From 1973 through 2005, my job was to create excitement for Volkswagens in the hope that people would buy them. The job had its ups and downs. We loved facelifts and hated totally new cars. With a facelift, we could travel to attractive and warm places for the photo shoot. “Because of the sun.” Not to mention the beach. And the nice amenities of the Hotel Negresco in Nice. With a facelift, we could tool around in broad daylight, and nobody would bat an eye or even think of snapping a picture. Which magazine would publish the spy shot of a re-designed bumper? Totally new cars were top secret. Not allowed to travel outside the confines of the VW factory. Even there, constantly under tarps. The only places we could photograph them were at the in-house photo studio or at the VW proving grounds in Ehra-Lessien. Wait until the animal rights people will hear this story.
Ehra-Lessien (“Ehra” for short) was—still is—in a godforsaken place north of Wolfsburg. Surrounded by woods, barbed wire and an army of guards, Ehra is Europe’s largest test track. According to Wikipedia, “they had originally built it here during the Cold War, because it was a no-fly zone on the East German border, safe from prying eyes seeing secret prototypes.”
We said they built it there because they saved barbed wire on the one side abutting the death strip of the border. It was a lie. Everybody who knew Volkswagen—but not the environs of Ehra, Boitzenhagen and Küstorf—believed our version. Ehra houses 100 km of roads of all stripes, from mudholes to banked corners which can be taken at top speed while your car is glued to a wall. You may have seen it on Top Gear, when James May hit 407 km/h in a Bugatti Veyron.
Sound exciting? Compared to Nice, it’s boring as hell. We hated Ehra. It was a bad assignment. “Ehra wem Ehra gebührt,” we said; a bad pun that requires knowledge of German to still not understand. The weather was usually rotten, especially in the months before the inevitable spring launch. Most of the time was spent waiting for the sun to come out. We spent weeks in Ehra in the rain.
I learned to drive in Ehra. I did Volkswagen advertising and didn’t have a driver’s license. I was in good company; VW of America’s advertising director in the 60s didn’t have a license. Helmut Schmitz had hired DDB, the agency that did the classic “Lemon” or “Think small” ads. (He ran that agency later.) Werner Butter, President of DDB Düsseldorf, didn’t have a license. He had lost an eye when he was young and didn’t qualify. Asked how he could sell a product he couldn’t use, Werner inevitably answered: “I also do ads for tampons.”
Not having a license made us unprepossessed: we would sell anything VW came up with. Engine in the back? Great. Front? Super. Aircooled? The best. Watercooled? State of the art. 4, 5, 6, 8 cylinders, gas or diesel, we loved it all. Also, we consumed inordinate amounts of alcohol during, after, and before work. A driver’s license would have been a waste of time and money better spent in bars.
But what do you do when you are bored and surrounded by cars and 100 km of non-public roads? You sit in a car. You turn the key. What did they say, push the gear, shift into clutch—or was it the other way round? I quickly found out. After some stints in Ehra, I could drive (illegally).
Again, it was time to launch a super-secret new car the world hadn’t seen before and wasn’t supposed to see before the designated date. So there we were sitting in a hut next to the Dynamikfläche in Ehra, and it was pouring rain. Outside were a bunch of highly classified handmade prototypes, some with only one side finished. Why waste the money on the other side if it doesn’t get photographed?
The photographer and his crew loved it as they were paid by the day. We played cards with the guards. They loved it, too, because watching us advertising yo-yos was better duty than standing in the rain. Their job: keep us from doing something entirely stupid like driving a hand-made prototype (that cost a million dollars to make) at 200 km/h through aforementioned banked corners. It happened. Once.
The Dynamikfläche is a huge skid pad, half a kilometer in diameter, flat as my Japanese wife’s chest. It’s surrounded by dense woods. With the rain coming down, it glistened like a lake. I mean, the Dynamikfläche did.
There was a faint “quack-quaak” in the distance.
One of the guards said: “Here comes dinner.”
The other guard dropped his cards and grabbed a canvas bag. The guards went outside. We followed. The rain had subsided to a drizzle, rays of sun on the horizon.
The “quack-quaak” turned louder. In the air, five ducks in perfect V-formation.
The ducks were on final approach, headed for a landing on the glistening lake surrounded by the dense woods.
With a last “quaak,” they flared. Made contact with the concrete. Tumbled over each other in a big ball of duck feathers. Broke their necks and were dead before they stopped skidding.
The guards went out and collected them in the canvas bag that had obviously seen ducks that had met a similar fate on what must have been the world’s most expensive and most elaborate duck trap.
We declined the offer of a dead duck.
Next day, the sun was out and we could get on with our business of creating anticipation and desire for a new Volkswagen. At lunch, we shared some cold duck sandwiches. Guaranteed lead-free.
This story from the SWWE (Stories We Wrote Elsewhere) archives appeared first on May 24, 2009 in Thetruthaboutcars.com