In my survey of the values of the motoring manufacturing nations, we have touched on Italy, Britain and France. Now it is time to look at the nation that helped invent the motor car.
The present gets in the way of the past. Today Germany stands on an equal footing with Japan and the US as a powerhouse of car engineering, design and manufacturing. If we go back a hundred years the story would not have seemed so clear. Each car-building nation had a deluge of manufacturers and a certain sameness attached to all of them as they ploughed a vast array of technical furrows, hopeful minnows. Germany’s clever engineers and industrious entrepreneurs offered a wide range of types of car in the search to find something that matched German values and German conditions. Things became clearer in the 20s as most of the small makers died off. The Second World War acted as another selector. Mercedes managed to
survive the early minnow stage; BMW didn’t exist in the form we know it today and VW was a one-make wonder. The forces of history and contingency picked from all of that Porsche, Borgward, Auto Union, VW, Opel, BMW and Mercedes Benz along with one or two very small makes such as Glas.
Isn’t it interesting that Germany, as geographically diverse (think of Kleinstaaterei) as Italy never gave rise to etceterini? And despite Germany’s numerous artisans, as skilled at hammering armour as any others in Europe, it never produced any coachbuilders of the stature of Pininfarina, Ghia, Bertone or Vignale. German values – among them probity and a demonstrable skill at organization gathered the talents of automotive creation under a few roofs and not family firms (the exception is in Bavaria). Germany was, after all, a pioneer of the Rechtsstaat as well as the Kleinstaat). Another irony is that the essence of German post-war design can be traced to the Frenchman Bracq at Mercedes and BMW; Michelotti gave BMW its post-war look and Bruno Sacco, an Italian, shaped Mercedes for decades. Perhaps it makes more sense if you consider the extent of the Holy Roman Empire, the precursor to modern Germany. It included parts of France, Italy and Austria.
Then there is the type of cars they produced, vehicles adapted to the possibilities of high-speed motoring as well as to the mundane duties of provincial agricultural life on hill and plain. Both classes of car tended towards robustness and durability. In part I see this as a reflection of the Protestant faith where the forgiveness of sins was a decision made by God and not by priests. Individual consciences tended to encourage the avoidance of mistakes rather than to assume that they could be rectified later.
We think of Germany as a rich country but for a very long time poverty – widespread and severe – stalked the land. Industrialization came late, following unification. This encouraged the husbanding of resources and also self-reliance. Over time such inclinations translated into a preference for vehicles that were good value for money and which lasted.
Driving pleasure was perhaps not such an important thing and nor was appearance for appearance’s sake. Hence the conservative and undramatic forms of the typical German car. It is noteworthy that the Catholic Bavarians are the most flamboyant of the German manufacturers. In Ingolstadt tastes are more in line with the historic preferences of the cautious Swabians.
In certain ways I see an overlap with British preferences for robustness and a dislike of ostentation. Not paradoxically, when this restraint is unfettered it goes a little too far which leads us to the sometimes grotesque expressions we see in the Maybach and higher-end cars from Germany. The Italians and the French have not reached those heights (does a Renault 25 Baccara really strike the same note as a stretched S-class with its ruched leather?).
I would argue also that Germany´s post-war settlement, overseen by Adenauer, placed the collective good over individual interests in that Adenauer was less concerned with inequality than with the growth of the nation’s commonwealth. This and the Americanisation inculcated during the Marshall Plan years permitted the slow but steady development of faster and more powerful machines and a collective feeling that they were something all could aspire to.
Ford and GM’s presence in Germany added another dash of Americanism though oddly, one can say it never really took root. Fords have been for a long time, German cars whose demerits are often American and whose strengths are founded on Westphalian sensibility.
The breadth of German vehicle design never gave rise to the equivalent of land yachts and that I see as a residual effect of the thrift of the German people. The mightiest of GM’s Opels, the V8 Diplomat was not characteristically German though it’s a wonderful machine. Mercedes’ S600 Pullman or even the 6.3 was not an everyman muscle car in the manner of the 6 and 7 litre Chevrolets, Chryslers and Olds that were a routine part of the American road scene. So, on the one hand, Germany avoided the restrictions on engine size that scuppered France’s automotive development and on the other, they avoided the excess that one can say blossomed in 50, 60s and 70s America.
It turns out that while Americans tried to export their values to the Germans, to safeguard their democracy, it was the Germans who successfully exported their automotive values, both to the rest of Europe and to the United States. A fast and efficient saloon is usable everywhere. A lazy-engined boulevardier is not.
British and French cars have their place in Germany though it is small. In contrast, as I said earlier, the British national car is as much a VW Golf or BMW X5 as it is a Ford or Rolls-Royce. Without knowing very much at all about Germany, other Europeans happily buy their cars. I think one can see Anglophilia in Jaguar-driving continentals not matched by a taste for the German in those who invest in a Mercedes.
German values are compatible with French, Austrian and Portugese values in the way the reverse is not the case: that is, no-one much is aspiring to Iberian motoring and French and British cars are statements in the way a Passat or 5-series is not.
As with the rest of Europe, there is a watering down of German tastes and values, which in some ways makes the export of those Wolfsburg and Munich cars easier to manage. When I think of German values I am not really thinking of modern BMWs, Audis and Porches. They are German still and are less German than they were.
The archetypal German car is one soaked in the moral philosophy of Ulm. They are romantically rational. Today the cars are mostly rational in the sense of corporate good governance (diesel scandals not withstanding). The neatly formed brightwork and door-frames of an E23 BMW is where German values reside, or perhaps the stout simplicity of 60s Kadett or the stout simplicity of a 50s Porsche. You can find some of that in Germany’s cars along with a thickening veneer of international values. Someone in the design centres of Germany’s car companies can recall the need for thick steel and plain forms.
However, the other trait of Germans, practicality, demands that the international customer has precedence in determining the character of Germany’s vehicles.