Germans and their cars

Some time ago, my friend Susanne from Leipzig wrote me a mail and mentioned that they have a new car. Of course I asked what car it was. Before she told me the brand, she wrote “I hardly dare telling you”, because she knew I had very strong reservations about the brand she chose.

And there you are right in the middle of the Germans and their cars. For most Germans, a car is far more than just a mode of transport. A while ago, on the news, they had a bit about the rising petrol prices and the fact that while Germans heartily complained about the rises (justly so!), they still tended to buy high-powered cars. The economic cars weren’t all that popular, but the cars with a lot of PS were. The reporter talking about this then said “For Germans, cars are an emotional issue.” He’s right. I once had a friend who was quite tough, but even he admitted that when he had to take his trusty old car to the scrap yard, he parked in a lonely street for ten minutes and cried before bringing the car away.

Many Germans are also extremely faithful to one brand, sometimes sticking to it all of their driving life. Discussions between fans of different brands can become quite heated. I remember how a school mate and I had a long Mercedes vs. BMW discussion every single time we met. Each brand has a certain image, conveys certain feelings. In the late 1990s, there was a series of “fun books” for “proud” drivers of a [insert favourite brand here]. Each book toyed with the popular assumptions and prejudices of the brand. In 1992 the German band “Die Prinzen” mocked some car brands and their drivers in their song “Mein Fahrrad” (“My Bicycle”). For some time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the car Opel Manta became a popular topic in jokes and movies which played with its proletarian image. Back then I lived in the city Hagen and I remember how proud many people there were when the license plate code for Hagen (HA) was used in one of the movies about the Opel Manta.

Ah, license plates… In Germany, the first letters of the license plate show where the car is registered. Some of these letter combinations are used for little word plays, HA for example is also supposed to stand for “Hauptsache Auto” (=The car is the main thing), HG (symbol for the district of Bad Homburg with rather high rate of wealthy people) for “Hochwohlgeboren” (=Your Grace). OF (Offenbach) gets a less sympathetic treatment, said to also stand for “Ohne Führerschein” (=without driver’s license).

So you see, cars and their drivers are quite a part of general culture here in Germany. Cars are also a source of pride. German cars have an excellent reputation and the German Autobahn (highway) is often a topic with foreigners (at least with the ones I talk to). There is no general speed limit on German highways and there are quite a lot of people who like to drive as fast as their car will allow. I think this is the only country where you drive 180 km/h and are still considered too slow by some. There have always been attempts to introduce a general speed limit to German highways and these attempts have never been successful. Some consider a general speed limit harassment, some don’t see that it has sufficient benefits. Ever since I remember the topic comes up now and again, usually right before elections, and results in heated discussions.

When I lived in the US, a lot of people asked me about our Autobahn and were interested in how fast I had driven. I had one friend who always introduced me to others like this: “This is Heike, she drives 140 mph on the Autobahn.” (And yes, I admit that it’s great fun to drive fast. The best drive I ever had was during the Germany – England match of the 2010 World Cup. The Autobahn was absolutely empty, there was no speed limit, just three lanes which were all mine. And while I drove to my heart’s delight, I heard on the radio that Germany scored two goals.)

As I wrote before, for Germans a car is not just a mode of transport, it is a coveted and sometimes even loved item. That applies to the ancient compact car as much as to the shiny new limousine. When it was still allowed to wash cars at home, Saturdays looked much the same in most German suburbs, villages and towns: people washing their car in their driveway. Washing it with care, sometimes even scrubbing the wheel rims with a toothbrush. Stickers and decorations (from a nodding dachshund – Wackeldackel – to the toilet paper roll with a crochet cover) could tell a lot about the driver (that has become less, maybe it was a generation thing).

Many people (mainly women, as far as I can tell) even give their car a name. I remember my Mum getting a new car in 1988. It was shiny red and even though we never had given names to our cars, we immediately started calling him Gorbi, after Mihail Gorbachev, who was very popular in Germany. Later, my Mum gave Gorbi to me and I was sad to have to sell him when I moved to the US.

It was quite some years before I could buy my first own car. When I returned from the US, my Mum was kind enough to pass on her car to me and it was reliable, but it was a compact car. Driving on a German Autobahn with a compact car is no fun. So as soon as I earned sufficient money, I bought a bigger car. A new car. My car. It was love at first sight. When I parked it in the office garage each morning, I spent some time looking at it lovingly, just out of pure delight to be the owner of such a car. It was kept immaculately, my Mum tended to say that she wished my apartment was just half as tidy and clean as my car. I have relaxed a bit by now. But I admit, when it comes to cars, I’m typically German.


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