We Drive Up The Autobahn

Music and motorways are inexorably intertwined. Andrew Miles delves into the history of the Autobahn.

In full flow – not often experienced. (c) Road and track.com.

The exact location is unknown; it will be some thirty plus years ago. What is distinctly remembered was the jaw dropping, stop me in my tracks, overcome with tingling emotions tune.

The Model defines electronic purity. I had ‘found’ Kraftwerk and wanted to dig deeper. Hailing from Düsseldorf they, for me, embody a translucent melody, easy to follow and easy to dream along with. Music, as with cars, can be divisive: one man’s Moonlight Sonata can be another man’s Peetie Wheatstraw or Bohemian Rhapsody. Many will dismiss Kraftwerk’s output as meaningless electronic beeps and bongs – to me it is highly orchestrated and simply defined.

And then I found another anthem. The piece of music known simply as Autobahn. “Fast up the autobahn” was what my ears heard. Years it took to realise “Wir fahren auf der Autobahn” was the line and not Fun up the Autobahn! Immediately connecting with tones of tyres on tarmac, the Doppler effect of passing traffic, the journey along to who knows where. At twenty two minutes long, you can cover some distance.

Wearing full blue motorway background-tinted spectacles, I see not the monotonous ribbon, the litter, tailbacks and roadworks. Just blue skies, valleys, bridges and the empty road rolling on. Purity.

A vision also held by the Autobahn’s instigators. No, it wasn’t Hitler but he does play a later part. The Avus experimental highway in Berlin was built between 1913-21. Italy had its Autostrada from Milan to the northern lakes in 1923. Cologne to Bonn had been completed by 1932. When the Nazi party gained power, Germany built 3,000 kilometres of Autobahn, initially as a job-creation programme with the added benefit of military speed. Just in time for the opening of hostilities.

Prior to the Second World War, German Road engineers had popped over to Britain to conduct a tour of several major cities, extolling the virtues of the faster through-road. The British Cement & Concrete Association, the Institute of Civil Engineers and government officials had in 1936 witnessed a typically thorough and highly National Socialistic view of road building programmes, offering advice on planning, materials and costs. Herr Schmoelder informed the gatherings that Germany had planned “a network of four thousand miles of double track roads specifically for fast road transport between major cities, industrial areas and ports.

These motorways are free from level crossings, sharp corners, animals and pedestrians. Providing safe, economic and fast motoring with restricted access to and from junctions.” Detailed plans on ground works and preparation, concrete mixing ratios and advanced techniques with jointing were given, including one oddity; the use of a waterproof paper membrane. This paper was placed between the soil and concrete to very specific weights per metre squared.

No doubt the gathered engineers were interested. Sage like nods of agreement, a Clan-filled pipe held aloft in appreciation, the odd eyebrow raised at some fact. It is also easy to feel the discomfort too; tearing up the British countryside so these cars and lorries can drive faster, costs, manpower, COSTS. Britain had attempted to get the idea of the motorway into the political agenda in the 1920’s to no avail.

The A5 Autobahn near Frankfurt am Main. (c) German-way.com

Those costs (for Germany) were approximately 60% from the treasury and the remainder from other taxes, revenues and savings on unemployment payments. Schmoelder went on to explain that these new motorways were under the jurisdiction of the state railways who had bought nearly two thousand lorries to aid construction and deliveries. Also ordered from the likes of Opel and Daimler Benz were aerodynamic buses capable of speeds up to 70mph. Unheard of in traffic-clogged, accident prone Britain eighty years ago.

Other hair-brained ideas shown were the modern, clean (and Nazi-party operated) service station, a breakdown recovery service and in order to summon them, quarter-mile spaced emergency telephones.

Talk of great length was of the aesthetics of the build too. The landscape was highly important, keeping mature trees and plants where possible and integrating the flow of the road to the lie of the land. Bridges must be a part of construction but these too must be allowed to blend in with their surroundings and have integrity, beauty. And not a high-viz jacket in sight.

Once Schmoelder’s tour was complete, ‘motorway-madness’ gripped the British interested parties with plans to visit the Autobahn first hand. Delegates from the AA as well as the RAC were invited although noticeably, the government officially did nothing, Leslie Grant, then Minister of Transport did undertake a tour in 1938. His outcomes or opinions are unknown.

Of course the war put paid to any plans, Britain taking more than twenty years after Schmoelder’s visit to build the Preston Northerly Bypass and tentatively entered the waters of the motorway age. These days, environmental issues and that old bug-bear of cost are the Special Roads demons, along with the cone, contra flow, speed cameras and tailgaters in business provided Audi’s. Spare a thought for the Ghost Road, that section of the A4 near Hambach, Germany where the open cast mine will devour this now quiet stretch of Autobahn in the next few years.

Might as well give a critique on what’s around, John. (c) Ibtimes.com.

Next time you’re stuck in a never-ending motorway queue, staring at the rear of that mk5 Golf, contemplating its rear light design and shut lines, take a deep breath, turn up the music and attempt tuning into a traffic free world, Top cuisine at the service station and mature trees swaying in the breeze. The electronic beeps and bongs might help.

Information derived from visit germany.com and the delightful 5054 Magazine by Hilton Holloway.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

3 thoughts on “We Drive Up The Autobahn”

  1. Being stuck behind slow moving traffic yesterday coming home from an enjoyable couple of days away in Stratford-upon-Avon, Andrew’s post is very relevant to me. Funnily enough, I do find myself studying the modern take on manufacturers rear light designs 🤔. Wouldn’t it be great to return to traffic free roads of days gone by with modern quiet, comfortable and reliable cars. Having said that, our European friends roads and highways do generally seem much better than ours

  2. I’d hesitate to say that European motorways are better than British ones. As a child I was surprised that German Autobahns were so narrow- the ones around Bonn often seemed to be two lanes with no hard shoulder- although parts of the M65 near Burnley aren’t much better. More recently motorways in Sicily were irritating although for reasons I didn’t expect; much of the roadside vegetation was bamboo. Unfortunately bamboo can allegedly grow 6’a year so many of the exit signs were partly hidden by bamboo that could have been cut back only a few weeks before…

  3. I also take an interest in rear brake light design from time to time but really don’t get the Mini Union Jack version at all.

    Your mention of the BCCA takes me back to my college days which seem like a long time ago now. Similarly the mention of waterproof paper membrane now replaced by Visqueen, which is a posh name for polythene sheets. Does a similar job of course by preventing water from “bleeding” out of the concrete and leaving voids behind.

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