A New Breed of Car Museum Comes to Europe

Daimler Benz and BMW have opened hip, exciting, new museums dedicated to the automobile.
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The soaring steel-and-glass building in Munich, Germany, looks like a new concert hall, museum or even a cathedral.

It's really a car-delivery center.


BMW World isn't selling any simple sedan. It is promoting what its makers promote as "the ultimate driving experience." Since opening last October, the company's architecturally dramatic building close to Munich's Olympic Park has become one of the Bavarian capital's signatures, attracting more than a million visitors.

BMW World is part of a larger trend of how German car makers are leveraging their powerful brands into star tourist attractions. During the past two years, both

Daimler Benz


in Stuttgart and

BMW in Munich have opened spectacular new showcases.

BMW will open another museum in June, and

Porsche is in the process of polishing a new museum scheduled to debut later this year.

Forget the old image of a fusty car museum. These new German showcases aim to support the luxury brand images of their owners, while entertaining and instructing potential customers.

BMW World is chock full of BMW's latest wheels, as well as exhibits at which enthusiasts can learn about engines, fuel admissions, car design and even the yachts the automaker builds and sponsors for international competitions. The center also hosts concerts and sparkling restaurants and cafes.

To a certain extent, the auto showcases display over-the-top shameless commercialism. They double as theme parks and offer no critical analysis of the auto's role in modern society. Even though German luxury car makers are Europe's worst environmental polluters of the continent's auto makers, the museums do nothing but praise how hard the companies are working to clean up.

The corporate self promotion can be off-putting, but no one can deny the new buildings exhibit a striking allure.

German car companies are rich and ambitious enough to employ top-flight architects. Wolf Prix of the Vienna-based architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au designed BMW World. The Munich-based company also hired Zaha Hadid to build its factory in Leipzig, while Daimler picked the Dutch firm UNStudio to build its Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. All have produced glittering edifices that put theater back into the old-fashioned idea of a car museum and sales shop.

BMW World's swooping glass and steel structure seems to accelerate along the ground. Customers enter the cavernous showroom to pick up their new cars. They sip espressos and are introduced to the car's special driving features by computer simulation before proceeding down a grand staircase. As they arrive, spotlights light up underneath their car, and a young woman snaps a picture.

Some 45,000 people a year -- 170 a day -- pick up their cars this way. There's even a viewing gallery for those who want the vicarious thrill gained from observing the happy owners shriek with delight.

BMW World is free. It's located near the stadium built for the 1972 Olympics and the company's Munich Plant and the auto maker's museum. The old cone-like museum structure opened in 1973. It is currently closed for redesign and expansion, and is scheduled to reopen in June with five times more space than the original. Guided tours of the plant cost ¿6 for adults.

Daimler has had a museum of some kind or another for decades, but the new one warrants a special visit to Stuttgart. The concrete and glass building, which opened in 2006, is shaped inside like a double helix.

Admission costs ¿8, with children 14 and under free. While Mercedes cars dominate, the exhibits offers a fascinating look at the history of the motor vehicle.

Visitors begin the tour by taking an elevator up through a vast atrium to the top floor, exiting to the sounds of clopping horse hoofs. This introduction sets the stage for the invention of the automobile.

Along the ride through the decades of innovation and progress, there's a display of wonderful racing cars dating from the Silver Arrows of the 1930s right up to modern-day Formula One racers. Glass display cases contain drivers' uniforms from the old white coveralls and leather helmet days to the modern high-tech outfits.

A Fascination of Technology area provides a look at the daily lives of Mercedes engineers and designers. The Mercedes-Benz Center Stuttgart is adjacent, and it features the entire Mercedes line-up. Of course there is a souvenir shop, as well as several restaurants. An amphitheater sits between the two buildings.

Next in the starting gate is Porsche's effort. Also located in Stuttgart, it is a white trapezoidal building designed by Viennese architects Delugan Meill that is scheduled to open in December. Exhibits will include some cars and models never before seen by the public. Porsche has been producing sports and racing cars since 1948, so expect a fast ride.

William Echikson is a correspondent for

breakingviews.com, based in Brussels. He is the author of three books, most recently Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution.