With a crop of new car museums, German auto makers are trading like never before on their historical image as makers of top quality, precision vehicles.
The new Mercedes Museum -- a temple for car worshippers
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel sits down in a blue Mercedes Simplex from 1902 for a photo op Friday at the opening of the new Mercedes Benz museum in Stuttgart, it may well be a first: the head of state of one of the world’s most powerful nations playing ribbon-cutter at an industrial museum.
But Merkel’s planned appearance simply goes to underscore the importance of the automobile industry to the German economy -- and to the country’s overall image as a maker of quality machinery.
With the possible exception of beer, it is hard to think of another product so closely tied to the country’s history and reputation. Yet it is no secret that German carmakers are facing difficult times, losing market share to cheaper Asian and US models.
The new museum's architecture combines a sense of stasis and motion
The new, 150 million euro ($191 million) Mercedes Benz museum is the latest example of the industry’s recent push to honor its history -- and some would say shore up its image -- by investing in a showpiece property.
But Merceds Benz is by no means alone. Porsche will open a flashy new museum in Stuttgart next year, quadrupling its current exhibition space. And BMW is erecting BMW World in Munich, a shrine to its own image that is expected to cost 100 million euros. The space will allow visitors to “see, feel, hear smell, taste BMW,” according to a brochure.
Meanwhile, VW set the standard for car-culture-combination marketing by building the theme-park-like Autosatdt (Car City) in Wolfsburg in 2002. The Autostadt has a “museum of automobility,” hands-on learning labs, and a children’s activity center, and hosts contemporary art exhibits and avant-garde theatrical performancees.
Then there's the “glass factory” VW opened in Dresden in 2001. It, too, treads a thin line between industry and culture, offering hands on, interactive exhibits for adults and children who come to marvel at the building's architecture and observe the assembly of Phaeton luxury cars. The facility is also used after hours for theater performances.
All about image
But why do German car companies seem determined to drop big sums into high-priced show properties, even amid layoffs, cutbacks, and falling sales figures?
Exterior view of VW's "glass factory" in Dresden
“That’s easy,” said Markus Betz, the museum designer who created the exhibition space for the Mercedes Benz museum and is currently at work on the Porsche museum as well. “There is less and less difference between the premium automobile brands in terms of quality and technology, so they have to differentiate themselves that much more in terms of image."
“European carmakers have a longer history than those in the American or Asian market. A favorite saying is, "There's no future without ancestry’,” Betz said. “Mercedes is special because Daimler Benz was there from the beginning of the history of cars. There is no phase in the history of the automobile that Mercedes didn’t influence or write.”
Writing automotive history
Perched right on the edge of a busy highway in Stuttgart, the museum was computer-designed in concrete-chic by cutting-edge Dutch architect Ben van Berkel. A visit starts at the top of the eight-story museum, with an exhibit on the invention of the gas-powered automobile by Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, in 1886.
Mercedes helped write automobile history
A visitor can then continue though 120 years of automobile history by following the trail of the chronologically organized “legend” rooms (Room 1: 1886 to 1900, The Birth of the Automobile; Room 4: 1945-1960, Postwar Miracle, etc.) At the same time, he or she can check out a series of thematically organized "collection" rooms (Gallery of the Carriers, showing commercial transport vehicles throughout the ages; Gallery of Celebrities, featuring cars that once belonged to the likes of Princess Diana, Ringo Starr, and Japan’s Emperor Hirohito.)
While the Mercedes exhibit was an exercise in showing the interplay between a car and an entire culture, Betz said the Porsche museum poses another challenge. "Its more about just showing this sports car, and finding a way to make that interesting "not just for the husband, but for the wife and kids who might have been forced to come along."
They go way back: Merkel and Mercedes in 2003
It is hard to know whether the image boost from such extravagant marketing campaigns will actually pay off. But one thing is certain: German car museums are immensely popular. The old Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart had about 450,000 visitors a year, more than any other museum in the city. The Autodstadt in Wolfsburg has had 12 million visitors since it opened, and BMW World is predicting 850,000 visitors a year.
Meanwhile, Betz admitted that he was “astonished” when he heard Chancellor Merkel would attend the museum opening. Now, however, he has come to see her visit as “a sign of recognition for what Mercedes did for the German public” at its own costs.
Image counts more heavily when models are technically similar
“Its not a museum whose end goal is to have people just go sign a contract for a new Mercedes; it is an important addition to the technical museum landscape of the country,” Betz said.
And more than that, he said, Merkel is supporting Mercedes' vote of confidence for Germany as a manufacturing country.
“Even though Asians are making luxury cars, German car makers are saying, ‘Hey folks, look at us. We are looking toward the future.’," Betz said.
"It is Mercedes saying, ‘Don’t crawl back into your hole. We need to show what we can do.’”