I'm sure everyone reading this either has driven or dreams of driving on the Autobahn. The thought of shipping your own car from the USA to drive around Europe is an entirely different level of commitment that only the most devoted enthusiast adds to his or her dream list. When 10 days of automotive fun—including factory visits and the huge Wörthersee event—were added to that trip and became a real possibility, a group of enthusiasts and I couldn't say no.
Our journey didn't start on the Autobahn but rather on America's I-95 heading from the suburbs of Philadelphia, through New York and Connecticut to the VW Port located in Davisville, Rhode Island. This is one of the main ports for new Audi, Lamborghini, Porsche, and Volkswagen vehicles entering the USA, and where our cars would be loaded onto a ship heading back to northwest Germany. The schedule for sailing meant we had time to stop by the Thompson Motorsport Speedway in Connecticut for the New England Dustoff show, before delivering the cars to the port and a photo op with a fresh-off-the-boat Audi R8 V10 Plus.
While the average flight from the East Coast of the U.S. to Germany takes around seven hours, the cargo ship, with a cruising speed in the low 20s, takes a more leisurely 10 days to cross the Atlantic. When loaded with hundreds of cars, the ship weighs in excess of 59,000 tons, so that 10 days seems a little more impressive.
The Wörthersee event attracts a huge cross section of the automotive world, from modified high-end offerings through decades of Euro hot-hatches. It started, and remains at its core, a VW-centric event. With this in mind, and also since every conceivable style of Golf is already represented, I decided to take a heavily modified 1993 VW Fox and a 1999 New Beetle. Bear with me; there was some logic here—honestly. The Fox was built in Brazil and sold in the Americas, but never Europe, so it would be an interesting conversation starter—in theory. This particular New Beetle had been built by the ubiquitous EMPI company in Southern California and had graced the covers and pages of magazines and books back in the early 2000s with it's historic and very Southern Californian paint job. So, again, it would be something different than the Europeans would be bringing.
Once in Europe, our adventure started in the most obvious way: collecting our cars. A trip to any port is always fun for a car nerd, but Volkswagen's Emden factory is on a scale that's hard to describe. Row upon row of new, shrink-wrapped cars from all of VW Group's brands line the parking lots as far as the eye can see. All are either trucked or railed from Ingolstadt, Wolfsburg, Neckarsulm, or any of the other factories producing vehicles for the group. From here, they'll go around the world to dealerships and eventually, a driveway. Inbound vehicles include cars built in Mexico and our older VWs from the New England port.
Collecting the keys and driving through the port after meeting your car thousands of miles from home, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, driving past signs written in German is definitely a little surreal. I'm in my own car, it's still wearing its Pennsylvania license plate, and it feels very weird indeed. To make this legal, paperwork has been filed both on the USA and European sides, and before the port will let us completely loose in Germany, we have to visit the folks at the Customs office. Although I knew everything's in order, there's still a sense of nervousness. That is, until the workers gather around and start taking photos with their cell phones and asking questions about U.S. car culture. It's more like we're at a Cars & Coffee event rather than a government institution's parking lot seeking permission to have what seems like an illegal amount of fun. After more photos, the paperwork is stamped and we're finally dismissed to head onto the Autobahn.
I'm not going to lie...the Autobahn is as much fun as you dream. It's smooth (for the most part, but I did manage to find perhaps the only severe bump on any of it, later on), it's safe, and in certain parts it is very, very fast, but there are some things that aren't discussed often enough. Traffic jams come out of nowhere and are usually slow. At multiple times on our crisscrossing trek across Germany, we'd find ourselves jamming on the brakes and going from 100+ mph to a walking pace or worse, a complete standstill. It's just as annoying as in the USA, but the sensory impact of going from 100 mph to 0 seemed to heighten the annoyance. And then, there's something else, which I consider a golden rule: "There Is Always Someone Faster Than You on the Autobahn."
In a modified 1993 VW Fox, with a double overhead cam motor swap fed through individual throttle bodies bolted directly to the cylinder head, anything over 100 mph feels like warp speed—even ludicrous speed. In the fast lane of the Autobahn, blasting past tractor-trailers, with a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel, eardrums full of the induction noise, my senses are on full alert; eyes scanning the horizon and checking the mirrors. And then a dot appears in those mirrors, and slowly grows. Surely something special—at least a Porsche, if not a Lamborghini, or something even more exotic? Nope. It's a bored business man, sipping his coffee with one hand while the other is steering his four-cylinder Ford, or perhaps even a gray six-cylinder BMW 5 series, straight past you at comfortably above 130 mph. This isn't restricted to the older cars in our group. Even the brand-new Golf GTI Mk7.5 doing triple-digit speeds, got passed by an RS6 wagon whose bored-looking driver just cruised on by.
I had designed the itinerary to intersect the driving from Emden, on the Atlantic coast in the north, to Wörthersee, Austria, with various car activities along the way. Members of our group had flown from Pennsylvania, New York, a father and son team from Michigan, and returning friend Joe from Black Forest Industries in North Carolina, who had joined me last year.
The first stop was Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. The city is basically built around the factory, with the huge Autostadt campus providing a well-manicured destination for tourists, like an Epcot Center for car enthusiasts. Before heading to the glass palaces containing Autostadt's museum, our group drove through a generic industrial estate, made a left at a McDonald's, and parked outside a rather mundane-looking building. The exterior seems overly bland, almost intentionally so. Inside is Volkswagen's private collection of prototypes, significant models, and other museum-quality cars. It's absolutely worth a visit if you're making the trip to Wolfsburg, although it's easy to drive right by and miss it.
The Autostadt Museum, on the other hand, is housed in a lavish all-glass-walled building, with a tightly curated collection of cars. We had a wonderful private tour guide at the Autostadt's ZeitHaus museum, which quickly realized that although its collection included design milestones from Citroen, Mercedes, and even Ford, our group was more drawn to a MK1 Scirocco and the spectacular Golf GTI W12 prototype. It's easy to spend a whole day wandering through the grounds of the Autostadt, checking out the separate buildings that house displays for each of the brands of VW Group, or eating in some of the almost overly fancy restaurants. But there are two must-do things outside of these activities; the first is the Wolfsburg factory tour.
After a quick boat ride around the perimeter of the power-generating station, you are loaded onto a small Disney World-style train (VW branded, of course), sternly warned against taking any photos or videos, and then driven directly into the heart of the working production plant. Honestly, it's a treat! The sheer scale of the building and the machinery is difficult to comprehend, even when you see the rows of bicycles workers use to move around the production floor. Each tour takes a different route, but ours started in sheetmetal stamping and progressed to undercarriage components assembly. The employees work in shifts, assuring that the line keeps moving day and night, until the new Golfs or Tiguans are finally tested on a rolling road. They are then either sent out via truck or train or, as we were about to see at the second must-do activity, to the Car Tower storage units for new owners who will be collecting them in person.
The Autostadt isn't just a theme park for car nerds—it is also the world's largest new-car delivery center. Buyers are offered discounted prices (i.e. none of that delivery charge that you see on a Monroney label) and gift cards to spend in the accessories shop inside, if they make the trip to Wolfsburg to collect their new car. Hundreds of cars are stored inside the impressive Car Towers, which are essentially automotive vending machines, ready to be automatically recovered and transported to the delivery area when the new owner's delivery time is scheduled. Inside the towers, there is one car storage spot at the top, which is held open for visitors. We entered a single-car-garage-sized pod on the ground floor and watched as the robotic arm extended underneath, exactly as it does for the cars, and quickly whisked the group to the top parking level. It was so fast, in fact, that according to the 2014 Book of Guinness World Records, it is the "fastest automatic parking system in the world."
Our not-from-around-here group was in for an even bigger treat when our host at the Autostadt introduced us to the man in charge of the Car Towers. He graciously exchanged a ride in my Fox for a behind-the-scenes tour of the top of his tower.
As we walked out of the glass pod, through a normally locked door, we walked the perimeter of the top floor, and the factory stretched out for miles beneath us. Going up a small flight of metal stairs led us to the machinery room, where huge motors effortlessly lift the weight of the cars to and from their temporary parking spaces. We were asked not to take photos of certain machinery, but honestly, we were all mesmerized by the slightly intimidating view down through the steel grate flooring. I asked how often people are allowed to see this, "Not very often. We did let Jay Leno come up here once." As if we weren't impressed enough, with a quick tap on our host's cell phone, he was in control of which cars were moved and when. Want a red Golf R to appear? Beep, beep, beep, done! We were then ushered up another set of stairs, through one more door, and suddenly stepped out onto the roof. Woah.
We left Wolfsburg on a high note and headed south through the German heartland, with stops for fuel, Schnitzel, and sleep on the way. Munich was the next destination, with much to see, including the BMW Museum, a famous regional flea market, and of course, the beer halls. Where was I while the group was shopping and making merry? Somewhere very near the middle of nowhere, or the Czech Republic, fixing an alternator bolt that had snapped whilst on the Autobahn during a particularly heavy thunderstorm the night before. Thankfully, the cars were fully covered for both insurance and breakdowns during the trip, and as one of the group leaders in charge of making sure no man was left behind, I sent everyone onward to enjoy Munchen, while I used my terrible German language skills to find a bolt, or indeed, a complete alternator. At a local auto parts store, I made friends with a chap who works at the local ZF Group factory (you know them, they make the transmissions for seemingly every car), who literally builds VW key assemblies. Between the two of us, and the tow truck driver's repair shop, the car was fixed up in a morning, and I was blasting down the Autobahn, with the sun shining, the wind in my hair, and a German-plated Roush Mustang to play with in traffic. Apart from when I later managed to find the only large bump on the Autobahn, which would damage the significantly lowered VW Fox's radiator, this would be the main mechanical issue of the trip.
Heading south from Munich into the Alps is where the scenery really starts to get good. Snowcapped mountains lined the horizon, and small villages with steep church spires popped up around the twisting and curving road. There's a specific gas station I love to stop at, which the rest of group suspected as hyperbole during my descriptions. They were greeted by a great view of the mountains while fueling, which is nice, but they still didn't get it until they walked inside. Somehow, out of nowhere, this random little fuel stop has one the freshest and most elaborate food selections you could ever hope to find near a major highway. What could be a 10-minute fuel stop easily turned into two hours of fine food with a steady flow of modified cars rolling past the windows headed to Wörthersee.
It was around here that we had our first police stop. A clearly marked Polizei BMW wagon pulled ahead of us, and an LED display spelled out "Follow us" in English. I knew our papers were in perfect order, but much like the Customs visit, it's always a little nerve wracking. The guys in our Volkswagen T6 support van had their passports ready for inspection, and video cameras ready in case something exciting happened. After travelling 1,000 km in a convoy of cars, several wearing rear U.S. plates only, it was bound to happen. And then, within five minutes, we were taking selfies with the nice police officers and being wished a safe and enjoyable time. They had indeed stopped us for having USA license plates, and the paperwork was in good order, so it was nothing more than an unplanned stop to make some new friends.
The European insurance on the cars is specific to the vehicle and its driver/co-driver, which meant only they could drive that car, but the two support vehicles from Volkswagen were fair game for driver changes. At the start of the trip, I had thought that the brand-new (not yet released in the USA) Golf GTI Mk7.5, which was equipped exactly how I would personally order one, would be the most desired ride. The fancy new digital dashboard and huge touch-screen infotainment display were fantastic, and the Performance Package horsepower boost and fancy differential, along with the pretty much flawless manual transmission, were indeed excellent. We all agreed how much we enjoyed driving it around Lake Wörth's narrow undulating roads, and also the chance to take it up to Go Directly to Jail in the USA speeds. It was, however, the brand-new, rather long named, Volkswagen T6 Bulli (Multivan) Highline BiTurbo 4Motion that most of the group opted for during the drives.
Rather like a cross between a '90s Eurovan and, well, a Bentley Bentayga perhaps, the Bulli prices out at upward of $70,000, and boy did we all enjoy our time with it. Perhaps it was the forbidden fruit element (the vehicle is not available in the USA, nor is there anything really like it), but for long highway drives, it was perfect. The 4motion's stability coupled with huge brakes to help tame an engine that makes more than 330 ft-lb torque via a seven-speed DSG transmission, all wrapped up in a sleek black body, with comfortable seating for six adults and luggage, made for an excellent traveling companion. During our week stay at Wörthersee, we settled into a routine of using the Golf GTI for fun runs and left the modified cars behind to take the T6 whenever the group went to dinner, or on our day trips to Slovenia and the Porsche Museum in Gmund, Austria.
There are lots of touristy things to do in the vicinity of Wörthersee, but even just sitting in one spot is enough. Nestled in the Alps, in the southeastern corner of Austria, Lake Wörth is a postcard-worthy destination. For a few weeks every spring, it's also the top destination for tens of thousands of car fans as the GTI Treffen takes over the winding roads and old villages. Our time in Wörthersee could fill all of these pages alone, without anything else on the trip.
There's known gathering spots, like the ENI fuel station, the parking lot and restaurant in Faak, and dozens of other more impromptu locations as well. The central location is the GTI Treffen, held in the village of Reifnitz. It is here that Volkswagen constructs a huge stage and every side street is filled with both tuning companies and privately owned cars vying for your attention. Volkswagen has genuinely embraced the event, and each year two new prototypes are built by young apprentices at the company, with the help of experienced engineers and complete access to the parts bin. This year's "First Decade" Golf GTI paired a conventional turbo gasoline engine up front, with a 48-volt electric motor connected to the rear wheels, and offered complete control over switching between the two, or using both simultaneously. And then, right next to these whizz-bang fancy new models, was our display area, with my orange 1993 Fox.
As part of its GTI Freundeskreis (which roughly translates to circle of friends), VW invited three groups of diehard enthusiasts to design their own sections of the stage and put their cars on display. One of these invitations was extended to our U.S. group, which of course was graciously accepted. For the design, we requested that there be a couple of old VW Bus benches for seating and a display featuring wheels from Work, Fifteen52, Vossen, and German modifier WheelWorx, making sure to include one wheel as a table so we would have somewhere to rest our drinks. It was here that we were introduced to two of the senior VW executives, the supermodel spokesperson for the event, and also had a steady flow of drinks and Currywurst on hand throughout the show, all with a perfect view out over the cars and crystal-clear water. I don't think it gets much better than that, especially when we—and our cars—had traveled more than 5,000 miles to get there.
As we left the Alps, we made stops in Ingsolstadt at the Audi museum and met a group of European car friends in Amsterdam on the last evening of the trip, before we all left on different flights heading home. The opportunity to travel across Europe in my own car was indeed fantastic, but the experiences gained and people met along the road are what made the trip especially amazing. I'm already looking forward to 2018!