BMW Welt is Munich's single biggest tourism magnet. But why is that? It's just a few parked cars, or so our author seems to think. He really wants to understand all this fascination – and so decides to pay a visit to BMW Welt with Georg Schuster, board member of the "BMW Munichs" fan club.
Ultimately, it's a matt black BMW M2 with motorsport stickers that shines a light on the fact that I have absolutely no idea. "This form isn't a classic BMW, right?" is what I ask Georg Schuster, and point towards a kink in the supporting vehicle pillar of the car found at its rear window. I have spent the last two hours trotting along behind the young man sporting a black BMW T-shirt, listening to his detailed accounts about bodywork, forms and engines, while saying as little as possible, all in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to out myself as someone who has absolutely no idea about cars.
But it's at this point, while fixating on one little detail, that I see my chance to shine at least once today. I notice immediately that such thinking was a mistake. Schuster looks at me as if I had referred to Angela Merkel as a member of the district parliament. "The Hofmeister kink," he answers – all the time wrestling with himself to maintain his composure – "has adorned virtually every BMW since the early 1960s. Alongside the renowned kidney grill, it is perhaps the most iconic design feature belonging to the brand. "I take a look to the right, and then to the left - and then to the ground. In actuality, almost every car around me appears to have this kink. I'm probably the biggest ignoramus in the whole entire building.
"More than three million visitors make the trip here every year, twice as many as you can expect to see at the world-famous Schloss Neuschwanstein - and I have absolutely no idea why."
Schuster and I are standing in BMW Welt. Hundreds of people bustle all around us, photographing themselves in front of sports cars and while sat on motorcycles. More than three million visitors make the trip here every year, twice as many as you can expect to see at the world-famous Schloss Neuschwanstein - and I have absolutely no idea why. I've spent six years living in Munich, and for me BMW Welt has always been nothing more than a fancy car dealership with an elegant restaurant. Why is it that more than 20 million people have come here since its opening in late 2007? What is so fascinating about this place? In order to understand just what others see in BMW Welt, I called on an expert's help, which led me to my appointment with Georg Schuster, board member of the fan club known as "BMW Munichs".
We meet on an icy cold, much too early dark December evening at the entrance to BMW Welt. Schuster, stoutly built and in his mid-thirties, runs a petrol station and workshop near Munich. A pithy chap with muscular arms crossed over his chest, he stands there awaiting my arrival. The BMW logo on his black fan club T-shirt is emblazoned directly above his heart. Schuster is what you might call a "die-hard" fan of football. He owns several classic BMW cars, which he has renovated and rebuilt himself. He even met his girlfriend in the fan club.
And as we enter the building, we are greeted by a blonde woman with a friendly smile who wishes us a good time. BMW Welt is a huge hall spanning two floors, where the unwitting can easily get lost, but Schuster knows his way around, both inside and out. He comes here once a month on average. Sometimes it's for fan club meetings, but sometimes because new models are on display. And sometimes, well, just for the fun of it.
Every time he visits, his tour always kicks off from the same corner: with the M models. Motorsport. "Lighter rims, better brakes, a more aggressive design," he says, and his face lights up at the sight of the race cars. His mechanic's hands are strong, with oil residue still under his fingernails. But they caress the car body gently and carefully, as if stroking a child's face.
"This car became a part of me. It was right here that my enthusiasm for the brand really came to life."
I fail to understand this emotional passion. Ever since my childhood, cars were meant to be one thing above all: a means of getting from A to B faster. From home to sports, from school to grandma. My parents always drove around in the likes of a Renault Espace and VW Polo. Cars that were never particularly beautiful, but were one thing above all else: practical. So I really don't get this place?
Schuster's autobiography certainly takes on a different form. His love for BMW was virtually with him from the cradle onwards: "My father used to build cars for private races that were held at airfields. He spent a lot of time especially on BMW engines" he explains. For days on end, little George would sit next to his father in the workshop, watching every move. "I learned all those subtle details from him."
But there comes a point when falling in love with someone else's car is not enough. To do so, you need a very special car. One that would make Schuster a BMW devotee, a tinkerer, a fan club member. And at 19, he bought an old 1974 BMW. The model was a 2002 – an elegant, silver sedan.
As a trained car mechanic, Schuster spent his time tinkering, oiling and lubricating all the necessary parts. "This car became a part of me. It was right here that my enthusiasm for the brand really came to life", he says. "The form, the colour, that certain unfinished quality. I had no idea just what the car would look like in the end. I just went about building it. "It was supposed to be a car that nobody else had.
We're now moving on from motorsport to the high society section. The light shimmers a little more golden here, the security staff look a little more serious, there are no car prices to be seen. We arrive at a Rolls Royce, which has been produced by the BMW Group since 2003. "Of course, there's a lot of BMW in there" he notes dryly. But that doesn't make it a BMW, he explains. That makes sense. Especially for someone who has been so obsessed with detailing a thing such as himself.
He spent a total of two years tinkering with every detail on his BMW. Time after work, the weekends and most opportunities for a holiday were the sacrifice he made to do so. Everything had to be right. To create the perfect sound, Schuster installed an M3 engine from the 90s in his 1974 BMW. He pulls out his smartphone from his pocket and selects a video. He wants to play the sound his engine makes to me right now.
Through the phone's speakers, I can detect a loud, deep rattle, the result of extremely high revs. "We say to that: the engine's knocking." says Schuster and laughs with obvious pride. He could recognise the M3 engine from among a thousand others if he appeared on Germany's most famous game show, "Wetten, dass", absolutely no doubt about it. At the same time, he seems as if he still cannot fully grasp the sound.
Suddenly, we find ourselves in front of the only car I have ever felt an emotional connection with; or to put it differently, we're standing in front of his big brother. It is a Z4, a small sports car. Its predecessor, the Z3, would race over the carpet at my nursery as a model car some twenty years ago. To this day, it stands on a shelf in my parents' house, maybe five inches long, in metallic blue. I loved that car. It was often the focus of arguments between me and my brothers.
But have we ever wondered what a real BMW actually looks like on the inside? Just what will you find under the bonnet? Or just what kind of zeitgeist can you expect to see reflected in the design? Who knows, perhaps only somebody would have had to take me to a workshop at that time, and today I would be tinkering around with cars myself, together with Georg Schuster. And so, as I got older, and when model cars were no longer exciting for me, my love for the little Z3 disapeared too.
"Making my way through BMW Welt is like coming home," Schuster explained briefly before entering BMW Welt. It did sound a little pathetic, and I had to smile a little on the inside. But the longer I walk through the halls with him, the more I come to understand him. He grew up with the brand, he feels connected to it thanks to memories and stories, he's been through ups and downs with the cars while working on them.
"Glancing around us, it looks like a something out of a science fiction movie. Futuristic. And electric. The E department."
It makes me think of Manchester United – "my" football club with whom I have been through many victories, defeats and emotions over the years. Don't I get goose bumps every time I enter Old Trafford Stadium? Is there anything less pathetic about that?
We have now come to the farthest corner of BMW Welt. Glancing around us, it looks like a something out of a science fiction movie. Futuristic. And electric. The E department. At first glance, the cars here appear to have nothing to do with the cars that we have seen in the previous halls. I also notice that Georg Schuster seems to be in two courts on the subject. "An electric model is at least as sporty as a petrol engine," he admits a little belatedly.
Even he, a man used to fast and powerful cars, is impressed by the acceleration that new electric cars can boast. After a short break comes the anticipated "however": "However, you don't get the engine noise." I look at the i8 again and this time I recognise two old acquaintances: the "Hofmeister kink" and the kidney. There they are again. Even these details have managed to find their place in these futuristic designs.
And in the midst of all these cars, I suddenly find myself strangely moved. Given that, of course, these two features are not really a must for such high-tech machines, as these models actually stand for a new era in automotive history. But they have been incorporated because they act as a source of orientation for the BMW brand and its engineers. A certain persistence that admirers can hold on to no matter how much change takes hold. An emotional anchor, if you will.
Perhaps this is just part of what has attracted more than 20 million visitors to BMW Welt over the past twelve years. The story of a brand that has consistently guided and shaped people over the last hundred years. Those at least as devoted as Georg Schuster – the die-hard fans – who knows the sales schedules for upcoming cars off by heart, and who have held every part of an engine in their own hands.
But for the vast majority, it's more about what they associate with it: Grandpa's Isetta that appears in those pictures in old photo albums, that first kiss on the back seat, or just a small model Z3 rolling over the carpet at nursery.
Interesting, too: Progressive luxury meets creative excellence – all information about the new exhibition at BMW Welt can be found here.