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Driving ... On The Autobahn

Illustration for article titled Driving ... On The Autobahn

When I worked for Porsche, I endured many business trips to Germany. I say “endured” because Stuttgart isn’t exactly charming, unless you visit during the one week in June when the sun comes out and they take the tourism photographs.

Beyond the weather, the hotel rooms are typically European, which is to say virtually unfurnished. Asking for an extra blanket receives a response like: “Vut other blanket? You haf towels in your bathroom, no?” And although most German offices aren’t air-conditioned, they insist you wear a suit and tie like you’re on the set of Mad Men.

Fortunately, one thing always made a business trip to Stuttgart more enjoyable: the autobahn.

Driving on the autobahn is something that all car enthusiasts should do at least once in their life, sort of like driving on a race track, or - as I mentioned last week - driving in Manhattan. But while driving in Manhattan is chaos, the autobahn is the exact opposite. Like everything else in Germany, it’s perfectly organized.

For those who haven’t yet enjoyed the autobahn, allow me to recount my experiences. It’s much cheaper than actually being there.

My first time was in a Porsche Boxster S, which was generously provided by my employer during my stay. I returned the favor by racking up not one but two speed camera tickets in one single night, which brings us to an important autobahn lesson: not all of it is limitless. In fact, most of the autobahn has speed limits, and they’re enforced as if you’re in Virginia. In other words, you get a citation even if you weren’t speeding, because they know you were probably thinking about it.

Next time, I used a slightly more appropriate vehicle to tackle the autobahn: a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S. This is like a standard Cayenne, except with a motor from the kind of air conditioner they probably use to cool office buildings in Phoenix. Truly: on this particular trip, I found a de-restricted section of the autobahn and hit 155 miles per hour. Though the Cayenne was ready for more, I pictured a tire blowout and German authorities telling my parents: “I’m sorry, but all we found was zis receipt for a blanket.”

On another trip, I was saddled with a BMW 120d Cabriolet. (For those of you in North America: imagine a regular 1-Series, but with the acceleration of a porch swing.) This was a rental car, presumably provided because Porsche was tired of me getting tickets in their company vehicles.

This time, I was cruising along at high speed when I noticed a German police car driving ahead of me. Naturally, I did what any American would: I dove into the right lane and slammed on the brakes. As I sat contemplating my next move, an Audi sped by from behind, passing me and the police car. Admiring his example, I summoned every bit of courage I had, pushed the pedal to the floor, signaled, and went around the cop at 125 miles per hour. In America, this would’ve resulted in one of those arrests where the officer opens his door, aims his gun, tells you to get on the ground, and then beats you with his nightstick.

But the Germans don’t see it that way. That’s mainly because - as virtually every German has proudly explained to me - getting a driver’s license in Germany is the single most challenging act known to man. They equate it with walking on the moon, or possibly travelling to America and not visiting Florida.

And the autobahn is where the difficult process of getting a German driver’s license pays off. Here’s how it works: for a while, everyone cruises along at the same speed, which is around 70 miles per hour. Then there’s a sign with a slash through a circle. This functions like the mechanical rabbit at a greyhound race, causing every single driver to floor the accelerator, regardless of whether they’re in a tiny diesel hatchback, or a slightly larger diesel hatchback. (These are the only vehicles available in Germany, and they’re all silver.)

The result is that you have dozens of cars driving 120 miles per hour, somehow not hitting the tractor-trailer trucks driving 70 miles per hour. This is even more astounding when you consider the tractor-trailers still pull the same passing moves as they do in America, which involves one truck going 71 miles per hour while passing a second truck going 70 miles per hour.

Eventually, there’s a new speed limit sign and everyone slams on the brakes, completely nonchalant about the fact that they spent the last 20 minutes cruising at 120 miles per hour. And so goes the autobahn, regardless of the weather condition, the time of day, or the age of your diesel hatchback.

In other words, the German autobahn is a highly-skilled, high-speed obstacle course. And that’s why, no matter how many hotel desk clerks I have to beg for a blanket, I’ll always look forward to visiting Germany. Even if I have to wear a suit and tie.

Doug DeMuro writes for The Truth About Cars and operates


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