Volkswagen’s old curiosity shop

Go behind the scenes in VW’s own warehouse of rare and remarkable cars
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In a nondescript industrial building, a few miles away from the sprawling Volkswagen AG HQ in Wolfsburg, Germany, there’s an automotive treasure trove that very few people know about. But among those in the know, it’s called “the Depot.”

The Depot is just one part of Autostadt, the wholly owned subsidiary of Volkswagen AG that runs the car delivery center and automotive theme park adjacent to the factory at Wolfsburg.  The 6,500 square meter Depot houses the majority of Autostadt’s collection of 260 vehicles, representing no fewer than 66 different makes.  Seventy or more of the vehicles are on display at any one time in the Zeithaus (“House of Time”) Museum at Autostadt, telling the story of the automobile down the ages.

Behind closed doors at the Autostadt depot

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Autostadt itself opened on June 1st, 2000, designed from the outset as a car delivery center. The site is dominated by two towers that load vehicles from the various VW factories around the world, to be picked up in person by their new owners. Alongside the two towers, there are pavilions devoted to the Volkswagen Group brands, the Zeithaus Museum, and a large exhibition hall that offers interactive displays on how Volkswagen cars are built and on sustainability. Plus, there are no fewer than six restaurants at Autostadt, since more than 2 million visitors come here every year, and they need to eat.

Shortly after Autostadt opened its doors, the company was given a budget to buy cars, usually at the rate of about 10 a year, to add to an existing small collection. As the number of cars grew, so did the need for somewhere to house them. Hence, the Depot.

The cars here don’t just sit. The facility has a number of bays with car lifts and a small machine shop, which allows the staff to ensure that vehicles can be used at rallies and other events. Autostadt believes that the cars should be used for the purpose for which they were designed, which gives them the dual role as ambassadors for the company.

Restoration projects are also managed through this facility. When the Newsroom visited, a rare 1973 Beetle GSR (Gelb Schwarz Renner or Yellow and Black Racer), one of 3,500, was in a state of partial assembly, prior to a full restoration. Generally, that’s not how Autostadt buys cars, says master technician Gerald Schroder: “We prefer to buy cars that are in the best possible condition when they come on the market.”

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But if Autostadt can’t get a perfect car, they will restore one to the best possible condition. While the technicians at the Autostadt have the ability to keep cars running on site, a car like the 1973 Beetle GSR will be sent out to experts and the Depot will manage the process.

The most impressive aspect of the Depot is not the number of cars, but the number of brands represented here. In addition to Volkswagen Group vehicles—among them, Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, Porsche, Bentley, Bugatti, and Lamborghini—there are cars from other automakers. They are housed at the Depot because they are automotive milestones.

The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, for instance, was the first front-wheel-drive production car with more than 300 horsepower. A tiny Honda S800 was the first Japanese car to be imported to Europe. A staid Toyota Corolla from the 1960s was the first truly mass produced Japanese car. Scanning the floors, you see Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Ford, Renault, Fiat, Lancia and all manner of vehicles from VW’s competitors, because one of Autostadt’s aims is to tell the history of the automobile and educate and inform the visitors to the Zeithaus.

One of the most compelling aspects of our tour was the stories behind some of the cars. Schroder pointed to a nondescript white 1967 Beetle with British registration plates and told us that it was acquired because it is one of the most famous Beetles in the world, as it is in the background of a famous photo taken in Abbey Road, London.

Andreas Hornig, the technical leader for Autostadt, showed us a time capsule Golf GTI, Golf, Corrado G60, and super-rare Rallye Golf. A dealer had called him, and told him that he had a special Beetle. He had 15 cars and wanted them to go back to their maker. The GTI, with 175 kilometers on the clock, is so untouched that when it is shown, owners pore over it because it is the perfect reference for their own restoration attempts. There’s another 1983 Golf GTI in the collection that was found in a corner of the factory: no papers, 284 kms on the odometer, but the engine had never been started: It was pushed from place to place.

Our favorite vehicle in the Depot? There are almost too many to choose from, but the millionth post-war Volkswagen, a Beetle that came off the line on August 5, 1955, is a rare gem. Almost literally. The special car was painted gold, with special upholstery that looks a bit like a mid-century sofa. All the exterior metal trim pieces—hood stripe, bumpers, headlight shrouds, side trim and running boards—were originally encrusted with rhinestones, but over the years people pried them off and took them home as souvenirs. As a result, the Beetle currently sports replacement crystals.

Highlights of the Zeithaus

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State of the Zeithaus

The Zeithaus Museum is almost unique in that, unlike those of other automakers, it features rival brands. The rotating display of about 100 automotive milestones, irrespective of origin or creator’s reputation, places the history of the automobile in context and chronologically clarifies their interrelationships.

It doesn’t matter if the vehicles were made by companies as obscure as Hanomag or Autobianchi or as famous as Mercedes-Benz or Cadillac, the ZeitHaus is committed to telling its guests the whole story of automotive mobility. When we visited, there were some intriguing combinations of vehicles on show. The link between a DeLorean DMC12 and an Alfasud? Both designed by Giorgietto Giugiaro of ItalDesign. A 1954 Chevrolet Corvette and a 1990 Trabant 601S? The first mass-production cars with synthetic bodies.

A 1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder sat alongside a 1979 Saab 99 Turbo and a 1982 Porsche 911 Turbo, all three early examples of turbocharged production cars. For serious students of automotive history, the combinations of cars on display were intriguing; for the casual viewer educational. Which, in the end, is what the Zeithaus aims to do.