An hour's drive east of Hanover and two hours west of Berlin is the unimposing industrial city of Wolfsburg—a crosshatch of broad streets and squat apartment buildings on the Mittelland Canal. Home to 125,000 people, it's also the site of the Autostadt, a gleaming, Modernist "auto city" that celebrates the wonders of the car as well as the virtues of its owner, Volkswagen. Here visitors (mostly German) come to watch their customized Passats and Golfs roll off the finishing floor; view contemporary art by Matt Mullican, Ingo Günther, and Julian Opie; tour a museum of the automobile; and stop by pavilions dedicated to Volkswagen subsidiaries such as Audi, Lamborghini, and Scania. They might even spend the night at Europe's first purpose-built Ritz-Carlton.
A theme park dedicated to the car is a natural afterthought in the country of VW, Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche. Law-abiding Germans like almost nothing more than driving precisely engineered machines at speeds most Americans would consider suicidal, and kids here dream under posters of race-car drivers. Theme parks reflect, even anticipate, a culture's values: Disneyland's relentless optimism not only is typical of sunny southern California but also helped to shape that region's image. Yet the Autostadt, unlike most theme parks, has a particular, peculiar past to contend with. It was in Wolfsburg, during World War II, that the Nazis rounded up thousands of forced laborers to make armaments in Volkswagen factories. For VW and the city, the Autostadt is a decisive step in refashioning Wolfsburg into a tourist destination—and leaving a painful historical legacy behind.
The Autostadt began as the solution to an economic problem. From 1992 to 1995, Volkswagen made massive cutbacks because of a decline in consumer demand for cars and corporate restructuring, and 20,000 jobs in Wolfsburg—VW's headquarters—disappeared. "We had a very deep crisis here," Rolf Schnellecke, Wolfsburg's mayor, told me in his office overlooking the town square, which fills up twice a week with produce, pastry, and sausage vendors. "It was necessary to ask, Where is the city going?"
In 1995, Schnellecke met with city leaders and with Volkswagen managers to discuss the loss of jobs. What emerged from the meetings, according to Schnellecke, was the idea of reinventing Wolfsburg's economy, shifting it away from the industrial sector and toward service. In addition to the usual municipal projects, such as a new industrial park, the city decided to build a massive "adventure center"—the ErlebnisWelt—with a water park, an indoor ski hill, a soccer stadium, and an extreme-sports center. It should all be complete by late 2005.
So far, the centerpiece of the city's reinvention has been the Autostadt, built by Volkswagen across the Mittelland Canal from the railway station for $400 million. The park opened in June 2000 with a key incentive for Germans: anyone buying one of the company's new cars could pick it up at the Autostadt, saving the usual dealer delivery fee and getting a free day at the park. The Autostadt has already surpassed expectations, attracting nearly 4.5 million visitors in its first two years.
True to its name, the Autostadt is practically a city unto itself. At the edge of the park are two glass towers filled with rows and rows of cars awaiting their owners. Walking paths curve past grassy knolls and ponds and lead to the stark pavilions that showcase Volkswagen's cars. I sat for a while on a bench watching a Lamborghini rotate in and out of a big black box; the white whorl of the Audi pavilion in the distance brought to mind an elegant mollusk. The largest and most imposing structure, the KonzernForum, has a soaring atrium built around a giant globe. Here drafting computers let you design your fantasy car—I left with a printout of a compacted red Passat—and in one of three theaters you can watch the first narrative film made with a 360-degree camera.
It all looks like a greener, more stylish Epcot Center, which isn't so surprising given that Cincinnati-based theme park designer Jack Rouse worked on the Autostadt's exhibits. "We are part of the theme park family—Disney, Universal, Warner," says Autostadt CEO Otto F. Wachs. But unlike the park's American cousins "we are not a fantasy world."