Some museums for those driven by love of cars

Destination Germany

October 15, 2006|By Dan Neil | Dan Neil,Los Angeles Times.

STUTTGART, Germany --In a town where the car is God, there's a new cathedral. Silvery and enigmatic, the Mercedes-Benz museum sits just off the B14 highway as it dips into a gentle fold of the Neckar Valley.

Designed by Dutch architects Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, the 15-story building looks like a loosely interleaved stack of postmodern pancakes, its bands of aluminum and glass rising in an undisciplined kinetic wobble above a granite pavilion. Mercedes-Benz has long had its stamp on Stuttgart's sky - a three-pointed star rotates above the Hauptbahnhof, or train station - but now, with the $50-million edifice planted on the outskirts of the city as a kind of ceremonial gateway, the company's dominion seems more ecclesiastical than corporate.

And why not? Germany's automakers are locked in fierce competition - reminiscent of medieval city-states' cathedral wars - to see which can build the grandest temple. For travelers tired of schlepping from one Our Lady of Whatever to another, the German automakers' building spree offers a rich new itinerary - showrooms, museums and tours - that traces the technological triumphs of the Automotive Age, the passion for motor sports, the renaissance of postwar Germany and the cost-is-no-object ambitions of brand-name architects.

And so, a car-buff's dream.

Mercedes-Benz: Start

The place to start is the Mercedes-Benz museum, built on hallowed ground. Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach - founders of the Daimler company and fairly called the inventors of the automobile - sorted out their first chuffing engines only yards from here in the early 1880s; nearby is Mercedes-Benz' heroic-scaled Unterturkheim assembly plants and the Gottlieb Daimler Stadium.

It's here that Mercedes-Benz has chosen to house its 120 years of history - the trembling, motorized surreys of the early days, the grosser sedans of the Nazis' Third Reich, and the Silver Arrows, the company's indomitable competition cars from the middle 20th century.

"As a museum structure, it's fascinating," says Dennis Adler, an automotive historian and author of four books about Mercedes-Benz.

"It's beautifully built, imposing from the outside and impressive from the inside. As a statement of technology, it reminds me of the SLR McLaren" - Mercedes' 200-mph, $450,000 super sports car, Adler says. "They're both 21st-century Mercedes."

Inside, there are nine levels warped around a towering open atrium, providing space to display 160 cars and other vehicles. In this building that knows no right angles, the word "level" is merely a convenient misnomer.

Designed as a double helix, the interior curves and loops and pours through open spaces in a way that defies quaint architectural distinctions such as floors. Visitors take a futuristic elevator capsule to the top and descend on parquet ramps, a la the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

"I don't know if it's good for architecture," says Paul Tesar, professor of architecture at North Carolina State University and a one-time Stuttgart resident. "But it seems to be good for business."

VW: `Car City'

Other carmakers have their showplace factories and museums. Volkswagen has its own city. About two hours west of Berlin on the A2, in Wolfsburg, the Autostadt (literally, Car City) is a sprawling automotive theme park.

Built in the style of an off-world colony, the complex is a mad cavort of futuristic buildings, some with roofs strung from canted pylons, some with exterior walls undulating like sea snakes and all of it jigsaw-fitted into a park landscape with a large connecting lake. Designed by Gunter Henn, the Autostadt offers visitors - the lucky ones stay at the Ritz-Carlton on campus - a full day of auto-centric adventure.

For kids, there's the LernPark, a low-speed course where they can practice the fundamentals of driving in electric cars. (Germans take driving skills very seriously.)

There's also the ZeitHaus museum of mobility; the AutoLab, an exhibit about the technology of car building; and the "virtual" Car Design Studio, which explains how cars are drafted and styled. In all, a car-geek's wonderland.

But the Autostadt's primary mission is what's called car "collection," where buyers take possession of their new VWs. Nearly half of European buyers make the trip to Autostadt to receive the keys to their new car in a bonding moment of great ceremony.

Not surprisingly, this process has an architectural component. New cars are stored in two 20-story cylindrical glass towers, each with a robotic car lift in the center. At the appropriate moment, the robotic arm plucks the car from one of the honeycomb-like cells and brings it to the ground floor to meet its new owner.

Interested? Unfortunately, VW's European delivery program for U.S. buyers folded in the 1980s.

BMW: Production

BMW's facility in Leipzig, southeast of Wolfsburg, is a theater of technology.

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