Saturday, April 13, 2013

10 German cars

I have a weakness for cars, let that be said. While I know they are bad for the environment, dangerous for the 'soft traffic' and just generally the plaything of the devil I can't help being fascinated by them. Partly it's the fact that I like driving, but it's also the sheer techno-sociology of it. Here we have the biggest, most visible triumph of the industrial age, an industry where huge economies of scale allow enormous technological efforts to be expended building machines that change the world. Their ubiquity, their energy consumption, their transforming effect on society make them important in interesting ways. But to a technology geek, cars are also fascinating because they showcase the boundaries of technological progress. Magazines love to herald the invention of wondrous new technologies and techniques, but the car industry is where the rubber, quite literally, hits the road. This is where the fanciful is separated from the doable, this is where theoretical flights of fancy are forced to become practical, cheap, reliable, everyday.

The business-oriented celebrity gossip magazine Børsen ("The Bourse") and its online version, borsen.dk ("son of Bor") has an article on their pick for the Top 10 German cars of all time (in Danish). It's the usual cars that get paraded on such occasions, as always accompanied by that tired epithet, "classic". We get the much admired, but little driven Gullwing Mercedes, the obvious VW Beetle, the capricious 911, the laughable Trabant, the adolescent Golf GTI etc. etc.

I thought the list rather predictable, so here's my own attempt at a "Top 10 German Cars".

VW Golf II



This is the counterpart to the Trabant. Back in 1989 when the Wall fell these two cars symbolised the difference in economic development between the two Germanies. On the one hand the rattling, narrow little Trabant with its two-stroke engine smelling and sounding like an oversized scooter. On the other hand the smooth lines of the Golf II, wide and squat, like a toad, sitting on its fly-fattened haunches. No wonder the GDR didn't survive even a year without the Wall.

VW Karmann Ghia



While it is true that it just looks like a stretched version of the VW Beetle perhaps that is part of its attraction. It's how the Beetle might have been in an alternative universe where we are all well-off DINKs, the sun always shines, the petrol is always cheap etc. A sort of adult Noddy world with a dash of German engineering. We don't live in that world of course, so the Karmann is relatively rare.

VW Bus



Perhaps this isn't strictly a car, but it's significant enough that I am going to cheat and include it anyway. The people carrier of the counter culture, it's no coincidence that this is the preferred vehicle of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Here was a 'car' with which you could burst the boundaries of the shrunken post-war nuclear family. It accomodated you, your friends, your friend's girlfriend (or perhaps even friends' girlfriend) and some guy who was hitching across Europe for no very good reason. This was the car for whatever project seemed likely to expand your horizons. It wasn't exactly engineering perfection. Having the engine in the back meant there was no flat loading area, the engine was inadequately cooled and always had to be replaced after only 100 thousand miles and the heating in the front was always a problem. On the other hand, having a decent suspension and the engine weight over the driving wheels meant it was usable on the poor roads of Africa.

Audi 100



This is a very boring looking car. In fact that's the point as it was sold on its aerodynamics, with the drag coefficient of only 0.30 being very impressive at the time. While Saab were always boasting that they learned how to build aerodynamic cars from their jet plane department Audi were busy chipping away at those annoying little things like the edges of windows which catch the wind and worsen the fuel consumption. The result, reduced to a single, geek-friendly number and combined with an overdrive gear suited a society trying to come to terms with relatively expensive oil. It is actually also a remarkably timeless design. I'm sorry I called it boring. Compare it to the Ford Cortina Mk. V, a design that was only 3 years old at the time. (In the US the car is mainly remembered for the fact that its drivers had a sad habit of accidentally driving off while they were supposed to be waiting for the lights to turn green.)

BMW Isetta



After the war these cute little bubble cars with the door in the front rather than the sides were the baby steps of the demilitarised BMW. Based on an Italian design, but technically revamped by BMW they represent the humble beginnings of the Wirtschaftswunder. Together with the somewhat more conventional Goggomobil they are a reminder of how simple a car can be. A little too simple, perhaps, considering the total lack of anything that could act as a crumple zone. Oh, and they were a 3 litre car before VW built the...

Lupo 3L



Here's the car that had all the clever tricks to save fuel before the latest wave of cars that hit the market in the last 4 years. It has reduced weight, stops the engine at red lights etc. etc. Preeeeety clever. And it goes 100km on 3l of diesel (that's only 5.6 fluid ounces per league for you non-metric or imperial types).

Audi Quattro


The Audi Quattro (or Ur-Quattro) was a pioneer, bringing permanent four-wheel drive to the mainstream. It had a string of rally-wins to bolster its technical credibility, but the interesting thing about it was that it was also usable on normal roads. When the Quattro was launched in 1980, most people asked to think of a four wheel drive car would probably think of a Land Rover. This was a 'car' with no centre differential, which meant that if you engaged four wheel drive on a normal road you would damage the transmission. In contrast, the Quattro technology (which was soon available in all Audi's cars) 'just worked' and let you drive from snow to mud to dry roads without having to worry. And unlike the lumberjack-wannabe 4x4 craze that blighted the 90s and the zeroes the Quattro was without the high centre of gravity that is so dangerous in an accident.

BMW M1

I don't think most people know that BMW built a 260km/h Italian-designed mid-engined supersportscar in the 1970s. Certainly I was surprised when I was overtaken by an M1 on the autobahn.

Bugatti Veyron

How could the 1000 horse-power 400km/h Veyron be missing from a list of German cars? The name is Italian, it's built in France, and the high speed tyres are also French, but the design of the monstrous W16 engine is German engineering and it took the special genius lunacy of Ferdinand Piëch to make it happen.

VW 1L

In 2002 VW showed a concept car that ran 100km on a litre of fuel (282mpg in the UK, 235mpg in the US). It had a one-cylinder diesel engine and a host of clever tricks, but no hybrid drive - battery technology was not good enough at the time. Amazing looking concept cars are common and ultimately boring, but it now looks like a hybrid version will go into production. It's grown a bit, has a two-cylinder engine and a battery and it goes 10% further on a litre of diesel. The German car companies have been a little slow to embrace hybrid technology, partly because their turbodiesels were so efficient that hybrid didn't offer such a big advantage. But this looks like some great technology that will hopefully hit the mainstream soon.

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