For us British, Germany is probably not the most popular European tourist destination . Although Brexit probably means us Brits are no longer a popular European tourist.
There aren’t many beaches to tempt visitors of course, but they make up for it with car makers aplenty including Porsche, Mercedes, Audi, Opel and of course BMW. Germany is a beautiful, varied and very interesting country and my wife Luisa and I decided to visit Munich and Bavaria for a nine-day holiday this summer.
Now Luisa is not a petrolhead, but she knows from my mutterings that Munich is the home of BMW. So in an act of selfless devotion, she decided to book us both a visit to the factory, the museum and BMW’s own theme park: BMW Welt. Arranging it is no easy matter – amazingly it can’t be booked on line and the tickets are too popular to leave it to chance.
We arrived at 11.15 to start the near three-hour tour. They don’t want you to miss anything. It started in BMW Weld, which is a remarkable piece of modern architecture dating from 2012. In it, you can view all the current models and play computer games with them. And if you have bought a new car, you can collect it in the most extravagant way possible – driving down an internal spiral ramp out into the real world. The pictures below show a family being shown theirs.
There is a huge shop selling all manner of branded bits and bobs, at prices only double those of the unbranded. This is actually very reasonable compared with a Bugatti boutique we ran across elsewhere in Munich, where a T-shirt was the most economical item on offer at £100. But if you can afford a Bugatti…
Next stop was the beautiful circular museum. Our guide, Noel, equipped us all with hi-tech headsets so we could hear him easily and then took us back to the birth of BMW with the aero engines they made in WW1. I thought I was clever knowing the blue and white BMW roundel was a stylised propeller; only to learn that it was a story invented by BMW themselves. After the war, they refocused onto motorbikes and still make a version of their venerable flat twin machines today.
It is more than slightly ironic that their first car was an improved version of the Austin 7, built under licence and known as a ‘Dixi’. Here we are, almost a century later, with BMW again making a former Austin, the Mini. But this time they bought the company and have done amazing things to exploit and develop the Mini marque. Not that it’s very Mini anymore.
Once BMW had got past building another cast-off, the Isetta Bubble car, they really found their feet and began building the cars they are associated with today.
The car that started this was the 2002 in the 1960s but the naming process then morphed into the numbered series concept we all know with the 3, then 5, 6, 7, 8, 1, 2 and 4. Exciting stuff… BMW know they don’t need fancy Spanish towns (remember Cortina?) or mountain ranges (Dolomite anyone?) or royals (the forgettable Princess) to make their cars exciting. The cars speak for themselves.
Just as the naming could be accused of being a little too consistent, so is the design language of the cars. The various iterations of 3 series over 40 years are lined up side by side in the museum starting with the 02. At first the only difference seems to be that the old one’s ‘double kidney bean’ grilles leaned forward like a shark’s nose – and now they lean back to be more aerodynamic. But they are great cars.
Noel also took pains to explain the ‘Hoffmeister kink’. This is not a strange beer and shot combo, but the way the rear ‘C’ pillar bends forward at the base of the window. Apparently, it gives a sense of speed and tells us the car is rear wheel drive. Apparently.
Amongst the exhibits is Elvis’ own 507, a very pretty white convertible he bought while stationed in Germany with the US army. He had it resprayed red because every morning it would be nearer that colour as a result of all the lipstick messages left for him on the car by female fans.
BMW built a modern homage to the 507 in the form of the Z8. That achieved fame during Bond’s disloyal era driving BMWs rather than Astons. Noel joked that they hadn’t got Bond’s actual car because it was sawn in half by the evil villain in his helicopter. In reality, the car in the movie was a ‘mule’ built using a Chevrolet Corvette so would have had no place in this museum.
The first M car is there – called amazingly, M1, it was originally to be built for BMW by Lamborghini, until they went on strike.
The final part of the museum exhibition is a spiral 100 year timeline into the roof with details of both the cars and the world at large. Germany has a unique willingness to acknowledge all aspects of its 20th century past. The display deals honestly with the Nazi period and the fact that BMW ‘employed’ a lot of forced labour to make the aero engines demanded by Hitler’s war effort. I can’t think of other cultures willing to be so self-critical and open.
It is also encouraging to see the range of nationalities visiting the museum – more than we have even seen around the city. This also says something about BMW’s ethics and it’s appeal as a world brand.
After the museum, Noel asks us to put away our cameras for a tour of the factory. Not being able to grab some snaps is a big disappointment for me. Obviously there are industrial secrets to hide from the competition. But also, it is not fair to be taking pictures of the workers without their individual permission. Not that we see many human ones.
The largely robotised production line follows a circuitous route like a set of intestines over five floors. We start by seeing sheet steel stamped into panels and follow the building of the monocoque, painting, the fitting of the drive train and interior all the way to final testing. It is all surprisingly quiet and clinically clean. If you were allowed to bring in your sandwiches, you really could eat them off the floor.
Originally built to have plenty of space outside the city, the city has now swallowed BMW. But thoughts of asking BMW to move to a greenfield site were forgotten when the city remembered the carmaker’s contribution to the local economy.
The average BMW takes 40 hours to make. The Rolls Royce also starts life in Germany, but it is months before it glides from the Goodwood finishing facility – where the owners every whim receives a full pandering. The BMWs are all made to individual order too and fabulous just-in-time production methods mean every car on the line is a different variation on a 3 or 4 series.
The huge robots do their mesmerising work behind screens for the safety of all. But new Industry 4.0 technology is the new watch word. I am told this includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things, cloud computing and cognitive computing. In practical terms we will see smaller robots working alongside their human colleagues soon, literally elbow to elbow and learning from each other.
BMW are leading the way amongst conventional car manufacturers with hybrid and all electric cars. By 2040, we won’t legally be able to buy a new car using petrol or diesel. Arguably, cars will change more in the next 20 years than they have in the 100 covered by the museum. And just as robots are making them now, the robots will be doing the driving by then too. ‘The ultimate driving machine’ strap line will need an update.
The tour over, Noel has certainly proved he knows his cars and BMW. I just have to ask him how he gets to work. He replies without any embarrassment:
‘Oh I don’t own a car. I cycle.’