Around 121,000 people live in WOLFSBURG, but make no mistake, this is Volkswagen’s town. The village of the mid-1930s was reinvented almost overnight when Hitler’s Ford-inspired dream of a Volkswagen (literally “people’s car”) was realized in 1937 as a sprawling factory that began churning out the “Beetle” designed by Ferdinand Porsche. Aided by the economic pick-me-up of a postwar British military contract, an exception to enforced de-industrialization elsewhere, Volkswagen thrived, a fairy godmother of the German economy’s rags-to-riches Cinderella story. Such was the bad press at a threat to reduce operations at the world headquarters, Volkswagen was forced to shelve the plan.
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The vast plant known as Autostadt, spread beside a canal behind the train station, is a rev-head’s paradise. VW’s intended car collection centre has morphed into a futuristic theme park of museums and rides. The five-storey ZeitHaus celebrates milestones in gleaming automotive history (Karl Benz’s 1886 tricycle, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and Auto Union “Silver Arrow” racing cars or the VW W12 which set a record 24-hour run of 7750km, an average speed of 323km/h) and also its icons (an Art Nouveau Bugatti designed by Jean Bugatti himself, gorgeous Cadillacs and Chevys and the millionth Mini from 1965).
In futuristic pavilions behind, Volkswagen indulges in entertaining self-promotion for its brands: Bugatti’s bling; Lamborghini’s power; reliable Skoda; dynamic Seat; futuristic Audi; and the quality and safety of Volkswagen. If you have toddlers in tow, there’s a good motor-themed crêche, and, for older kids, a computerized driving course to complete in mini VW Beetles. However, Autostadt’s star attraction is the 1930s brick factory itself, which at 8.4 square kilometres is four times larger than Monaco; only from a footbridge before Autostadt do you sense its scale. The most popular tours are made by mini-train around a few sections. Others ascend the company’s landmark cylindrical glass tower in which shiny cars await collection; you can even drive up. Other hands-on attractions such as tackling a 4WD terrain course (GeländeParcours) in a VW Touareg or Tiguan are provided as “training” activities.