American and Japanese car companies have much to learn from their German counterparts about how a devotion to heritage – matched by a commitment to commerce – sells more cars.
In the auto business, the Germans never forget where they've come from. Never. Historical references pepper their conversation about the auto industry, with Mercedes-Benz types constantly noting that Gottlieb Daimler "invented the car" and Porsche officials reminding us that Ferdinand Porsche developed the first hybrid in 1898, the Lohner-Porsche.
Yet their interest in the past is not a schmaltzy celebration. No, their fascination with automotive history is at once both a respectful nod to what came before and a look to the future. Consider Audi, the Volkswagen Group's immensely profitable premium brand, and the impending launch of the third-generation TT sports car, coupe and cabriolet.
Audi is setting the stage for the TT's arrival with a lavish exhibition at the company's own museum in Ingolstadt. The museum is parked next to a factory building Audi cars, which is beside the offices of Audi's most senior management and right across the courtyard from a delivery centre for new Audi buyers. If you're one of the hundreds of thousands who visit each year, you'll be treated to total Audi immersion therapy, which this year is headlined by a celebration of the TT.
The exhibition, entitled "State of the ArTT," is a cornucopia of stories capped by eight TT production and racing models. It opened today and runs through May 11, the dates neatly coinciding with a raft of other TT promotions, all designed to created buzz about a radical redesign of a "sports car concept with high practicality," says Ulrich Hackenberg, head of Audi technical development.
Since the first Audi TT show cars were unveiled in 1995 – the coupe at the Frankfurt motor show, the roadster in Tokyo – followed by actual production cars in 1998, Audi has not deviated from the basic TT idea: a 2+2 seater that's affordable because it shares its basic mechanical bits and pieces with the Volkswagen Golf and other VW Group models.
Audi types are like most other German car company executives in that they're not shy about their work and accomplishments. "More than ever, the new Audi TT is an ambassador of sportiness," Hackenberg said last month at the Geneva show. No false modesty there.
Yet this doesn't come off as braggadocio, but rather a confident, no-nonsense assessment of Audi's accomplishments . And that's at the heart of all the various museums operated by Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Each company uses their past to sell the future.
Of Detroit's car companies, only Ford Motor comes close to this sort of thing. The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., is a wonderful visit, but you can't take delivery of a new Ford or Lincoln there, and Ford does a poor job of linking a new model launch with the museum's activities. GM has plenty of historical cars, but they're not gathered together in one wonderfully evocative place, in a GM museum like Audi's. And Chrysler has closed down its volunteer-run museum at headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., citing cost-cutting as a reason.
The Japanese? Not one of them does a museum like the Germans, even though they have a terrific automotive history to celebrate. Their museum efforts seem to me very much like the Americans in that the companies see them as a costly and irritating necessity, not a sales tool that keeps alive great successes of the past.
If you're a gearhead or a history buff, go to Germany and tour the corporate museums. You'll learn a lot and enjoy the experience thoroughly. Just be careful you don't end up with a very big impulse buy, say a new TT.
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