A Car Guy Afoot in Europe

By: David Kennedy

This spring I had the good fortune to spend two weeks in Europe, fulfilling some of my long held car guy dreams. I’ve always thought that the Monaco race is the Holy Grail of Formula 1 and was fortunate to get to this year’s event in May. In addition to checking that major item off my bucket list, I also took the opportunity to visit three of Europe’s finest automobile museums; the Porsche Museum and the Mercedes-Benz museum near Stuttgart, and the French national automobile museum in Mulhouse.

Setting the context, my brother and sister-in-law live in Basel, Switzerland but will likely be moving back to the states next year. So my wife and I took what might be our last opportunity to visit them in May, and use their apartment in Basel as a base for exploring some of Europe’s treasures. I have been a Formula One enthusiast for more than 40 years, and fortunately have been able to get my sister-in-law also hooked on my obsession. The four of us have been to F1 races together in past years in Montréal and Singapore.

We first flew to Zurich, and then took the SBB to Basel. (SSB is the Swiss national railway. The network of high speed inter-city trains operated by the Swiss, German and French rail systems is superb, and makes even a dedicated driver like myself wonder why spend so much time on our interstates.) We had a few days to spend in Basel and I made a planned side trip via the train to Stuttgart while my wife and sister-in-law went off and enjoyed museums, shops and restaurants in Switzerland.

I had planned to go to the Porsche Museum in Zuffenhausen, and thought I might also fit in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Unterturkheim. (Both are industrial suburbs of Stuttgart.) From everything that I had read ahead of time, I expected that the Porsche Museum would be absolutely spectacular and it was. It is only a few years old and has quite striking architecture, with an impressive sculpture out front that holds three 911s soaring into the sky.

Porsche has done a particularly good job in holding on to most of the many significant cars that make up its heritage, and the museum’s four levels were an enthusiast’s nirvana. My personal favorites were the Berlin–Rome 1938 race coupe (not named a Porsche, but the brand’s spiritual ancestor), the quite lovely silver 1965 904 Carrera and the 908 longtail which won at Daytona in 1968. As the owner of a 928 I was particularly gratified to see the current short-term exhibit entitled the “The Transaxle Era” which focused on the development of the 924 – 928 – 944 – 968 series of cars. I can only hope that the current rumors may be true and that the newest generation of the Porsche Panamara may be shortened and become the basis for a new version of the 928!

While the Porsche Museum was everything I expected and more, I decided to stay over and go to the Mercedes Museum the next morning. It was even better than the Porsche establishment. In fact, I would go so far to say that the Mercedes-Benz museum was simply the best museum I’ve ever been to in my life. You begin by taking an elevator up to the fifth level and start the tour by looking at a reproduction of the first Benz, an 1895 powered carriage. You then wend your way down a multi-story spiral through a century of automobile history. The various levels show off impeccably curated road cars, trucks, race cars and airplanes, all well woven into contextual displays about what else was happening in the world during the same periods.

A big red 540 K convertible was perhaps the most impressive vehicle in the museum, but my heart will always first remember the silver 300 SL gullwing. In addition, the displays of trucks and of Mercedes-Benz’s vaunted racing history are breathtaking.

One significant difference between the Porsche and Mercedes-Benz museums was that Mercedes-Benz’s quite forthright. presentation about the company’s deep alliances with the Hitler regime. However, this topic was almost unaddressed in the Porsche Museum. If one did not know better, one might think that Ferdinand Porsche had nothing to do with Germany’s World War II efforts; in fact, he was one of Hitler’s key industrial designers. I really felt that Mercedes-Benz’s efforts to come to terms with that part of its history were laudable, and serve the company and its image much better than Porsche’s very muted presentation of its ancestry.

I returned to Basel and then we all went to the French seaside city of Nice, planning to take the brief train ride to Monaco on race day which is what we did. I must confess that the race was somewhat of a disappointment and did not live up to my perhaps unrealistic expectations. Of course, the fact that it rained most of the day making us feel like wet rats, may have been a part of why the magic that I was expecting didn’t occur.

We had very good seats in one of the grandstands overlooking the harbor, two good curves and a short straight. While there was a bit of drama around a bungled pitstop for Daniel Ricciardo leading to Lewis Hamilton’s ultimate victory, most of the race was a parade of Formula One cars proceeding in line inside of a track enclosure that looked exactly like the track enclosures in Montréal, or Singapore, or I suppose anywhere else. The same crowds, the same street vendors, the same souvenirs. Really the only thing different was viewing the fantails of the mega- yachts parked across from us; but even most of those were empty due to the weather and the absence of fair-weather fans.

However we did have quite a quite a pleasant time in Nice topped off by a meal at a restaurant that specialized in truffle enhanced foods and which was certainly one of the 10 or so best meals I’ve ever had. Of course, our pleasant stay there, including walks on the Promenade d’Anglais just made the subsequent horrific events feel that much closer to the bone!

While Monaco may have been a disappointment, right afterwards my wife and I rented a car and drove through the French Alps up to the Savoie region. We spent one day in Annecy, one of the most pleasant little towns I’ve ever been in. While there may be no such thing as bad food anywhere in France, the cuisine in this area, including the pastries displayed in the innumerable bakeries fronting on almost every street, was simply superb.

We made our way by car and train to Geneva and then went for a brief visit to Jerusalem, where my future daughter-in-law is working as a consular officer for the U.S. State Department. (Those few days which are worthy of an entire separate article.)

After returning to Basel, I had one unscheduled day, and decided on the spur of the moment to go to “La Cite de Automobile” in Mulhouse, the French national automobile museum, located in the former Bugatti factory. This museum had perhaps the best collection of cars, almost 400 of them, and most are pretty significant ones. However, the collection was not near as impressively presented or nor well curated. For example, a Lotus 25 F1 piloted by Jim Clark sat inconspicuously in a display of 20 or so Formula 1 cars. However, a long row of French Racing Blue Bugatti Type 35’s was singularly impressive, as was the sole Bugatti Royale on display.

In some ways I regret that my schedule didn’t allow a further side trips to Munich and Wolfsburg, so both the Volkswagen – Audi and BMW museums await another trip, but perhaps that’s just as well.
(Another such trip would be just fine!). In any event all of us who appreciate German automobiles should make it a point to get to Stuttgart and Mulhouse, and see these fine displays of Europe’s automotive heritage. Words literally can’t describe the experience.