The massive VW factory at Wolfsburg is nothing like I imagined. Sure, the building itself is familiar enough from old pictures, long massive brick blocks sprawling under four massive smokestacks. But I sure as hell didn’t expect the factory to be somehow surrounded by a massive, lovely park. But it is.

The park is known as the Autostadt, and it’s a sort of car-themed leisure area that’s so clean and modern it reminds me of how sci-fi movies like to portray the planets with the advanced civilizations that are just about to be wiped out by some colossal Space Turd or something. It’s flat-out lovely, with carefully planned greenery and sculpture and architecture and fountains, and it surrounds one of the biggest automobile factories in the world. It’s hard to process in your head.

Oh, also hard to process is this, shot as I was entering Wolfsburg:

It’s a huge sculpture of a Golf, made out of... concrete? Plaster? I’m not sure. It was supposed to be Volkswagen’s gift to Wolfsburg, but I heard it said it’s more like Volkswagen’s gift to Volkswagen. I mean, it’s basically an abandoned Golf by the side of the road, just 4x bigger and monochrome.

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But, that’s a few miles away from the lovely Autostadt. The Autostadt is a huge complex of buildings, with shopping and huge cylindrical towers full of cars that are automated, dispensing a car you’ve bought and opted to pick up at the Autostadt like a massive vending machine relinquishing some Bugles or something. It’s fascinating.

But I wasn’t buying a car — I wanted to see what VW’s general automotive collection — not the VW-specific museum I’ll be seeing later — was like.

The first thing you notice as you walk to the glass-and-steel building that houses their (relatively) small general-interest car collection is that, at some point, the grounds must have been infested with French cars, because there’s an old 2CV they’ve captured and placed in a protective terrarium:

There was a Renault 4CV with a similar treatment. I guess at some point these must have been driving around, pestering people for baguettes soaked in 20W-50.

There’s also a lot of fun with water happening all over here:

There’s ‘water features’ all over the place. You’d think VW is considering making a next-gen Eos that uses a curtain of water instead of a metal top to, ironically, keep you dry. I wonder if that could work?

And, like I said, walk to one side of the Autostadt, turn away from the manicured lawns and whimsical paths, and boom, there it is, the massive, once KdF, now Volkswagenwerk AG factory. I believe my very own Beetle was made right there, 42 years ago.

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But I want to see the crap out of some cars, and that’s what I’m going to do. So let’s head over to Volkswagen’s collection of automobiles, from all eras and types. This museum isn’t massive, but it’s organized and curated in a very clever way that works just fine for casual observers, but gives an extra layer of interest to the true gearhead. It can be summed up in this massive graphic they have on the wall:

So, what’s going on there? See all those little islands of color, populated with a few cars? Those islands all represent some sort of commonality; the commonality can be a technical trait, a conceptual idea, a style, whatever. But it makes for these pairings and groupings of cars that are genuinely interesting and spark a lot of good thought and foster associations you might not have otherwise made. You’ll see what I mean as we go.

First, though, there are some rooms outside of the islands with somewhat looser grouping rules, and we’ll go to one of those first.

... Where we meet a Hanomag Komissbrot. I think this is a fantastic way to start VW’s museum, because I’d consider the Hanomag the earliest true spiritual and technical ancestor of the VW Beetle.

Next, we come to this 1912 Bugatti, which I personally love because it looks like such a crazed cartoon. Like something out of that Disney Mr.Toad ride. It’s not the sort of thing you normally think of when you think ‘Bugatti,’ which is also why it’s so appealing.

They have the sorts of Bugattis you usually think of too, so don’t worry.

The BMW from 1938 here is a great example of some very advanced car design of the era, and you see this well in the BMW 328 models. Even so, what really struck me about this car was this:

Those searchlight-and-mirror assemblies are so shiny and massive, they feel like a huge chrome cockroach making its way up the car.

This room had a sort of advanced innovation theme, because that very, very surprised looking fellow in red there is the Lancia Lambda, the first monocoque/unibody car ever. That face, though — it looks like it just walked in on you masturbating.

One thing I wasn’t crazy to see was a (admittedly lovely) replica of Karl Benz’ Patentmotorwagen presented as the “first purpose-built automobile.” Which, as some of you may know, I think is horseshit.

This was especially exciting for me to see. This is technically known as a Porsche Type 60 — it’s pretty much the final form the Beetle took from the Porsche design team (the car was then still known as the KdF Wagen) to be ready for mass-production. This 1938 one is the only one left, and as such it’s likely the oldest final-form Beetle around, anywhere. (actually, there may be up to 3, I’ve been told now. Thanks!)

VW displays it with the very last Beetle to roll off the line in Mexico in 2003. Of course, what’s remarkable is just how much the same the two cars really look. Sure, nearly every part has been modified and improved over and over, but it’s still the same basic 1930s design, made all the way into the 21st century. That’s astounding.

Here’s some nice little clues to look for if you think you’ve found a pre-production late-’30s Beetle: that funny central stoplamp/license plate light — sometimes this was just a simple round lamp. And, also, check for:

... corners on the engine lid. If they’re round, it’s a production model. If not, oh boy.

Speaking of details, I love these little parking lights that stay on when you’re parked on a narrow road so people don’t whack into you, and can tell, by color, which way your car is facing, even in the inky blackness of the night. Where the hell are you parking, anyway, where there’s no lights? Where do you go at night? (sobs)

That parking light was on this first-generation Type III notchback. A very handsome car in an almost English way, and an interesting development of the Beetle design.

When else will you see a Type IV in a museum? Almost never. The Type IV was the most advanced VW got with the old rear-engine/air-cooled DNA: unibody, electronic fuel injection, McPhearson struts, amazing use of space (huge trunk in front, wagon at rear) — I really do think these were very cool. Too bad nobody else did.

Formula V! Well, this is a Super Vee, because it’s not using all stock VW suspension. Even so, that’s still a regular air-cooled boxer back there, flipped around and having a hell of a time in that quick banana.

This racing Scirocco is very badass.

So, VW is of course interested in ‘people’s cars’ from all over, and the Mini is possibly the most influential of all of that class of car, setting a transverse/FWD layout that’s still the most common layout today. So it’s not shocking VW has a lovely one.

What is surprising is which one they have — VW has the millionth Mini?

I just really like this Autobianci A112.

This Borgward Isabella was described as being the first true German sports-sedan, the sort of thing that, arguably, Germany would take as its signature car design, with cars like BMW’s 2002. This lovely green lass was what started it all, with about 60 HP.

An Empi Imp! I’ve only seen pictures of these! This was in the island of ‘fun cars.’ Guess who else was there:

Of course, our friend the Thing, the VW 181. There’s a good number of cars that have changed careers from fighting to funning, and the Thing is one of the icons of that group. Oh, also, there’s mirrors on the ceiling in the museum (sexy), which allows you to see inside the cars very well.

You forget that the thing was actually pretty roomy inside! Also, note that the Empi Imp has a covered engine bay, something not usually seen on dune buggies like the Myers Manx.

Also in the fun-car realm, there was a Karmann GF — the little known prototype of a possible Karmann dune buggy Beetle re-body. It has a hood-mounted tach!

Okay, why do you think these guys are together?

Early DKW

... a Cord...

... and an Alvis. What’s common to all of them? Who said that? You? Yes, exactly. You’re so smart — front-wheel drive. All of these cars were FWD pioneers. PLus, look at this bonkers suspension hardware:

It reminds me of insect parts. Okay, what’s common in this next one? That’s a Saab behind the Corvair Monza.

The rise of turbocharging! It’s an eclectic group, but the category makes sense and spurs great comparisons. But this one is even better — why are these two paired up?

A Trabant and a Corvette. Trabant and Corvette? Yep. Why would they be in the same category? What did they both pioneer — hey, right — synthetic body materials! One was the first fiberglass production car, and the other was made of a wool-based composite called Duraplast that was occasionally eaten by goats. I’ll let you guess which one.

Also good — the DeLorean and the Alfasud are together because both are Guigaro designs. Via his company, Italdesign, Guigaro would dictate the look of most of VW’s post-air-cooled era.

I don’t recall where this Hebmuller cabriolet was, but it’s lovely and I’ve only seen real ones of these very rarely. A factory fire sort of killed the operation, so the four-seat Karmann Beetle convertible ended up being the only one most people know about.

This is also a brilliant pairing, I think — a Tatra T87 and a VW XL1, bound by their advanced (for their eras) streamlining and aerodynamics. You could easily imagine the XL1 as a modern Tatra. I’ve driven both of these cars, I just realized. Holy crap I’m a lucky bastard.

I’m putting in another pic of the Tatra, because I love them. I saw no mention of the reparations VW had to pay to Tatra after the war for stealing some of their ideas. I guess I can always use a Sharpie on the wall to fill in the gap.

A Matra Djet and a Lotus Elan. I think these two are connected by the massive feelings of desire you get when you walk by them.

They also have some record-holders: the last old-school (this one Brazilian) microbus, now defaced with a radiator, but one of the longest-running vehicles of all time, like it’s brother the Beetle. And speaking of Beetles, that 1972 Super Beetle is the one that broke the Model T’s record for most produced model of car — there were 20 some odd million Beetles made.

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It’s late, I’m exhausted, and tomorrow is the VW corporate museum with the prototypes and secret panels and all sorts of good stuff. More to come!

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