Spend any amount of time in Germany, and the first thing that becomes immediately clear is the national turn-on for a well-engineered machine. From vast city public transportation systems to the pen in your hand, efficiency, design, and durability are sources of pride—and even titillation.
Nowhere is this more visible than in Baden-Württemberg, which stretches north from Lake Constance (locally called the Swabian Sea) on the Swiss border to the city of Mannheim. In Stuttgart, the region’s capital, both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche make their headquarters. In fact, the iconic horse emblem of the latter is taken almost directly from the city’s coat of arms, which refers to the city’s establishment in 950 as a stud farm. The stylized antlers and red-black stripes surrounding come from the Württemberg coat of arms.
The Porsche Museum, also in Stuttgart, shows no less design sense. The façade alone has passersby craning their necks, hypnotically following the polygonal, avant-garde shape of the building and looking for their distorted reflection in the mirrored stainless steel mosaic of tiles. Step inside and the spotlight quickly changes to the cars themselves, laid out chronologically on a gently, often imperceptible, rising spiral to the top floor. Along the way, Porsche’s distinguished history is displayed in about 80 vehicles, starting with the 1948 prototype of the 356 and ending with 50th anniversary edition of the 911, produced just 1,963 times in honor of the year it was launched. Factory tours (just next door) in English or German are also available with reservations.
Across town, the Mercedes-Benz Museum tackles car history on an even larger scale in its 9-level, 16,500-square meter exhibition space. The swirling architecture, based on DNA’s double helix, emphasizes the dedication of Mercedes to increasing the mobility of humanity. The tour begins at the top, with the first engines and models put together by Karl Benz, including the one-cylinder, two-stroke, three-wheel prototype from 1886—the first to receive a patent. Right next to it is the first four-wheeled automobile invented by Gottlieb Daimler. From there, the exhibition spirals downward past 1500 exhibits, which include such highlights as the original 1934 W25 Silver Arrow race car, 1954 Mercedes 300SL, and even Lady Diana’s 1991 500SL.
If it’s true that “behind every great man is a great woman,” there’s no better example than Karl Benz’s wife Bertha. He may have been a great inventor, but almost totally lacked business and financial skills. These, Bertha took over upon their marriage, even investing her own dowry into the business. Frustrated by her husband’s minimal marketing efforts, she took things literally into her own hands. In August 1888, she packed her two sons into her husband’s Patent-Motorwagen No. 3, and set off (leaving a note to Karl) on the world’s first motorized road trip, 65 miles south to Pforzheim. In addition to frightening half the horses and townsfolk along the way, her success brought the desired publicity.
Today, the event is remembered with the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, which traces (as much as possible) the trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim and return. Along the way, there are dozens of cities and sights worth visiting, especially historic Heidelberg, one of the region’s few major cities to escape destruction in World War II. The town of Ladenburg is another stunner, with a beautifully preserved (and colorful) medieval town center. Also in Ladenburg is the privately owned Automuseum Dr. Carl Benz, housed in one of Benz’s former factories. On display are about 40 passenger cars, trucks and racing cars – most of the Benz and Mercedes-Benz brands — and a collection of bicycles and motorbikes museum. Ladenburg’s cemetery is also the final resting place of Bertha and Karl Benz.
The Bertha Benz Memorial Route also passes by Hockenheim, home to the famous Formula 1 speedway. In addition to the watching motorcycle and cars virtually fly around the 17-turn, 2.842 mi track, visitors can also visit the impressive racing museum on-site, featuring more than 200 racing bikes, touring cars, and formula cars from all motorsport eras. If the burning rubber kickstarts your body’s adrenalin pump enough, simply grab a helmet and slip into a racer as co-pilot to a professional driver on the track itself. In summer, the track is also opened to in-line skating once a week.
With all the history, the best way to cruise Baden-Württemberg is in a vintage car, preferably a convertible. With the top down and wind blowing in your hair, the last secret of the region’s magnetism for car lovers is revealed. It’s not in the road, green hills, asparagus fields, and black forests, but up in the sky. The sun shines on Baden-Württemberg more than any other place in Germany—the prime ingredient in any good road trip.
Read more about things to do in Stuttgart
Photos courtesy of Mike Dunphy.
Mike Dunphy stayed in Germany as a guest of the SouthWest Germany tourism board.
– Mike Dunphy