There’s nothing else quite like it in the world, an entire town built in homage to the motor car. Sue Baker has just become one of the two million visitors a year who go to see the amazing Autostadt
Two vast glass towers dominate the skyline in the Autostadt. Each day they gradually empty, then overnight they fill up again. With what? Cars, of course. For this is car city, which is how the German word Autostadt translates. This place, built in celebration of the millennium, is a tourist phenomenon that nestles alongside the German town of Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen car production. It’s a mecca of motoring, attracting two million visitors a year.
In fact, the Autostadt is not so much a city, more a town-sized giant theme park devoted entirely to things automotive. It’s a place of education and entertainment, but there’s also a commercial purpose to it.
That’s where those two 48 metres (150 ft) tall glass silos come in. They operate like giant vending machines. Their purpose is to be overnight storage centres for new Volkswagens, awaiting daytime delivery to customers who come from all over Germany to collect them.
The towers are a focal point and a fascination. It is not just the new car customers collecting their vehicles who go inside them. Most visitors to the Autostadt want to take a look there too, to view the remarkable spectacle of cars stacked carefully in layers stretching upwards as far as the eye can see. Each tower houses up to 400 cars on 20 floors, and at peak times it takes just 45 seconds to process and extract a vehicle. Giant screens show the progress of cars on their way into the towers, and visitors can take a trip on the same route the cars take, in a lift that carries them up to the tops of the towers at a speed of 1.5 metres a second. As theme park rides go, it’s a bit tame, but it’s none the less thrilling for car buffs.
The towers are located close to the end of the world’s longest car production line, stretching 3.8km within Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg factory where the Golf is made. The factory occupies an area of 6.5 sq km, so it’s the size of Gibraltar. It has 50,000 employees, and its own power station, hospital and fire station.
A 700-metres long underground tunnel connects the factory to the two towers, and every night, cars fresh off the production line are transported on an automated conveyor that takes them the short distance into the lofty glass silos.
Collecting a car from the Autostadt is optional for buyers in Germany and a few other mainland European countries. It provides the attraction of, unusually, acquiring a car with the odometer set at zero, because it has come straight off the production line with no delivery mileage. From one point of view, ‘car city’ is a bit of a misnomer. Although plenty of cars leave the Autostadt – some 500 vehicles daily are handed over to customers visiting the towers – hardly any cars are permitted to enter the town. Visitors can’t drive through the place, they have to park on the edge, and the one road into it is restricted to guests staying at an on-site hotel – one posh enough to have its own Olympic-length heated outdoor swimming pool.
So you walk, not drive, around the town that’s devoted to the car – or more precisely, to Volkswagen Group cars. Children are the exception to the no-driving rule: there’s a minicircuit for them to experience what it’s like to drive a Volkswagen Beetle, or rather, a little electric car that looks like one.
The town is designed like a park, with ponds and grassy banks, and there’s plenty to see. There’s an excellent museum crammed with wonderful classics. Among the attractions are some famous cars, such as the Volkswagen Beetle that featured on the cover of the Beatles album Abbey Road. One popular novelty is a room where computer software enables visitors to design their own cars and either print them out to take home, or send them to an email address.
Seven pavilions are each devoted to different marques in the Volkswagen family: two for VW, one each for Audi, SEAT, Skoda and Lamborghini, and a prestige pavilion featuring Bentley and Bugatti.
Volkswagen has both the largest and smallest of the pavilions. The main one is circular in shape and has two floors displaying all the models in the VW range. The other one is devoted to car development.
Audi’s building features a spiral walkway leading down to a stunningly displayed R8. You can see the 2006 Le Mans car that was the first dieselengined winner of the legendary race. There’s also
“AS THEME PARK RIDES GO, IT’S A BIT TAME, BUT IT’S NONE THE LESS THRILLING FOR CAR BUFFS”
a feast of fascinating technical trivia. You learn, for example, that Audi holds a total of 9,621 patents and that there are 36,520 stitches in the interior of an A8. In a pavilion surrounded by water and plants, Spanish company SEAT displays its car range amid sounds of bulls racing through the streets of Pamplona. Skoda’s building departs from a strictly car theme and is more of an art gallery, with a collection of wonderfully detailed metal sculptures. But when you look closely, cars are discreetly incorporated into the vibrant scenes some of them depict. The Lamborghini pavilion is a bizarre experience, comprising a smoke, lights and lasers show in which a Murcielago disappears from view and magically reappears again. Actually there’s no magic involved, just a giant hydraulic plate that rotates the car outside the building and back in again.
The prestige marques pavilion is housed in a grass mound oddly reminiscent of the Teletubbies’ home on children’s TV. Inside is the extraordinary sight of a silver-plated Bugatti Veyron.
A day isn’t really long enough to visit the Autostadt. There’s so much there to keep you occupied and visually feasting on cars, even if you can’t drive any of them. Well actually, there’s one place you can: on a skid-pan where you can experience the efficiency of electronic safety aids and learn how not to skid.
Until, that is, they invite you to haul on the handbrake half way across a slippery surface and see what happens. The resulting gyration was a white knuckle ride for the passenger. That’s car city for you, a theme park for car nuts.
YOU CAN GO THERE
Autostadt is located beside the town of Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony, near the city of Braunschweig. Opening hours are 9am to 6pm, 363 days a year (all except Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve). Entry (1 or 2 day tickets) costs 15/18 Euros for adults, 6/9 Euro for children and students. Family tickets are 38/57 Euro.