The real Motor City?
Dr Ferdinand Piech has a highly controversial reputation. Some call him a genius; others vehemently maintain that he’s completely out of his tree. They say there’s a fine line between madness and genius, and this may very well be true in the case of this engineer, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and one of the most brilliant post-War automobile engineers. Indeed, in the mid-90s, he decided to transform the city of Wolfsburg in northern Germany. This city was pretty dull at the time, and it was this manufacturer’s nerve centre with its gigantic plant and its long smokestacks jutting upwards into the sky and dominating the countryside. This brown brick factory didn’t make the countryside any brighter than the region’s dreary September to April weather does. Dr Piech decided not only to give some of the buildings at its production centre a facelift and to renovate Wolfsburg Castle, but also to create his own Car City, known as Autostadt in German.
The primary goal of this gigantic complex that opened its doors in June 2000 was to allow customers from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to come and pick up their cars at the factory like several German brands, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, were already doing. But Piech has a style all his own, and at this enormous distribution centre, supposedly the largest in the world, he added a first-rate automobile museum, built seven theme pavilions – one for each brand controlled by the Volkswagen Group at the time, and constructed the most spectacular feature of the complex, two massive glass towers where the vehicles being delivered in the next 24 hours are stored.
The central building contains deliverable car registration papers and license plate distribution centres, in addition to restaurants, all kinds of boutiques and a driving school for children between eight and twelve years old. The kids don’t learn to drive real cars, but miniature electric replicas of the New Beetle convertible. They learn the basics of sharing the road on a course complete with traffic lights and at the very end they receive an honorary driving certificate from the city of Autostadt. On the higher floors of this building, there are a number of attractions meant to sensitize people to global warming, overpopulation and the various problems faced by the auto industry. These interactive stations help visitors learn in a fun way, and I saw during my visit that children seem to really like it.
As I already mentioned, the Audi, Lamborghini, Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Volkswagen and Bugatti brands each has its own theme pavilion, the most spectacular of which is that of the Bugatti, where you’ll find an all-chrome Veyron displayed in a case-like compound. Like the intertwined rings that symbolize the brand, the Audi pavilion is circular, and in a nod to its roots on the Iberian Peninsula, the Spanish brand Seat’s pavilion is built partly on land and extends over a large pond.
The star of the show remains those two gigantic towers that dominate the countryside and store 400 cars per tower. These are cars that will be handed over to the customers who come to pick them up. It’s fascinating to see the automated elevators go get the cars to bring them down to the basement where they are then directed to the delivery centre. It’s here in this building that people come to take possession of the car that they’ve ordered. The choreography of the machines is almost balletic, as a giant freight elevator takes a car to be lowered to the tunnel level that leads to the distribution centre. Another identical elevator helps place the new cars in the available spaces. Every day more than 600 cars are delivered like this to German, Austrian and Dutch customers. In fact, since the centre opened, VW has delivered more than 1.3 million new cars to people who come to Wolfsburg and leave again behind the wheel of their VW, since this centre deals only with VW products and none of the conglomerate’s other products. Audi, by the way, has its own delivery centre in Neckarsulm, in the Munich suburbs.
Piech’s idea was considered crazy at the very beginning, and although he managed to convince the prestigious Ritz-Carlton hotel chain to open its first German hotel in Wolfsburg before opening the one in Berlin, few people gave this project much chance of success. They called it AutoPiech or Piechstad and it was widely believed all over Europe that this would be a miserable failure both for Piech and for Volkswagen as a whole.
But as almost always, this visionary was right. Despite its dreary autumn temperature and how far Wolfsburg was from other major centres with the exception of Hamburg, the project succeeded beyond all expectations. In fact, although this huge project cost more than 600 million dollars to build, three-quarters of the investment has already been recovered, which is impressive just the same when you consider that the project was aiming to show off a brand and multiple products. Usually, this type of marketing doesn’t pan out. According to Volkswagen’s administration, the initial investment will be recouped in the next five years.
Basically, more than 1.5 million people per year visit this place, which includes an off-road track, a train station and numerous restaurants in the vicinity, not to mention the Ritz-Carlton hotel.
This city used to have only a sad, but gigantic factory, and now it has become one of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions. And they still say that Dr. Piech is off his rocker. He, like all visionaries, is rather poorly regarded by many. Naturally, his stubbornness and unwavering opinions don’t necessarily make him popular, but most of the time, he’s right. However, there is one notable exception... He manoeuvred for Porsche to become the majority shareholder in Volkswagen over the summer of 2009, and things went sour. Porsche was lacking monetary assets and had to join the Volkswagen Group. Now, rather than being a simple associate of Volkswagen, Porsche is a full member of the group. So now the next time I visit, there’s sure to be a Porsche pavilion...
But since it was Dr Ferdinand Porsche who designed the famous Beetle before founding his company, it’s quite a logical outcome just the same.