Autobahn

SOME YEARS AGO, I began listening to music performed by the German group Kraftwerk, formed in 1970 in the West German city of Düsseldorf. They specialise in electronically generated music, a field in which they were pioneers in their country. In the 1980s, I used to drive across Europe from my home in North Kent to places as far afield as Italy, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. The cars I drove at the time were equipped with music cassette players. I recorded my own cassettes from LPs and CDs in my own large collection. Amongst the music I found satisfying during the long journeys I made were some of the creations of the Kraftwerk band. Amongst my favourite of their albums were “Autobahn” (first released 1974) and “Radio-Aktivität” (released 1975). The music was a great accompaniment to speeding along the highways of Europe including Germany’s Autobahns.

I used to break my journeys along the highways at regular intervals, stopping in villages or towns to take a short rest and refreshment. On one journey, I drove off the Autobahn into a picturesque small town in Bavaria, whose name I have forgotten. I entered a busy Gasthaus (pub with a restaurant) and found a vacant seat next to an elderly gentleman who was enjoying a stein of lager.

I remember seeing people sitting nearby drinking beer with slices of lemon. However, what I remember most is the brief conversation I had with my elderly neighbour. My German was, and still is, rudimentary but sufficient to have a simple conversation. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing. I explained that I was driving to Yugoslavia. Then, I said something about the high quality of motorways (Autobahns) in what was then West Germany. The old man smiled, and said (in German):

“Naturally. They were made by our leader Adolf Hitler.”

I was at a loss for words because few if any Germans I had met until then had ever mentioned Hitler and certainly not in such a favourable light. Without waiting for me to respond, he explained that he had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Russians during WW2 and had spent many years in prison camps there. I would have loved to have discussed this with him in detail, but my German was not up to it and also, I had to get on with the journey I had planned for that day.

Most people, including yours truly, credit Hitler with stimulating the building of Autobahns and similar highways. This is a mistake depending how one defines a motorway. In this context, a motorway is a road often with limited access and limited to motorised vehicles.

While Germany was being ruled by the government of the Weimar Republic, work began on an ambitious scheme to build a car only highway/motorway linking Hamburg to Frankfurt/Main and Basel (Switzerland). Parts of this were constructed before Hitler came to power. That road lacked a central reservation as found on modern motorways, but excluded traffic such as cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles pulled by animals. The Autobahns constructed after Hitler came to power were similar to those currently constructed.

In the 1920s before Hitler ruled Germany but after Mussolini became Italy’s dictator, Italy was the first country in the world to build motorways reserved for motorised vehicles travelling at speed. The first Italian autostrade (motorways; singular: autostrada) were completed between 1924 and 1926 and by the end of the 1930s, the country had over 250 miles of both single- and dual-carriageway autostrade. It is sad to relate that the UK had to wait until 1958 for its first motorway, the Preston by-pass, now part of the M6. In 1959, the first section of the M1 was opened, linking Watford and Rugby. This stretch of highway had no central reservation, no lighting, no crash barriers, and no speed limit. Things have changed since then.

When I used to cross Germany, the motorways (Autobahnen) had long stretches where there were no speed restrictions. Once, I decided to check out the ability of my box-like Volvo 240 estate car on a German Autobahn. To my surprise, the vehicle whose shape looked anything but aerodynamic, effortlessly achieved a speed of 105 miles per hour going up a steep incline. When driving at high speeds in Germany, you can be sure that there will be plenty of vehicles that shoot past you at even higher speeds.

After the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, many former East Germans flooded the Autobahns with their poorly powered Trabant vehicles. Often when driving along the motorways in Germany I saw these slow-moving cars valiantly sitting in the overtaking lanes trying to pass vehicles with far more powerful engines. The drivers of speedy cars like Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes Benz, needed fast reflexes and good brakes to avoid crashing into the Trabants being driven by those who were enjoying the freedom of travel after many years of repression in the former DDR.

My days of driving across Europe from the UK have ended. The short journey from Kensington to the Channel crossings is tedious on account of the heavy traffic in London and South East England. Also, it is tiring to drive for at least a day and a half before reaching lovely countryside, be it the south of France or the mountains of Switzerland or Austria. I still enjoy driving but not the great distances I used to cover, and my enjoyment of the music of Kraftwerk remains as great as ever.

Auto-biography

BAVARIA 87 Between Braunau and Munich Volvo

 

I passed my driving test in mid-1982, shortly after qualifying as a dentist. Like many dentists I have met, I went through a phase of fascination with cars.

My first car was second-hand. I was advised to buy something not to expensive just in case during my first months on the road I was to have had an accident. I bought an Austin Allegro from a local dealer. It seemed in great condition given its low price. However, it had at least one annoying defect: it would stop suddenly without warning. This defect was due to a loose connection in the ignition system.  After a very few months, the car began emitting blue smoke from its exhaust. This was due to some major defect in the engine, which would have cost more to repair than the car itself. When I confronted the dealer, who had sold me the Allegro, he reccommended that I bought a new car. I told him that I was not happy with his response because I had had the car for such a short time.

A local garage did something temporary to the engine to improve its part-exchange value, but also advised me to obtain another vehicle. To my great surprise, the local VW dealer offered me a very good part exchange price if I bought a VW. I bought a VW Polo Formel E. This was not a car for using on the Formula One racetracks, but a comfortable, very easy to drive, practical small car. The ‘Formel E’ related to the fact that the car had a gear setting that allowed low fuel consumotion. This car served me well and would have kept on going for many years, but I had my eyes on owning a Volvo.

The first Volvo I bought was a Volvo 340, a descendant of the Dutch DAF models. Like the Allegro, mine had a persistent problem. It also stopped suddenly and without warning. Despite many visits to the local Volvo dealer, no one could solve the problem. Eventually, Volvo recalled my car for a modification to rectify a design fault in the carburettor. After that, the 340 behaved well and survived a rear end shunt with very little damage. My lust for another car sent me back to the car showrooms after about two years.

I bought a Volvo 240 estate car. Though enormous and looking aerodynamically inefficient, this car was superb. It handled as easily as my relatively tiny VW Polo had done, and it could fly along if speed was needed. Once on the autobahn in West Germany, I managed to move the car at 105 mph uphill, and even then my foot had not completely pressed the accelerator pedal to its fullest extent.  This spacious, easily manoevrable car carried me right across Europe from Kent to Belgrade, and on another trip from Kent to Budapest. Why I traded in this Volvo 240 for a newer Volvo 240, I cannot recall. Both 240s were excellent, but a new model of Volvo had arrive on the market place.

I part exchanged my perfectly good Volvo 240 estate for a brand new Volvo 850 saloon. This was a complete disappointment after the 240 models. It looked good by Volvo standards but was not pleasurable to drive. When I took it to a Volvo dealer a couple of years later, I was offered a pathetic part-exchange price against a new Volvo. I was told that the 850 did not sell well second-hand.

Very disappointed with Volvo, I rang the local Saab dealership. When they learned my wife was pregnant, they offered to bring a model of the Saab (in our price range) to our home so that I could take it for a test-drive. As soon as I sat in the driving seat, I knew that we had to own a Saab. We bought a Saab 900, which lasted us well for a few years, and would have lasted us much longer had we not decided to trade it in for a newer model before its resale price dropped too far. We bought a Saab 9-3, which sadly lacked some of the quality of the first Saab we owned. 

Ten years ago, we set out to attend our friends’ golden wedding anniversary party in rural Kent. Before leaving London, we replaced our four tires as required after we had the results of our car’s official car inspection (MOT test). We arrived early and decided to visit a bonsai nursery that we had seen a few years earlier. When we returned to the car, ready to drive to the party, I turned the ignition key and all that happened was a grinding noise from the engine. We called the AA (roadside assistance), who arrived quickly. The engineer looked at the enging and discovered that the fan belt had slipped off its mountings. Worse than that, one of the parts of the engine thatrelied on the fan belt had a severely distorted metal part. We asked the enginner roughly how much it would cost to repair the fault. He said he thought it would be at least £300.

Now, when I had last visited the Saab garage, I had asked for a part-exchange quote for our now ageing car. I was told that £400 would be generous. Consequently, we decided not to replace the car, but to sell it to scrap dealers, who gave us a paltry sum for it. Since then, we have not owned an auto, and life has been, surprisingly, less stressful.

You may be wondering how we reached the party. The kind AA engineer took us to a local car hire place, and we picked up a car (paid for by the AA as part of our membership plan), and arrived quite late at the party. 

It’s enough to drive you around the Benz

Of my attempts to learn to drive a car, I will write on this subject at another occasion. Suffice it to say that by the summer of 1982, when I had been practising dentistry for several months, I passed the Driving Test at the age of thirty years. I began to enjoy driving and cars in general. I changed my car often. Over a period of eleven years while I practised in Kent, I possessed (in the following order): an Austin Allegro, a Volkswagen Polo, a Volvo 340, then two Volvo 240s, and then a Volvo 850. The last two cars I owned after those were Saabs.

 

MERC 2

 

Some time during my eleven year stay in Kent, I fancied owning a Mercedes Benz. In my mind, this make of car rated above all others. Apart from the company’s long heritage (it started in the late 1880s), the cars it produced were reputed to be strong, reliable, and very roadworthy. It is of interest to note that Adolf Hitler rode around in Mercedes cars. I suppose he must have known that the Mercedes in the company’s name was chosen because Mercedes was a daughter of Emil Jellinek (1853-1918), a motor manufacturing entrepreneur who created the Mercedes trade mark in 1901. Emil, the son of a rabbi, was married to Mercedes’ mother Rachel Goggmann Cenrobert, who was of French-Sephardi descent. Therefore, the car Hitler enjoyed was named after a Jewish woman. But I digress.

A new Mercedes Benz dealership opened close to the practice, where I worked. One lunchtime, I drove to the dealership to test drive a Mercedes estate car. A salesman drove me about a mile, and then let me take the wheel on the way back. At a certain stage, I needed to operate the handbrake. I looked for it in the usual place on the central console that separates the two front sets, but it was not there.

“Where is the handbrake?” I asked the salesman.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “I have never driven this model before.”

He thought for a minute, and said:

“Try that handle beside your left leg.”

He was right, but my confidence in him diminished.

When I had driven the car back to the dealership, I asked to be shown some pre-owned cars, as the new ones were way beyond my price-range.

Another digression seems appropriate at this point. Many years after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I hired a car at Heathrow Airport. It was an up to the minute luxurious Vauxhall estate car. A charming young Asian lady handed me the keys and told me where to find the vehicle. I sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Immediately, I noticed a warning light telling me that the handbrake was engaged. I looked for the handbrake. It was neither on the central console nor was there a handle near the foot pedals. I was flummoxed. I returned to the car hire office feeling rather foolish and described my problem to the young lady. She smiled before explaining that the handbrake was operated by a small button on the central console near the gear change stick. After returning to the car, I found the button, which was no bigger than the surface of a dice such as is used in board games. It was flush with the rest of the console and looked like a decoration.

 

MERC 1

 

I was quite taken with a greenish Mercedes saloon car, which was almost favourably priced, but still some way beyond my reach. The salesman opened the vehicle and invited me to sit in the driver’s seat.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Very nice,” I replied, “but I’m not so keen on that plastic trim on the central console around the gear stick.”

“Sir,” he exclaimed, affronted, “that’s not plastic. It’s highly polished wood trim. The very best. This is a Mercedes, you know.”

“Sorry,” I replied, not totally convinced, and continuing, “I like the car. Are you prepared to lower the price?”

“Oh no, sir, that is totally against our company policy. The price we offer is the only price. Our company does not haggle.”

Lunchtime was nearly over, so I said that I would think about the car and would let him know my decision soon.

Twenty-four hours later, I was eating my lunch in the practice when the telephone rung. One of my colleagues answered it and then handed me the receiver. It was the salesman, whom I met the day before.

“Mr Yamey,” he said, “I have good news for you. I have spoken with my manager, and he says that we can offer you the car for £1000 less.”

“Thank you,” I replied, “let me think about that.”

Even with the discount, the car was still beyond my means.

 

merc 3

 

Twenty-four hours later, two days after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I received another call from the salesman, again whilst I was eating lunch.

“I have more good news for you, My Yamey,” he began, “my manager has authorised a further thousand-pound reduction in the cost of the car you are interested in. That’s a discount of two thousand pounds. Makes the motor very reasonable, don’t you think?”

I told him that I was not sure about buying at that moment, and that I would get back to him if I changed my mind. I had by then decided that not only was the car too expensive even with the unexpected discounts from a firm that never offered discounts, but, also, I was actually happy with the car I already owned.