For Volkswagen Group fans, the annual meeting near the Austrian lake of Woerthersee is like a monument. Thirty-four years ago, Golf GTI fans gathered for the first time in the beautiful countryside of this central European country the size of South Carolina. Seemingly, the only thing that's changed through the years is the expansion from a local meeting to a world-famous event of astonishing size. Every year, one of the most peaceful parts of the world, the lake shore between the small towns of Reifnitz, Maria Worth, and Velden, is flooded by more than 200,000 power and speed-hungry petrolheads from just about every European country; some even travel from as far as the USA and Japan. Insiders know the best part of the show takes place days before the official start and many keep partying long after it officially ends. This year, many were forced to extend their Golf-themed holiday because of unexpected weather. The event may take place in May, but it's still high-in-the-Alps-May. No one, including the Austrians, expected heavy blizzards to cover the valley with a thick layer of snow. Out of the 200,000 people present, maybe 200 were prepared for the conditions, and certainly none of the summer-tired, high-power and low-ground-clearance cars. The European Car crew was fortunate to leave the event early, soon after our departure the highway was deemed impassable and closed, leaving thousands of people cut off from the world.
Taking part in W'see isn't easy, but this year attendees faced even bigger challenges. Despite the economic benefit and exposure for the region, local authorities aren't too appreciative of the event. The regular participants have gotten used to the thorough examinations by local Polizei going over details of tuned cars to find parts that don't meet Austrian homologation (remember to carry a reflective safety vest in the car and don't record your adventures if you don't want to pay a heavy fine...). This year, the participants were surprised to see Jersey Barriers blocking the places along the road where they usually lined up cars and speed bumps on the most popular trails. The concern for safety is understandable, but you could sense the disappointment amongst the participants; some argued that other big gatherings that take place here, like trucks or motorcycles, don't face such challenges.
Needless to say, it wasn't enough to hamper the spirit of Woerthersee. The 200,000+ fans still wanted to have fun. If they weren't allowed in one place, they disturbed another. The party spilled over to cities like Velden, which wasn't on the participants' radar until now. The local residents were shocked when tens of thousands of cars filled the streets, spending the nights doing burnouts, revving engines, and doing all the things that get shows closed down. It didn't take long to get the attention of the local media and eventually access to Velden was restricted to residents and tourists in stock cars.
Not all of the changes were as dramatic but still had a significant impact on the whole event. If you came back to Woerthersee after several years, you were surprised to see the popular Shell station, serving as a default meet-up spot, isn't called Shell anymore. At the newly-christened Eni Mischkulnig tankstelle, the business still runs as usual; dozens of stanced cars filled the station's parking lot, while others waited in the queue for the carwash. Washing your car here is just another tradition that has grown over the years; like getting a photo with the stone Golf statue in the center of Woerthersee.
Some of the other novelties divide opinions; including the increasing number of visitors in cars outside of the Volkswagen family. Not having such a legendary gathering in their circles, each year more BMWs, Volvos, Fiats, Benzes, or even JDMs turn up, altering what Woerthersee stands for. As the show has evolved from the meeting held strictly for Golf GTI owners and is still officially called 'GTI treffen', not all of the VAG-owning veterans are fond of the way things have changed. It's worth noting that every year, the line-up becomes more varied even within the Volkswagen kingdom. While many brought a variety of VWs, spanning small Lupos and big Amarok pickups, Audis, Seats, Porsches, even some Lamborghinis, VW-based Czech Skodas that are particularly popular in this part of the planet, others gave their best shot at surprising the crowds with the presence of seemingly un-tunable VW T5 Multivans or vintage Skodas coming from the times long before they had anything to do with their present German parent.
What makes this feat even more special is some of these projects were built just for this one week. For example, one very determined lad brought his attention-grabbing MK3 Golf from Italy; he was forced to tow it as the stanced VW is virtually undriveable thanks to the insane wheel design reaching far outside the tires. The rim design is his own and he claims that it cost $5,000 to build just one. With brakes coming from Maserati in the front and Porsche in the rear and seats from a Mercedes, it was surely one of the craziest projects this year, a classic example of Woerthersee at its best, or maybe worst.
The continuous arms race of cars gets universal acclaim. Woerthersee has been known for some world-class creations, but with every year it just keeps getting more insane. A VAG gathering may be worlds apart from a supercar meeting, but the cars here aren't necessarily cheaper than precious Italian exotica. Look at the Audis; the low sloping silhouettes of TTs and R8s are an increasingly popular sight among the Golfs' hatches. If you only looked at this event, you'd swear Audi survives by selling mostly new RS6 Avants. The outrageous 560hp wagon may only be in its fourth year on the market, but it's already one of the Woerthersee classics. Out of all the stanced and widened projects, it was the work of Gepffefert that stole the show. This German tuning house readies something special each year, and this time it covered the new RS6 in a bare-carbon body. Looking at the quality that isn't short of what you see on multimillion-dollar Paganis, it surely didn't come at a bargain price; we didn't get the exact amount, but to give you an idea, a similar treatment on a MK7 Golf cost Gepffefert around $57,000.
If you bring your tricked-out Golf or Audi A3, be ready for fierce competition from fellow enthusiasts... and the carmakers themselves. For years now, Volkswagen and its derivatives have been official partners of the show and turn the Reifnitz town into a mini auto show. It's fun to see the usually conservative brands lie back a bit and get carried away with the Woerthersee magic. This year, the big news from Volkswagen was the coronation of the Golf as the fastest FWD car on the Nürburgring. The Golf GTI Clubsport S took the main stage, proudly sporting its 7:49.21 lap time (that's faster than a Lamborghini Murcielago or BMW M3 CSL, by the way). According to a relatively new tradition, the VAG brands also brought some crazy creations built by young trainees working at their factories. Audi was a bit more conservative with the one-off 525hp A3 Clubsport sedan and the 600hp TT Clubsport concepts casually mixed in on the streets and car parks.
Speaking of meeting spots, there's one more change. There's a great new place to meet in the area called Piramidenkogel, complete with an impressive modern observation tower on top of one of the nearby hills. It looks just as picturesque as the view from the top, from where you can have a look at the surrounding landshaft and the car parks at the bottom. The latter serve as gathering points for smaller groups like Golf Rallye owners or national meets.
The bulk of the show was still business as usual: the Woerthersee valley brimming with vintage Audi Quattros and VW Sciroccos, Avants of all types, not to mention Volkswagens at their most Volkswagen-y: Beetles, Passats, Golfs, and Jettas of all generations. If any of the cars were left stock, they had to be as special as the Golf Harlequin. Only 264 of these quirky multicolored North America-only MK3 Golfs were made, and the one that was here this year made its way to Central Europe from Pennsylvania.
Slamming your car on big wheels and extending the wheel arches is still what thousands of W'see attendees do to be as unique as everyone else. Swapping wheels or brakes from Bentleys and Lambos to Golfs doesn't shock as much as it used to, and the sticker-bomb fad has thankfully faded away for good. Instead, the neo-rat rod trend is starting to make it to the mainstream. The motorsports-inspired performance trend is silently gaining momentum. With all the changes going around, this year's GTI-Treffen was as good as ever, and we can't wait for its next edition. With any luck, the bad behavior won't get it shut down completely.