Germany's love affair with the car

Germany's best cult cars

Trabant 601 (1964)

The Trabant was to the East what the VW Beetle was to the West - a vehicle for the masses. It was cheap to produce, with an outer body made of hard plastic. The car's moment in the spotlight came with the fall of the Berlin wall, as citizens of the DDR spilled over the newly open East-West border in their "Trabis." There are still some 33,000 Trabants roaming the streets of Germany today.

Germany's best cult cars

VW Beetle (1938)

There's no stopping this faithful old model. With more than 21 million units having rolled off the production line, the VW Beetle is the most famous car in the world. From 1938 to 2003, its design never strayed far from the original - think "Herbie," or his German movie counterpart "Dudu."

Germany's best cult cars

VW T1 (1950)

The colorful VW Campervan, know as a "Bulli" in Germany, became a symbol of the hippie movement. Volkswagen wasn't initially too pleased about this, but it didn't do their sales any harm. More than 10 million VW buses have been sold since the model's introduction, of which 1.8 million were T1 models. They've also had an impressive film career - although mostly in supporting roles.

Germany's best cult cars

Messerschmitt Cabin Scooter (1953)

With three wheels and an aerodynamic body, it should come as no surprise that Messerschmitt was originally an aircraft manufacturer. After the Second World War, with production at a stand-still, the company agreed to work with engineer Fritz Fend on his "Flitzer" car model. It was a short-lived partnership - in 1956 Messerschmitt went back to aircraft production.

Germany's best cult cars

Mercedes 300 SL (1954)

This car was nicknamed the "Gullwing," thanks to its wing-like doors. The 300 SL Silver Arrows racing car earned Mercedes-Benz a surprise comeback on the motorsport scene. After wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Carrera Panamericana racing events, a street version went into production.

Germany's best cult cars

BMW Isetta (1955)

It may not be speedy, but the BMW Isetta was still a financial success story for BMW between 1955 and 1962. Cheap and practical, this microvehicle with a motorcycle engine was known as a "bubble car." It opened at the front, just like a fridge.

Germany's best cult cars

Goggomobil (1955)

Another microcar with cult status is the Hans Glas "Goggo," named after the owner's grandson. Unlike other mini vehicles that had come before it, the Goggo could hold up to four people - although, given the car's 1.6-meter length, it was a bit of a squeeze. One of the car's key selling points was that it was so compact you only needed a motorcycle license to drive it.

Germany's best cult cars

Porsche 911 (1963)

With more than half a century of production behind it, the 911 is among the longest existing models in automobile history. In all its reincarnations, the trademark Porsche model has retained its most memorable features. With its striking headlights and its steep-sloped rear, the 911 is instantly recognizable.

Germany's best cult cars

Mercedes-Benz 600 (1964)

An in-car telephone, air conditioning and a freezer compartment were just some features of the German luxury sedan of the 60s and 70s. It attracted an endless list of celebrity owners, from the Pope to John Lennon. It was a little too pricey for the German government's liking, but they did rent one for special occasions, such as the 1965 state visit of Queen Elizabeth II.

Germany's best cult cars

Opel Kadett B (1965)

According to a song by German punk band WIZO: "Whether limousine, estate or coupé - the coolest car is a Kadett B." It seems 2.7 million customers agreed, making this one of Opel's most successful models. In the early 70s, Opel used the advertising slogan "Das Auto" for the Kadett B - long before their rivals at Volkswagen recycled the phrase.

Germany's best cult cars

Wartburg 353 (1966)

The Wartburg, which takes its name from a castle in the car's home town of Eisenach, was largely produced for the export market. The cheap vehicles found some success in countries such as Hungary and Great Britain. Back in West Germany, however, demand was low - owning an East German car would have been quite the political statement.

Germany's best cult cars

NSU Ro 80 (1967)

When NSU presented the Ro 80, rival manufacturers were watching closely. The car's twin-rotor Wankel engine, which was named after its inventor Felix Wankel, earned it the title "Car of the Year 1967." Unfortunately the technology wasn't quite ready, and NSU began replacing the motors as a precautionary measure. This unsettled potential customers and the car ultimately flopped.

Germany's best cult cars

Mercedes Benz /8 "Stroke Eight" (1968)

The conservative W 114/115 series sedan was hardly the fastest Mercedes around, with a top speed of 130 km/h. That makes it perhaps all the more impressive that it was not uncommon to find a Stroke Eight with several million kilometers on the clock. The quality of the car earned Mercedes 1.9 million satisfied customers - and the Stroke Eight became a collector's item.

Germany's best cult cars

Opel GT (1968)

"Only flying is better," is how Opel advertised its answer to the American "muscle cars." Sweeping curves, supposedly reminiscent of a Coca-Cola bottle, and pop-up headlights completed the car's unique look. An affordable price tag meant the car also attracted attention in the United States.

Germany's best cult cars

VW Type 181 (1969)

Initially produced for the German army, VW marketed the Type 181 as a multipurpose leisure car for young people. It offered little in the way of comfort, but a retractable roof transformed this austere jeep into a convertible. The Type 181 was warmly received in the US, where it was known simply as "The Thing."

Germany's best cult cars

Opel Manta (1970)

What Opel intended as a middle-class sporty model quickly became a must-have item for young men. Cue countless jokes about Manta drivers and their modest IQs. Film producer Bernd Eichinger paid tribute to the car in his 1991 comedy "Manta Manta," which co-starred a young Til Schweiger.

Germany's best cult cars

VW Golf (1974)

In 1974, VW brought its first Golf model to market, billing it as the successor to the beloved Beetle. For a subcompact car, the Golf was surprisingly sporty and efficient - a big advantage following the 70s oil crisis. The car's success took even VW by surprise, and the convertible model, nicknamed the "Strawberry Basket," became a sought-after cult car.

Germany's best cult cars

Audi quattro (1980)

"Quattro," Italian for four, refers to the car's four-wheel drive element. This unique coupé caused quite a stir upon its release. Four years later, Audi brought out the high-performance Quattro Sport (pictured). Only 220 units were produced, making it a real collector's item. More than 11,000 units of the original version, known as the "Urquattro," were made.

From Nazi project to public status symbol, and from East to West - a new museum exhibition highlights the automobile's place in German society. Here's a look back at the cars that have become cult over the years.

The car has long played an important role in Germany. A new exhibition at the Haus der Geschichte museum in Bonn, entitled "Loved. Used. Hated. The Germans and their cars," explores the social and cultural meaning of the automobile in post-war Germany.

The people's car

In the 30s, the Nazis launched a savings scheme with the slogan: "Save five marks a week, if you want to drive your own car!" While many diligently set their sights on one of Hitler's supposedly affordable "people's cars," designed by automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche, the project was financially unsound and not a single saver ever received such a vehicle.

The onset of the Second World War shifted production from civilian to military vehicles. So it wasn't until December 1945 that the Volkswagen factory, under British control, began mass production of Porsche's car - which by then had a new name: the Beetle.

The millionth Beetle was presented at the VW plant in Wolfsburg on August 5, 1955

In the decade that followed, one million of the curvy vehicles rolled off the production line. The motorization of Germany became a reality, and the VW Beetle was seen as a symbol of the so-called "economic miracle" - the speedy reconstruction of Germany's economy in the post-war era.

It's not who you are, it's what you drive

From the mid-50s, Germans had more money to spend on consumer goods, because employment was high and mass production pushed prices down. People who weren't yet able to drive a car would make do with a motorcycle or a low-powered scooter.

Owning a car meant freedom and the chance to travel, initially within Germany, but later beyond the Alps to Italy - a popular destination. The variety of cars available, with their different fixtures and fittings, offered drivers the chance to express themselves as an individual. Some people even formed clubs with like-minded car enthusiasts.

The initial target group was clear: men only

A car was of course an indicator of social status, and so was the person driving it. For a long time, cars remained boys' toys, advertised with the help of beautiful models draped over the hoods. It wasn't until 1958 that women were allowed to sit their driving test without the permission of their father or husband.

Car-fever also hit East Germany from the 50s onwards. It was the car plants in Eisenach and Zwickau that produced the famous Wartburg and Trabant models. But East Germans who coveted their own car would have to be patient - a lack of production capacity meant that 10-year delivery times were not uncommon.

Even imported cars were hard to come by, and the only options came from the country's socialist friends - such as the Czech Skoda or the Russian Lada. Cars from West Germany only made their way east after 1970.

The road to unification

The car was also a symbol of German separation. Much creativity went into turning ordinary cars into escape vehicles. For example, the heating system and battery were removed from the BMW Isetta in order to make space for a stowaway. On 9 November 1989, East Germans streamed across the newly open east-west border in their distinctive "Trabis" and Wartburgs.

An East German Melkus RS 1000 sports car on display at the Haus der Geschichte

In the West, the 1973 oil crisis, as well as reports of tens of thousands of people being killed on Germany's roads each year, led to greater criticism of cars.

When speed limits were suggested, the ADAC car association protested with the slogan: "Free citizens demand freedom on the roads." In the end, the government was only able to set a speed limit of 100 km/h on main roads, and a non-binding limit of 130 km/h on the highway.

The attempted introduction of compulsory seatbelts in the mid-70s was seen as an assault on individual freedom. Nobody really wanted to think about the dangers implicit in their beloved mode of transport. After a gentle push by various ad campaigns, and a less gentle push from the introduction of a financial penalty in 1986, Germans eventually got used to the idea of buckling up.

The end of the car as we know it?

In the 80s, forest decline in Germany brought the topic of vehicle pollution to the fore. In 1983, Green MPs swapped their staff cars for bicycles, in the hopes of promoting more environmentally friendly transport. Most recently, the environmental debate was stoked by the VW emissions scandal, which hit in 2015.

There have of course been some steps taken towards greener transport. In recent years, Germans have shown a marked enthusiasm for car-sharing services. German car-makers have been investing in the development of electric or hybrid cars, and the government has encouraged the adoption of this cleaner technology.

The industry will inevitably have to adapt to survive, but it doesn't seem likely the Germans will be ready to break off their love affair with the car any time soon.

"Loved. Used. Hated. The Germans and their cars" is showing at the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn, German, from March 10, 2017 until January 21, 2018.