Originally published October 1, 2015 on autoTRADER.ca
I was starting to get worried.
It was the beginning of June, and in six weeks my wife and I would be on a plane to Germany for a two-week vacation. We had plane tickets and places to stay, but rather than reserve train tickets to get from Munich to Berlin — our two main destinations — and back, I’d had the grand idea of requesting a press car to use while we were there. Unlike many of my fellow auto writers who have attended drive events in Germany, I was an Autobahn virgin, and keen on changing that.
But it wasn’t looking good. The first two German automakers I approached told me “bad situations” and “indiscretions” led both companies’ home offices to end the practice of lending cars to North American writers visiting Europe. Reading between the lines, it was clear things had not gone as planned for others looking for a taste of European freeway driving.
To many enthusiasts fed up with Canada’s overly restrictive (in my opinion) highway speed limits, just the thought of being able to drive as fast as you want is enough to make one’s right foot quiver in anticipation. Combine that with a powerful car, and it’s not hard to imagine what might have happened to prompt those press car guidelines.
Let me clarify: keen as I was for first-hand Autobahn experience, “burying” the speedo needle in a 250-km/h car is not on my bucket list. All I wanted was the chance to drive as quickly as I felt comfortable doing, which is usually significantly faster than the 115-120 km/h one can get away with on a road like Ontario’s Highway 401.
At this point, however, it was looking like if I wanted to drive the Autobahn, it was going to be in a rental akin to the 50-something horsepower Fiat Panda I ended up with on a trip to France a decade ago. That is, until this reply arrived from BMW Canada’s media relations department:
“We’d be happy to make a request for a press car out of Munich.”
That request went through, and within a couple of days I was booked into a 328i Gran Turismo, the hatchback version of BMW’s popular 3 Series. (For the record, the original booking was for a diesel-powered 5 Series, but that car became “unavailable”; I suspect the folks at BMW Germany were worried about the possibility of some Canadian writer accidentally filling the tank with gasoline and wrecking their car.)
Our first adventure was collecting the car at BMW’s fleet services building northeast of Munich and driving the 16 km back to our apartment. Not even a kilometre into the trip, I got a good honking-at when a traffic light turned green and I didn’t notice, because I couldn’t see it unless I craned my neck to look straight up out of the windshield. I was about to launch into a rant, when my wife pointed out the secondary light post to the left of us. Oh.
Our apartment, located in a neighbourhood called Neuhausen (literally, ‘new houses’), included off-street parking. It was also notable for streets barely wide enough for one lane of traffic between cars parked on either side. Factor in the cyclists (they’re everywhere! I should have asked for a couple of BMW bikes to use, too!) and it was clear city driving here would require close concentration.
The apartment was near Munich’s Olympiapark, the site of the 1972 Summer Olympics. Dubbed “the Cheerful Games” by the West German government in an effort to erase memories of the 1936 Berlin Summer Games, staged during the Nazi regime, the ’72 games will unfortunately always be associated with the Munich massacre, where Palestinian terrorists killed nine members of the Israeli Olympic team.
Design-wise, the Olympic park is visually a seventies time capsule, but is well-used as a public recreation space, with tennis courts, jogging/cycling paths and a café. Interesting fact: the stadium was built in a pit created during a WWII Allied bombing raid on Munich.
Our reasons for visiting Germany weren’t all about driving, but it was fitting that I wound up borrowing a car from BMW: Munich is home to BMW’s global headquarters, including an office tower, vehicle production facility, and a museum, known collectively as BMW Welt (BMW World). This HQ has been located on the same piece of land since 1922, when it was known as BFW (Bayerische Flugzeug-Werke AG).
BMW Welt is well worth a visit, even for those with only a casual interest in cars (I couldn’t quite convince my wife that it would be three hours well-spent for her, so I was on my own). Though the museum obviously exists to promote the brand, it provides a great insight into the company’s history, first as a manufacturer of airplanes, and later motorcycles and cars. Separated from the museum by a pedestrian bridge over Lerchenauer Strasse is a massive showroom in which BMW encourages visitors to check out its current models, and attached to this is the vehicle delivery area, where buyers both European and otherwise can collect their new cars.
Munich’s historic old town is full of grand buildings like the “new” (built between 1867 and 1908), and “old” (built in the late 1300s) town halls, both of which border Marienplatz, the city’s central square. The bustling Viktualienmarkt (food market) area is home to a number of venerable beer gardens and houses, including the storied Hofbrauhaus, where the beer is just as good as you’ve heard, and the sausages even better.
Wander north of the old town to get to the English Garden (Englischer Garten), an urban greenspace larger than New York City’s Central Park. Bordered on the east by the River Isar and cut through with smaller canals, a couple of hours under a shady tree were the perfect respite from the heat wave much of Europe was experiencing while we were in Munich.