Symbol of a broken system… an East German Trabant in the town of Neuruppin. Photo: Reuters.Not as a rule, no. But when they drop the ball, boy does it hit the ground hard. So what are the low points? I have to be careful, because when the British get really angry, the Germans invade.
Damn, did I say that? I was going to get through this column without mentioning the war.
Anyway, we will ask the (frequently unasked) questions. And we will present these Teutonic low points.
Trabant P601: OK, a bit obvious. But it was the four-wheeled symbol of a system that didn’t work. There were similar cars produced on the western side of the wall in the early 1960s, such as the Goggomobil, but the West Germans stopped making them as soon as they became more affluent.
The East Germans never got to that point and their cars were frozen in time. A noisy, two-stroke time at that.
BMW 3-Series Compact: You know, the first hatch they did, in the mid-1990s. Looked like they did it by just lopping the boot off the standard model. Buyers may as well have declared, ”I couldn’t afford a whole BMW but they agreed to sell me five-sixths of one.”
NSU Ro 80: This curious, high-tailed, last gasp from NSU could also be in the list of best German cars. With a Wankel engine and a long list of other innovations, it was an ambitious recipe. If it had spent longer in the oven, then it might not have been a byword for expensive trouble and smoky breakdowns.
Mercedes SL R107: There are some – me, for instance – who consider the lithe ”pagoda roof” SL of the 1960s one of the most graceful cars ever built. Then Benz applied the Mustang formula, which insists that each iteration must be bigger, heavier and uglier than the one before. Hence 1972’s fat-arsed replacement.
There was something worse, the stretched wheelbase SLC hardtop, which had the same corpulent looks but more of them and underlined its complete pointlessness by preventing you from taking the roof off.
Porsche Cayenne: Why, why, why? For the bucks, of course. There’s even more cynical things to come, including the forthcoming small sports utility vehicle called Macan. Presumably as in ”Macan quick money while trashing brand values”.
Wartburg: Another smoky Eastern Bloc shocker, not as well-known as the Trabant but nigh as nasty. Three-cylinder two-stroke engine, odious build quality … The company lasted 30 seconds once the wall came down.
Mercedes-Benz S-Class W140: Known to some as the Schwein Class, the 1991 model was bloated and outrageously heavy. It was a superb technological achievement in many ways but was completely wrong for the lean times that hit the market just after it did.
BMW X6 M: Take a big, four-wheel-drive with its centre of gravity just below the clouds and restyle it so it looks laughable and has the packaging efficiency of a 1-Series on stilts. Add a huge engine and low-profile tyres and drop the suspension so it can’t be taken off-road. The result? The answer to a question no sensible person would ask.
Maybach 57: It looked like a Hyundai Grandeur that had been put on the rack. It was named after a supposedly prestigious car not even Germans could remember and it was priced like a Rolls-Royce competitor. Which almost nobody thought it was. The Maybach 62 was worse. Five worse.
Volkswagen Phaeton: So, some great lummox decided VW should take on the S-Class Benz with something offering better value for money. D’oh! When was value for money part of the consideration with S-Class Benz buyers? And when did they want a ”people’s car” badge?
Heinkel Kabine: Take this entry as covering the Isetta, Messerschmitt, Zundapp Janus and those other ludicrously proportioned, flagrantly unstable cabin scooters and microcars.
Comes a time to forgive and forget. Anyone can make a mistake. Or two.
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