “scene”. The KdF-Wagen was an advanced design for 1938 but the resulting Beetle outstayed its welcome by about 40 years. Similarly, a rear-engined van is an idea with a very obvious fundamental flaw, and churning them out for decades is no proof that they were any good. Ultimately, it’s not so much the vehicles’ fault rather than the hipster lifestyle hype that irritates me. If you live in landlocked Birmingham you don’t get to become a Californian surfer dude by buying a T2, cutting the springs and lashing a surf board to the roof rack. You simply remain an fool, but now with a van which is worse than it was before. I do have a place in my cynical heart for some of the 70s and 80s passenger cars, but don’t even think of wielding the paint stripper or trying to make some “banded steelies” with a hacksaw and a soldering iron. Figuring I should be safe from such horrors in the official AutoMuseum however, I took a deep breath and stepped inside.
I suppose it’s only natural that Beetle variants start the show and to be fair they act as a reminder that a standard and well preserved Beetle can be a reasonably attractive thing. The museum’s Herbie film car was thankfully absent but various nonsense such as a Beetle clad in wicker basket material remained; but I won’t subject you to much of that. Honestly, it’s all a bit desperate and like someone declaring themselves to be “a bit of a character” because they once bought a hat. I can feel my blood pressure doing bad things. Let’s look at some honest working vehicles instead. Imagine you had broken down in 1970s Germany and called the ADAC to rescue you. The vehicle (slowly) coming to your aid may have been a Beetle and the museum houses the last such example, dating from 1973. Not only is it equipped with cool rectangular auxiliary lamps, but it comes packed with equipment to secure the scene and get you back on your way, assuming the ADAC man could actually retrieve any of it from the back of the rear-engined car of course. Those Type 2 vans look almost practical by comparison.
Whilst we’re thinking about commercial vehicles, the unfamiliar yellow van was a new one on me. This 1965 Type 147 Fridolin was one of a special commission for the German and Swiss post offices and was an amalgam of T1 Microbus and Type 3 1500 components. With the engine naturally in the rear, the purpose of the comparatively long nose isn’t clear as it wouldn’t add any useful cargo capacity, but the Fridolin was a quite a charming new find.
The Beetle chassis has long been a basis for specialist builders and we’re all familiar with the pretty coupé from Karmann Ghia, but as you would expect the museum houses some much more obscure cars. Working from right to left in this group shot; Sporting a striking two tone paint job, the 1959 Rometsch Lawrence Coupé is the work of the eponymous Berlin coachbuilder, available as a coupé or cabriolet body hand-formed from aluminium. Fewer than 200 were built between 1957 and 1961 and the Karmann Ghia influences are clear to see. In the middle of the row and presented in bathroom suite green is the Michelotti designed 1956 Ghia Aigle Coupé. Only two were produced and they originated from the Geneva studio of Ghia-Agile Suisse S.A. At the far end of the row is the grey 1951 Dannenhauser & Strauss Coupé, powered by an Oettinger high performance engine with styling cues taken from the Porsche 356. I would have been interested to view it with the roof down as I suspect the long tailed proportions would resolve a little better.
Keeping the three coachbuilt specials company was a large slab-sided saloon. During the early 1960s VW were planning to move upmarket and the EA128 prototype was the resulting proposal. Development was subcontracted to Porsche and the rear-engined car featured independent suspension all round. The body styling predicted the cleaner look of a decade later but the EA128 never progressed to production. You have to wonder what impression it would have made had it debuted as planned and put a large cat amongst the BMW and Mercedes pigeons. Now onwards past the Type 2 Fire Engine (only suitable for fires which spread very slowly) and the experimental Gas Turbine bus that could have been a genuinely interesting way of providing a degree of cruising capability, and we find some products dating from when Volkswagen really started to get their act together.
Volkswagen Brazil were responsible for some interesting local diversions. The 1.7-litre 1973 VW SP2 was produced in respectable numbers and is displayed here complete with go-faster stripes, but the 1979 Puma Coupé is probably less familiar to most readers. Puma was an independent Brazilian car manufacturer who made use of VW components and the car shown here was also available as a cabriolet. Looking like a replica of an Alpine A110 created by someone given only a drunken description down a poor quality phone line, it’s unusual to see one outside of its homeland.
The K70 was a pivotal diversion for Volkswagen and quite out of character, perhaps because they inherited the design after the acquisition of NSU in 1969. The neat saloon came with a conventional piston engine rather the NSU Wankel Rotary found in the Ro80, and was the first VW to boast a front-mounted engine, front wheel drive and water cooling. In truth, it was short of power and should have been given a more capable engine because the resulting lack of verve hampered real world fuel consumption. However, it paved the way for the future and collaboration with Audi and NSU enabled a new direction and a range of contemporary, robust and capable cars. 1974 was a defining year with a pair of brand new models; the archaic Beetle was usurped by the Golf and the Karmann-Ghia Coupé stepped aside to reveal the Scirocco. In order to consider the enormity of those changes, go away and make a cup of tea or something – then come back when you’ve properly considered it.
Are you back yet? Good, because we’ve got some great cars still to come…
If you don’t like Sciroccos I’d suggest avoiding the AutoMuseum until September because until then, they take centre stage. Debuting two months prior to the Golf, the Giugiaro design caused quite a stir, replacing the curvy Type 14 Karmann Ghia Coupé first seen in 1955. It was such a quantum leap forward that apart from being built in Osnabruck, nothing whatsoever connects the two cars. Taking pride of place in the museum was a metallic green Scirocco TS, complete with quad headlamps and high back front seats with bright green check upholstery. Early Sciroccos are a rare sight in the UK and I was pleasantly reminded how beautifully clean and well-proportioned they are. However, the period tuners still had a go at improving the shape with various degrees of success, as evidenced by the alarmingly yellow Rieger Cabrio. Altogether more pleasing was the deep gloss black Sciwago, one of twelve estate conversions created by Hannover VW dealer Günter Artz. For a bespoke creation, the proportions work very well and there’s no impression of it being a compromise in any sense.
Volkswagen’s own design proposal to revise the coupé for 1977 was on display and demonstrates a lighter touch than the eventual 1981 facelift. Notable for its larger glass area and rear window which dipped below the tailgate spoiler, the production Scirocco II was also well represented with various trim levels on show. VW used both generations of Scirocco to experiment with twin engine configurations and both prototypes live at the AutoMuseum, the red series II with its purposeful box arches being my pick of the pair. This version was almost brought to production readiness and was equipped with two 1781cc engines boasting Oettinger heads producing 141bhp each; a total of 282bhp. The engines were mated to individual torque converter automatic gearboxes with the additional capability for the driver to select which end would deliver dominant drive. VW reported that 60mph could be achieved from a standing start in around 4 seconds. The idea was seriously considered but quietly shelved, perhaps because its only natural competitor would have been VAG’s own Audi Quattro which would have been blown into the weeds by the frankly mad Bimotor.
The 1988 Corrado is now established as a desirable youngtimer and amongst the AutoMuseum’s collection were two interesting design proposals. The droptop Roadster could have sold well enough and ridden the wave of the 1990s cabriolet revival, but my favourite was the Corrado Magnum shooting brake. The Magnum was a proposal that also met a dead end and only two were ever made. Both ended up in private hands and went to America before one made its way back home a couple of years ago and is now loaned for display. Blind alleys are common in car development but I feel this one really was a missed opportunity.
On to the Golfs and you can amuse yourself by easily comparing how they got progressively more undesirable as time went on. The Mk1 is the icon and the collection includes one of the survivors of a mammoth ninety-four day 30,514km endurance run from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Departing in October 1974, the team of four drivers and two cars made the journey without external service support and the cars were largely standard apart from basic underbody protection and auxiliary lamps. Both cars survived the trip and this one stands in battle damaged condition as a testimony to an extraordinary adventure. I’ve got a soft spot for the unassuming Mk2 and it’s one of those cars that has disappeared from daily traffic almost unnoticed. The AutoMuseum houses an example previously owned by the Wolfsburg fire department in full public service utilitarian specification; a world away from the usual GTi 16v. In the midst of my reminiscing it was easy to almost miss the EA276 prototype; an early front wheel drive concept which retained the air-cooled boxer engine from the Beetle. Bearing more resemblance to a Fiat 127 than to the eventual production Golf, it represents a step along the way from the past to what became the future.
My fears of Beetle overload were unfounded and the AutoMuseum turned out to be a treasure trove of interesting cars at a bargain admission fee. The collection is quite like the Volkswagens of old; no frills but easy to use and ultimately delivering what I paid for. They don’t have a café so if you’re hallucinogenic with hunger you’ll have to face the repellent children’s party food at the adjacent McDonalds, but if that contributes to keeping the overheads low then fair enough. Best of all though, by visiting on a Friday lunchtime we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. See if you can spot the only other visitor in my photographs, he’s in there somewhere…