As you must know by now, Wörthersee Treffen is the biggest, loudest, and craziest VW Group gathering known to humanity. Every year, no less than 200,000 Volkswagen fanatics flock around the lake of Wörthersee in the south of Austria (a country boasting just 8.75 million inhabitants) and turn this tranquil landscape, picturesquely located at the Alps' footsteps, into a seemingly never-ending festival of tuning, show cars, and horsepower, best enjoyed if accompanied by vast amounts of beer and rather unsophisticated German techno music.
The GTI-Treffen (i.e. a meeting in German) has come a long way since its first edition in 1982. It started off as a casual meeting for a hundred or so Golf GTI fans in a small town of Reifnitz at Wörthersee's shores. It quickly evolved into the huge and barely containable madness it is today. Only a few years after its inception, the gathering drew attention of the local authorities, which—opposite of what we normally see—started to support the idea, giving it more space and conditions to grow even further. Before long, the annual meeting started to attract celebrities like Niki Lauda and the VW Group honcho Ferdinand Piech. Soon, the Treffen became one of the greatest Volkswagen events in the world, for which the German giant thanked Wörthersee by extensively supporting the event. To cement the relationship between the Austrian land and the legendary Golf GTI, in 1987, Reifnitz was adorned with a 55,000-pound granite sculpture presenting the car in 1:1 scale, which keeps the festive spirit in the town all year long to this day.
Over the last three and a half decades, the relationship between VW fans and the locals has had its rough patches. At the beginning of the 1990s, Wörthersee witnessed its first incidents, which were inevitable with an adrenaline-seeking crowd on a beer diet. These incidents eventually made the show administration and Volkswagen pull the plug, but even this didn't stop the fans from bringing thousands of modified cars to the shores of the Austrian lake. The event returned as an official Volkswagen-backed show in 1996, but despite the organizers' best efforts to curb the crowd's enthusiasm, which included putting Jersey barriers and speed bumps on the most visited spots, or even changing the event's name (currently held as Wörthersee Treffen instead of the original GTI-Treffen in a move to open it up for all kinds of automotive genres), it is still what it has always been. And that is, a fascinating (and a bit wild at times) mix of the atmosphere of laid-back vacations, spring break partying with an authentic, palpable love for all things with a VW badge on them.
The event itself has grown to such a huge size that it would be wrong to look at it solely from one perspective. In reality, through the best part of each May, Wörthersee sees a set of different events happening all at the same time. The first one is the official Treffen, held each year for four days and finishing on the Saturday that is known as Christi Himmelfahrt (the Ascension Day that ends a 40-day period following Easter, still an important holiday in the German culture). These four days can be regarded as the peak of the Wörthersee celebrations, with the biggest audience gathered for all of the concerts, events, and worldwide car premieres organized with the generous help of the Volkswagen Group. While in recent years, the Germans have seized a chance of promoting their offerings from all corners of the VW empire and brought race cars and wacky concept cars alike from Audi, Seat, or even Skoda, this year the visitors were greeted with a refreshing comeback to Treffen's roots; it was the GTI badge that was in the limelight again. Following the tradition that marked its 10th anniversary this year, a group of young VW apprentices from Brunswick and Wolfsburg facilities once again shared their own visions of modified Golfs. Even if blessed by the VW's bigwigs, a 404hp Golf GTI and a stanced Golf GTE SportWagen seemed to be just as nasty as the rest of the cars around. The pair boasted the obligatory aftermarket wheels, powerful audio systems, and striking paint schemes, although their hybrid powertrains suggested that the TDI letters are currently demode in Wolfsburg's corridors.
This year, though, it wasn't the Golfs that stole the show, but a lovely VW Up! GTI. The long-awaited hot version of the Up! supermini is ready to take on the European market in early 2018, with its puny 2,200-pound body, propelled by a turbocharged 1.0L 115hp inline-three. Fans beware: With its back-to-basics equipment and featherweight body, this is the closest thing to the original Golf GTI that Volkswagen has made in decades. The pioneering hot-hatch was only 4 inches longer and its 1.6L naturally aspirated inline-four was only 5 hp less powerful, but thanks to a better power-to-weight ratio, the performance numbers of the two are said to be virtually identical. Europeans haven't been this excited about an $18,000 car in a long time.
What makes the Wörthersee gathering truly special is the fact that the official festivities can be regarded as just the tip of the iceberg of what happens in the area throughout the month. For many reasons, such as the huge crowds during the main days, or the Polizei who follow people everywhere, many choose to visit the venue weeks before the official opening date. In the Wörthersee realities, there's no better way of showing you're an insider than to come—and leave—well before the show has even started. That's what we did this year.
To make up for the lack of stages, concerts, and various other attractions, on May 13th, exactly two weeks prior to the GTI-Treffen, another event was held in the area. This original idea came from the XS team; a well-known name on the European tuning scene, the guys from the XS clique organize some of the best car gatherings on the continent and have now started to come stateside, too. As european car has covered many of the XS's "Carnights" in the past few years held all over Germany, we went to the Austrian city of Klagenfurt (not without coincidence located on the shores of Wörthersee, just a short drive from GTI-Treffen) with high hopes. No matter how strange it may sound to make an event within an event, Wörthersee's take on "Inception" turned out even better than anticipated. Five of Klagenfurt's expo halls brimmed with impressive projects from all over Europe. Although it was the VW products that dominated the event, this being an XS party, it proved to be so much more, bringing in impressively modified vintage Benzes, Bimmers, and other classics. Apart from that, no XS Carnight would have been complete without some supercars from the current automotive pantheon, including Maseratis, Ferraris, and AMGs. Even if a static show held within the cold concrete walls of an expo hall is very distant from what Wörthersee usually looks like, no one can deny the world-class leading quality of the projects that attended XS's party. Remarkably, it was the Benzes' star that shone the brightest. New AMGs proved to be a particularly good base for some traditional heavyweight German tuning. Even if a touch more vulgarity and exuberance are the last things the new E63 AMG or the 2011 C63 Black Series needs, apparently each goes with some stance-themed modifications just as well as their ancestors from the 1980s. Among all these projects, it was nice to spare a moment appreciating an early CLS. Hard to imagine that this still fresh and crisp design has been with us for the last 13 years; undoubtedly, it already makes the W219 a Mercedes classic in its own right.
But don't worry; if delving into Merc's history isn't what you came to Wörthersee for, then all the Volkswagens surely restored your faith. VW brands were still present in all shapes and sizes. Where else would you find a vintage Audi 100 parked next to a 2017 R8 V10 Plus that had driven all the way down from Poland? And don't even get me started on VWs themselves. Of course, there were Golfs, Jettas, and the Sciroccos, still popular among the German-speaking youth. But then, there was also the Wolfsburg elite, including the rare New Beetle RSi and the forgotten-everywhere-but-here, old-school Type 3. The love for VWs matures and becomes finer each year, as one can see from the increasing presence of air-cooled-era models like Beetles, Karmann Ghias, T1s, and T2s, or even the Brazilian-built VW Brasilia and the exotic SP2 sports car. You have to admire Germans who modify their classic VWs not solely for gatherings like this, but to really use them as cars, as can be seen on the streets of this part of Europe. VWs are a cultural thing here.
The evolution of tuning throughout the years was possibly best seen in the Porsche corner, where infamous fender-screwer-on-guy Akira Nakai-San had come all the way from Japan to give yet another two RAUH-Begriff 911s finishing touches and the owners' wallets the RS-treatment. Rocket bunny style is not something we could see at the 'see shores even a few years back, and it is just more proof of the rapid globalization process that permeates the tuning community. But apart from this one now cliche episode, Porsche owners were the ones to manifest an exceptionally conservative approach to tuning trends. Aside from a lone 944 or 914, it was all about the 911, and modifying a 911 seems to be a strictly 964 affair. What's more, based on what we saw, 964s are only allowed to get some classic BBS wheels and motorsport-inspired aero body bits, best finished off with a rollcage, obligatorily painted in a hue contrasting with the car's body.
After spending a day at the XS event, it may come as a shock to you that, outside its halls, life still goes on and there's much more to see. This is what we would call the third of Wörthersee's faces—the unofficial Treffen happening prior to the arrival of the Wolfsburg crew to deploy the corporate stands. Before they arrive, Wörthersee keeps a more laidback, even more family-friendly atmosphere, with people spontaneously organizing meetings, connecting fans who came here from the same country or who have the same car.
Another sign of the times is the increasing value of the cars the Wörthersee community is basing its projects on. The times when coming here with a B5 RS4 or a Golf equipped with Lamborghini brakes would be considered lavish are long gone; now it's time for actual Lamborghinis, 700hp Audi RS6s, full carbon bodies, and all the stuff reserved for an F1 paddock, not an innocent VW gathering. The tuning game has really reached new heights if you can see advanced projects based on upmarket cars that have literally just hit the showrooms, like the new Mercedes C-class coupe, Audi Q2, or latest VW Tiguan.
Apart from that, it's business as usual: Europeans still love to stance, shiny rims, and swap engines in an everlasting pursuit of more power and bling. On the other hand, the recent fashion of colorful stickers covering most of cars' sides seems to have faded away.
Despite all the changing trends and challenges the Wörthersee-Treffen faces, it's still an event every VW diehard should attend. As the 'see is getting bigger and more diversified each year, you won't see or feel much of it without inside knowledge of what and where it's happening. On the upside, you can just as well unfold your chair anywhere and wait until the Wörthersee magic comes right to you.