We had to reassess our idea of what a VW show experience should be like after visiting what is possibly the greatest VAG gathering in the world.
Officially known as GTI-Treffen, the show is a pilgrimage every VW fan should make at least once in their lifetime. Just being near the beautiful Wörthersee Lake and absorbing some of the sweetest cars in Europe makes the journey worthwhile.
The annual meeting is located in the southern part of Austria and it will blow you away. At first, you're overwhelmed by the sheer size of the festival. The official area is located in the small town of Reifnitz, but can only hold a small percentage of the thousands of attending cars and visitors. Everything from classic VW Sciroccos to an Audi RS4 Avant with a trailer made from another RS4 attempted to blend with local traffic.
Between the last days of April and second weekend of May, around 200,000 people pass through these streets. Official world premieres from VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda are some of the main events that take place every year.
Drift shows, never-ending beer, and loud parties are held throughout the night, even an improvised go-go club with strip shows is held in a tent. How all of this is possible in one of the quietest parts of Austria still remains a mystery.
The GTI-Treffen is not only huge, but one of the oldest of its kind. After the first edition started back in 1982, two things were made clear: that this event was bound to be an international hit, and that the VW GTI begs to be modified. Throughout the subsequent three decades, the meeting has grown to an enormous festival celebrating all the VW Group brands.
But even after the organization was taken over by Wolfsburg, the event hasn't lost its insanity. Thousands of head-turning projects flood local city centers, roads, private gardens and mall car parks. It's common to bring a chair and simply sit by the road, doing nothing more than enjoying the view and passing judgment on passing cars. In fact, large groups of people spend hours that way, with little regard for what Mother Nature throws at them.
The air is filled with a mix of techno music and the sweet metal melodies of Rammstein - not to mention the wafting scent of German sausage and mustard.
Any visit to Wörthersee isn't complete without paying respects to the VW Golf granite sculpture, and the mythical Eni gas station (formerly Shell). Whenever you come here, you can be sure to see the best projects waiting to top off or get washed there.
The most exciting thing about the Wörthersee party is not knowing what's around the corner. There's no timetable or event schedule, so it's good to have well informed friends strolling the show in various locations to relay back to you about their discoveries.
What's more, many people manage to arrive and even leave even before the official three-day event starts. It may have something to do with the local Polizei, who arrive in vast numbers and seem comprised of non-VAG fans. Patrolling literally every road crossing, they watch for non-approved modifications and pull over anybody for even revving their engine.
Fortunately, the visitors don't allow it to spoil the mood. The atmosphere is generally laid back but, when it comes to presenting their cars, the owners get serious.
When we arrived in an Audi Q5 many seemed to frown, but we had more luck than one Hyundai driver who accidentally went straight into the heart of the event. He could only leave after a solid dose of mocking and roof punching - not the crowd's finest moment, but funny all the same.
Just like the people, the cars here are diverse. There's no single trend that dominates, especially since most owners are more focused on having a good time than put on a show. Minimal ground clearance and neatly tucked rims are the basic requirements.
There's no universal rating for the cars here: there are both world-class projects and designs you regret seeing. This is the place for a rat-style VW Caddy or Dub-style Audi A7, Beetles with vintage suitcases and skis on roof racks, or even chromed engine bays.
The cars you really come to see are the Golfs and GTIs - since the meeting started as a GTI event. So it's no surprise they still make up the majority of the cars. Wörthersee is the place to see all kinds of the world's first hot hatch: from the increasingly rare examples of "small tail light" first generation Mk1s with Pirelli P Slot wheels, through to Rallyes and the newest R, yet all are upgraded with top quality components.
The Wörthersee meeting is also a rare moments when carmakers can let their hair down. Creations from Seat and Skoda surprised everybody but Volkswagen and Audi were on another level.
When it comes to the looks, the Golf Vision GTI stole the show. The concept blended original design DNA with the spirit of a supercar. There was also a new variation on the Audi TT, called Ultra after the recently introduced slimming regime for Ingolstadt's cars. Tipping the scales at a scant 2449 lb with 306hp, a rollcage and carbon fiber elements, it had the right formula for a "baby GT3".
It was also the Four Rings that brought the most impressive collection of cars to the exhibition. Visitors could see, climb into and sometimes even hear an RSQ3, RS5 Cabrio, RS6 Avant, RS7 and the latest R8 V10. Even some of the companies world famous racing stars made an appearance. Even some DTM and Le Mans Series drivers turned out to meet the crowd.
GTI-Treffen event offers so much to see and experience that it's no surprise many people come for at least a week, but can spend a half a month. Even if VW/Audi isn't the main thing in your life, it's still a great place to be if only to absorb the passion for modified machines with crazy paint, amazing wheels and soul-stirring engines.