STUTTGART, GERMANY — My heart is revving so fast I think it’s about to jump out of my chest. Anticipation shifts into high gear at the thought of what awaits inside the Mercedes-Benz Museum. When the doors finally open, my legs kick into overdrive and I’m the first to buy a ticket.
A few seconds later, I’m at the starting line of this state-of-the-art auto museum that last year welcomed almost one million visitors. I rush to a futuristic pod that carries me eight storeys — 34 metres — above the circular museum entrance and step off into a lovely exhibition hall where I begin to learn how Karl Benz invented the automobile and how the Mercedes-Benz brand has evolved over the decades. The eighth floor exhibit also transports me back in time — to 1886 when Benz applies for a patent on his "gas-powered vehicle” and the roots of Mercedes-Benz are firmly planted.
Mercedes-Benz and its sportier rival Porsche, along with mega auto parts supplier Bosch, are all headquartered in this handsome southwest German city that’s surrounded by hills flush with vineyards.
No wonder Stuttgart is often called Germany’s “Motown.”
Porsche, refusing to take a back seat to Mercedes-Benz, opened it’s own high tech museum in Stuttgart in 2009 and the BMW Museum, which I visit later when I reach Munich, is the most impressive of the three.
Above: The Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, left, and the BMW museum in Munich are state-of-the-art structures.
The BMW Museum and BMW Welt (World), where Canadian customers regularly pick up their newly made BMWs in person — they are manufactured at the company’s global headquarters across the street — even has a 2-star Michelin restaurant on site.
“We get between three and six Canadians a week who pick up their car, go on a two or three week driving trip around Europe before returning the car here. Then we ship it back to Canada for them,” Matthias Kremer, a BMW Genius — “yes we stole that idea from Apple” — tells me at the massive BMW Welt facility.
All three car museums have become big tourist attractions and outdraw Germany’s major art and cultural museums by a large margin.
Young, affluent Chinese tourists are especially drawn to the museums and arrive by the bus loads each day. The luxury German brands have become status symbols among China’s growing middle class.
There’s plenty to see in the 16,500 square metre Mercedes-Benz Museum, which is crammed with over 160 vehicles, including the earliest forms of transportation, vintage models, legendary race cars, concept cars, engines and even a Popemobile, which was specially designed by Mercedes-Benz for overseas trips taken by the late Pope Paul II.
You see the car company names everywhere in Stuttgart — on street signs, squares, public buildings, banks and sports teams. In fact, the first thing you see when you leave Stuttgart’s main rail station is a giant Mercedes-Benz emblem on top of the station’s clock tower.
“Many people think the Mercedes-Benz logo is Stuttgart’s coat of arms,” laughs local guide Elisabeth Mohr.
The unique spiral design of the Mercedes-Benz museum allows visitors to go on a chronological tour using ramps instead of stairs. The ramps’ walls are also lined with pictures of historic events in which the automobile has played an important role.
Each of the museum’s 12 galleries offers some special surprises. On the seventh floor, the Birth of the Brand gallery showcases Mercedes-Benz’s earliest models and the Gallery of Voyagers next to it traces the company’s entrance into mass transit with the introduction of the motorized bus in 1895.
Above: The Porsche museum, left, is s beauty. Mercedes-Benz emblem appears on public buildings it Stuttgart. Museums display lots of futuristic cars.
The museum’s fourth floor houses a gallery featuring cars made specifically by Mercedes-Benz for VIPs. Besides the previously mentioned Popemobile, the collection includes a 1993 Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3 owned by actor Nicolas Cage, a1930s 770 Grand Mercedes cabriolet F once owned by the former German Emperor Wilhelm II during his exile in the Netherlands, and, my favourite, a vehicle made specifically for the 1993 Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park.
On the third floor I get a glimpse into Mercedes’ future — that’s where its electric car technology is showcased.
Race car fans will love the second floor. The company’s long involvement in auto racing — it started in 1934 — is celebrated with an exciting race track display of vintage and new Silver Arrow models.
My Mercedes-Benz tour ends when I reach the museum’s lower level where a giant gift shop and restaurant are located. The floor also features an All Time Stars section with vintage models that people can purchase.
Later, I take the S6 train from Stuttgart’s main rail station and exit at Porscheplatz, a square dominated by the legendary race car company’s head office, plant and museum.
While much smaller than the Mercedes-Benz Museum — this one is just 5,600 square metres — the Porsche Museum is no less impressive.
Designed by a Viennese architectural firm to reflect Porsche’s philosophy of approachability, the glazed glass building, thanks to its three V-shaped supporting columns, looks like its floating above the ground like a monolith. It’s so Porsche. A sculpture of three Porsche models shooting into the sky is another eye-catching feature.
Inside, more than 80 vehicles, some dating back to Ferdinand Porsche’s first prototype in 1948, are displayed in a bright, airy environment.
Porsche, which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2018, is the most profitable car brand in the world.
Left: Porsche's new fully electric sports car will make its display in 2019. Right: A vintage Mercedes-Benz gets lots of attention in Stuttgart museum.
When I reach the exhibition floor, I’m greeted by a Porsche 356 No. 1 Roadster representing the origins of the sports car. Close by is an artfully designed Porsche Mission E electric car, the first purely electrically powered Porsche, which makes its market debut in 2019.
There’s plenty of 911 models, too — it’s Porsche’s biggest seller — including an Irish green coupé, the one-millionth unit that rolled off the assembly line in 2017.
As soon as I arrive in Munich the next day, I head off in the direction of BMW Welt, located next to the city’s (1972) Olympic Stadium.
I suggest you visit BMW Welt before going to the museum across the street. BMW Welt lets you kick the tires, so to speak, on concept cars and new models. It’s so big, you can actually drive one of the company’s new electric cars around the gigantic showroom floor.
As soon as I enter, a sleek Z4 roadster catches my eye.
“The Z4 will debut next year,” Matthias Kremer tells me of BMW’s entry back into the roadster category, which they abandoned a few years ago.
BMW’s electric cars, the compact I-3 and the super-fast I-8, both built with carbon fibre parts, also get a lot of attention and Kremer tells me that by 2025 BMW will be offering 25 models that will be electrically powered.
Above: Mercedes-Benz pays tribute to its iconic Silver Arrow sports cars at its sprawling Stuttgart museum.
The Michelin-recognized EssZimmer restaurant sits perched above the BMW Welt showroom and features French cuisine with Mediterranean and regional influences. Noted German Chef Bobby Bräuer governs the EssZimmer kitchen and getting a table here is harder than buying a Z4 concept car.
The BMW Museum, which opened in 1973, is similar in design to the Mercedes-Benz facility in Stuttgart and visitors are transported through the company’s proud history on long ramps. Vintage BMWs fill the museum’s many galleries and the company pays special tribute to its proud history in motorcycles.
All three museums are great places to park yourself for a few hours when visiting Munich or Stuttgart.
JUST THE FACTS
• The Mercedes-Benz Museum is located at 100 Mercedesstrasse next to the Mercedes-Benz Arena where Stuttgart’s team in the premier Bundesliga plays. Information: http://www.mercedes-benz.com/en
• Porsche's Museum is a short ride on the train from downtown Stuttgart. Information: http://www.porsche.com/museum/en/
• BMW Welt is located at 1 Am Olympiapark and is connected to the BMW Museum by a stylish walking overpass.
• For information on German tourism, go to http://www.germany.travel/en