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Germany Diary, Part 1

Four weeks in Germany seeing the best!

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Absolutely stunning Sinsheim Technic Museum
  • Disappointing Porsche museum
  • Fantastic Mercedes Benz museum
  • My favourite woolly mammoth
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Diary Extract 1

So this is our second night in Germany.

Yesterday we arrived in Frankfurt about noon and made our way to the hotel – bus, then train, then short walk.

We checked-in to the hotel, dumped backpacks then went for a walk. Pizza was bought and then, shortly after, we crashed into bed. This seemed to make sense, since we’d had only little sleep on the 32 hours of transit. Because of the flights we’d picked, an early night also gelled well with our body clocks – this morning, at 6am, we felt bright and alert… jetlag gone.

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Incidentally, the flight was very impressive. The Boeing 777 was well lit and airy, spacious and quiet. Emirates is an impressive airline, with very helpful cabin staff and excellent food – far better in both respects than Qantas and British Airways.

This morning we walked to the main railway station then caught a train on the way to our first real destination – the museum at Sinsheim. This journey took two trains. The first, pulled by an electric locomotive, was extraordinarily fast and smooth – it’s hard to tell the speed, but it must have been going at least 160 km/h. Up in first class, we had a private compartment of six seats to ourselves. The second train, a local feeder, was less impressive but still competent – think a Gold Coast to Brisbane train, or similar.

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A short walk from the station and we could see the museum straight ahead. It’s hard to miss it when poised high above the museum buildings are the only two supersonic passenger aircraft the world has ever seen – a Concorde and a Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-144. Seeing these aircraft together was just incredible, and furthermore, visitors can access both aircraft. And the two supersonics are not alone – there are also other aircraft perched on stands high above the museum.

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For me the most interesting of the aircraft was the Junkers Ju-52. This is the 1930s tri-motor aircraft best remembered for its corrugated skin – it looks all the world like a corrugated iron shed! However, that corrugated skin gave the aircraft great bending strength, and….

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… inside the cabin, the strong skin and elaborately designed circumferential frames result in great roominess. The space combined with the large square windows (no cabin pressurisation!) give a feeling of open airiness that passengers must have welcomed.

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But the Sinsheim Technic Museum has much more than aircraft – most of the museum is devoted to cars. And what cars! The number and quality of pre-WII Mercedes, Auto Union and Bugattis was just staggering.

The Bugatti Type 41 Royale is the most desirable car in the world for collectors, bar none. A quick search shows sales prices of between US$16 - 20 million – and there was one in the museum, in pride of place.

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And there must have been a dozen other cars in the museum, each worth enormous amounts. Of course, from an enthusiasts’ point of view, the price a car commands is not necessarily related to its worth - but I must say that the museum was full of cars that really were just fundamentally interesting.

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There were 1950s BMW and Messerschmitt bubble cars, the 1970s Blue Flame Land Speed Record car, the huge Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, some wonderful tractors, a collection of American cars of the 1950s and 1960s, a range of military vehicles including tanks and troop carriers – it went on and on.

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And did I mention the railway locomotives? Although there were only perhaps eight or ten of these, they were very interesting models indeed. The electric locos were some of the earliest ever, dating back to the 1920s. Extraordinarily ugly, there were obviously designed first and styled second – if in fact the second step ever occurred!

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There were also some amazingly huge steam locomotives, including one with the biggest coupled driving wheels I have ever seen – a 2-6-2 with 2.1 metre diameter driving wheels. The steam locomotives looked extremely utilitarian, with none of the grace of the British locomotives of the same era. But boy, they looked powerful and fast….

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We also looked at, and on occasion listened to, some huge fairground musical machines that were on display. The largest was probably about 10 metres wide, 5 metres high and had a depth of about 4 metres. These antique machines, when given one Euro, would start an internal blower and then, automatically fed instructions via a continuous stream of punched cards about 30cm wide, would play a tune. A visual as much as a musical experience, the machines were designed so that the instruments being used could all be seen operating, as if moved by invisible fingers.

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We spent the whole day at the museum – it would be hard to spend any less time. The majority of the signs were in both German and English – although some of the English translations were oddly phrased and in a few cases, the translations were missing altogether.

And first thoughts about Germany? Here there is clearly a higher standard of living than we saw in most of Britain; people have so far been very helpful, with all who we’ve needed to communicate with speaking at least some English; there’s lots of litter and cigarette smoking; and it’s a very organised place.

I’ve also been impressed with the infrastructure. Yesterday at the small railway station near the Sinsheim museum, I had a chance to have a good look at its structure. Built in 2011, it used stainless steel handrails on all the ramps and steps (the tubular rails beautifully welded and bent); every hand rail and light pole was earthed with separate cables; the drainage was superbly organised with gutters (again stainless) for catching water flowing off the rear of the train platform; and the concrete was beautifully cast. The station as a whole looked really well designed, built and constructed – I’d say a clear cut above a similar small station of similar age in Australia.

Diary Extract 2

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Yesterday we arrived in Stuttgart - and we went to the Porsche museum.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have read of how wonderful this museum is, and how great are its cars.

But I beg to differ.

The cars were in fact great, but the way they were presented was not. Oh no, not quality of the museum building itself – that was fine. The problem was in the utterly self-indulgent and history-falsifying way in which the story was told.

So the Porsche 928 wasn’t such a flop that it couldn’t become the 911 replacement it was always intended to be. No, the company simply ‘changed direction’ after the 928 was released.

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The Boxster didn’t rescue the company from a series of misdirections that had it on its knees – on the contrary, it helped in ‘difficult economic times’ (not even: in difficult economic times for Porsche!)

An early Porsche open wheeler race car was trumpeted as being the first Porsche with double wishbone front suspension (rather than using the dual trailing links of the standard Volkswagen / Porsche design school). And of course that label is true – it just conveniently misses the point that the standard Volkswagen/Porsche front suspension is pretty horrible for racing cars, and so to be competitive in a pure race car of the 1950s, that suspension had to be ditched….

The rose-coloured glasses went on and on.

The fact that a piston on display was lubricated by a squirter hole in the con-rod was announced as if it was something extraordinary – not a feature of just about every car in the world.

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The section of the museum that described how low weight is so important in automotive design oddly failed to make mention of the huge mass of current Porsches….

And it was all so unnecessary.

Porsche in fact has a record that should allow it to hold its head high. Like all car companies, it has made mistakes, and has certainly moved far away from its founder’s main philosophies, but it has many more wins on the board than losses. But to pretend that everything has always been wonderful is to take the public for mugs.

And then there was something else.

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Porsche, the men (father and son), were extraordinary engineers – and that’s especially the case with Ferdinand, the father. In fact, the museum showed one of his earliest creations – a 1900 electric in-wheel motor used for driving a military vehicle. But after that, there was an astonishing gap in his CV – no mention at all of the Auto Union race cars of the 1930s that Porsche designed, cars that were then among the most advanced in the world. I assume that this whole era in Porsche’s engineering history was missing because Auto Union is part of Audi… an opposition company.

How small-minded!

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Look, it was great seeing the long-tail 917 Le Mans car and the Paris-Dakar 959, along with a host of very pretty cars. And perhaps it was a bit naïve of me to think that a factory museum would actually put truth ahead of propaganda – but I was disappointed all the same. We spent less than 90 minutes there.

Yesterday afternoon we went to another museum – but of a very different sort to the Porsche Museum.

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The Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History is spread over two sites, separated by a pleasant 15-minute walk through a large park. Both museums have few (if any) signs in English, but one site has an English audio guide. There were plenty of fossils, re-created animals (the huge mammoth really took my fancy) and some interesting fossils side-by-side with how the animals would likely have looked in real life.

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The atmosphere in the two museums was pleasant, with on this Saturday afternoon plenty of families with children – and lots of activities for those children, too. Entrance was by donation – the museum is worth a look if you’re in the area.

One thing I have noticed here in Germany – and again in strong contrast with the UK a year ago – is that people are clearly happy. There’s plenty of laughter, people look both relaxed and animated, and there’s eye contact and positive body language. Contrast that with the UK where I think it took two weeks before I heard an adult laugh in public….

Indicative of this atmosphere are the Christmas Markets that we went to both last night and tonight. Located in the middle of Stuttgart, and so an easy walk from our hotel, the markets are large and popular. They run nightly for about a month prior to Christmas.

Dark by 4.30 pm, the markets had thronging masses of people, many eating German sausages in bread rolls and sipping mulled (hot and spicy) red wine from mugs. We did both: the food was great and the wine delicious in the 4 degree weather. Sometimes though there were too many people jammed in a small space: at one stage, I calculated that outside just two market stalls was standing the entire population of Dalton, the town where we live.

We bought some gingerbread and chocolate – with the exception of some nicely made timber ornaments (which we were unsure we could get back through customs), a lot of the stuff was the normal rubbish sold in markets. But no matter, they were enjoyable evenings.

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This morning we headed off for the Mercedes Benz museum. I had high hopes for this museum – among very few major car companies, Mercedes has its own archives and professional staff. Would that professional historian’s touch be reflected in its museum, I wondered? And would it therefore be a total contrast to Porsche?

The good news is that the answers were ‘yes’ and ‘yes’!

The Mercedes museum is a stunner – numerous cars of immense automotive importance, all set within a social history context. The museum is divided into floors connected by ramps – you start on the top floor and work your way downwards. Each floor covers an important era of automotive design, with the models chosen to reflect that period.

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The first surprise for me was the sophistication of those very first cars. One tends to think of them as being rather primitive – sort of blacksmith backyard jobs. But in fact when viewed close-up, these cars showed very careful design and highly professional construction. For example, even a very early car showed excellent steering linkage design (giving Ackermann steering angles) and it wasn’t long at all before rack and pinion steering was being used. I also loved the way that a lightweight full elliptic spring was used to transfer the steering torque to the vertically moving axle – a very neat trick from the centre-mounted steering column.

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Each museum floor was fascinating, while the connecting ramps carefully established – by means of photos and small exhibits – important social and historical influences of the periods. And the company did not step away from its use of slave labour in its factories in WWII – this dark past was clearly and objectively described.

The curators of the museum have also chosen to do three other things that I really loved.

The first was that off some of the floors were special collection galleries – for example, ‘helpers’ and ‘haulers’. ‘Haulers’ comprised trucks and vans, while ‘helpers’ contained fire engines, garbage trucks, roadside breakdown vehicles and so on.

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This approach worked really well – one vehicle in the haulers section was that most wonderful of machines, the 1950s high-speed Mercedes race car transporter. Words simply cannot describe this custom transporter that could bring the race car home at 105 mph… I also loved the fact that a garbage truck was in the same museum as some of the most desirable cars in the world!

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The second really good decision was to have little interesting social and technical automotive snippets in one-off displays. Driving attire, speedos, dashboards, starting handles – there were lots and lots of thought-provoking artefacts on display with simple explanations (all signs in excellent English as well as German). Finally, each floor had a glass display case devoted to a single theme – lights, for example. So in one display there were headlights, tail-lights, interior lights – covering well over 100 years of design and development.

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The ground floor was devoted to race and record cars – and what cars! You could spend hours and hours just on this floor. From the pre-WWII grand prix and speed record cars to the awesome T80 Land Speed Record Car that never ran because of the advent of WWII. From cars with their bodies removed for better examination to a racing truck engine on display. Beautiful, brutish, elegant, obscure, well-known – the range was wide but every single car was significant.

I think that this museum is an absolute must for anyone who is interested in cars – but I do have two criticisms.

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While Mercedes was far more honest than Porsche in not claiming every advance in automotive engineering for themselves, there was still a tendency to brush past discomforting commercial truths. For example, it was churlish in a display on seatbelts not to credit Volvo engineers with inventing the three-point seat belt – probably the most successful lifesaver the automotive world has ever seen. And in the same vein, to ignore the fact that Toyota invented modern-day hybrids made the coverage of Mercedes hybrid drivelines look a bit silly to anyone who has been following this field – by my judgement, at the time of its release, the 2009 hybrid driveline on display was at least 11 years behind the cutting edge. There was also not one mention in the museum of the DaimlerChrysler merger….

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Finally, and it’s not a criticism as such, I think that the museum actually undersells the technology that has been displayed by the company. For example, as far as I know, Mercedes is the only mainstream car company that has maintained strong aerodynamic low-drag focus in every model since the early 1980s, and it has been at the forefront (along with Bosch) in developing and implementing cutting edge electronic technologies. I’ve seen photos from the Mercedes historic media archive showing extraordinary testing of stability control on buses – yet nothing that really brought that history to life was on display.

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The Mercedes museum is a car museum that I think would also be enjoyed by people who like sculpture and architecture (the museum building itself is extraordinary), social history, mechanical engineering, and art.

A great place!

Attraction

Location

Comments

Sinsheim Technic museum

Sinsheim

One of the world’s best technical museums with an emphasis on cars. Spend a full day. 9/10

Porsche factory museum

Stuttgart

Self-indulgent airbrushing of history – but some good cars. Spend a few hours. 6/10

Mercedes factory museum

Stuttgart

Absolutely fantastic car museum. Spend a full day. 9/10

State Museum of Natural History

Stuttgart

Spread across two locations. Worth a few hours. 7/10

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