From the outside, the old warehouse looks like many of the other buildings in the Hamburg harbour area, some run down, others still in use but needing renovation while others have been given a new lease on life. No matter what their current state of repair is though, they all have a history in the industrial and commercial development of Hamburg, the economic powerhouse of northern Germany thanks to the Elbe River which runs by just a matter of yards from the building. Today, however, the former factory is the home of the Automuseum Prototyp, the subject of our ‘Museum of the Month’ feature.
Located in Shanghai Alley in Hamburg’s fashionable Hafen City, the Automuseum Prototyp completes the circle for this great building, which was designed by the civil engineer Hagn, who had also been involved in the construction of the famous Warehouse City. This building was erected between 1902 and 1906 and was the last element of an industrial complex, which housed the caoutchouc works, an enterprise involved in the manufacture of automobile tyres and technical rubber goods. During the Second World War the building was badly damaged, but by 1951 reconstruction was completed for new owners Graphische Kunstanstalt Schultz (GKS), now with an additional top floor. GKS designed and printed prospectuses and posters for OEMs such as Volkswagen, Auto Union/DKW and Borgward, and for oil companies like BV Aral and Esso, also producing the first banners for filling stations which at that time were still printed on wax paper.
When current owners, architect Thomas König and businessman Oliver Schmidt, set out to establish the Automuseum Prototyp, their goal was to create a motoring museum with a difference, where one could ‘feel’ as though you were actually back in those early days. “Static exhibits, carefully protected, technical data on dull tables, possibly even decorated with life-size dolls in contemporary clothes: such uninspired presentation is not what our technical works of art deserve, and certainly not our visitors,” said König and Schmidt when the museum was opened on April 12, 2008.
This goal is clearly evident upon entering the museum, as visitors are welcomed into the facility through an attractive shop and restaurant section. While enjoying some refreshments or browsing through the well-stocked bookshop, one can watch the progress on the restoration of one of the vehicles in the museum’s workshop through a glass wall. Throughout the museum, visitors can walk between the exhibits with ease and comfort without any annoying barriers or ropes preventing you from getting up close, and each vehicle has its own specific history written up for easy reading.
On this floor are located a wide range of prototype racing, sports or important production cars, together with several record breakers from the 1920/30s. Well-illuminated display cabinets hold significant drawings, documents, trophies and memorabilia. One section is set aside for study or research, while visitors to the museum can also watch racing videos, or listen to audio exhaust clips of iconic racers in specially designed listening booths.
The main attractions are of course the concepts and one-offs (or ‘dream-cars’ as the museum refers to them in their literature) fabricated in light-gauge aluminium sheet. But as Oliver Schmidt told the author in an interview conducted while on a private tour of the Museum, “The Museum focuses on the people behind the cars and that is the reason why we start here, right behind the entrance with Otto Mathé, who was one of the first, if not the very first, driver using Porsche products for racing.”
On the author’s first visit to the museum a couple of years ago, the rather delicate remains of the very lightweight body of a Mercedes racer was hung inverted from the ceiling, a privately owned piece of history, which had been removed by the time of my second visit. This just emphasises the living nature of the exhibitions which are being constantly refreshed.
Certainly one of the most significant items on display is the Porsche Type 64, the forerunner of the VW Beetle (or KdF-Wagen) and the Porsche 356 cars. This very important vehicle, one of only three fabricated for the 1939 Berlin-Rome race, is the only survivor in its original form. Of course the race never did take place due to the war, and the three cars were stored in separate locations, one being stored at the Gmünd factory in Austria, the second one at the Porsche family’s home at Zell-am-See while the third was totally destroyed. The ‘black’ Type 64 was requisitioned by the American forces after the war and they proceeded to cut the roof off, and quite literally thrashed it into the ground. When the Americans left, the second 64 was broken down and the remains were kept until Otto Mathé bought the green car (T.2222) and the parts belonging to the second car, which had by now lost its body. Over time the Automuseum Prototyp has had this car rebuilt using the original parts, and as a result, the car is almost completely original apart from the body, which is new. The importance of the Type 64 cannot be over emphasised as many cars, including Porsche’s own 356 and various race cars, borrowed design cues from this car.
In the reception area, a flight of stairs will take you down to another floor of prototypes and important racing or sports cars. One vehicle on display here is the Plattenwagen, which was the grandfather of the VW Kombi Transporter that we know today, a vehicle which was ‘cobbled’ together in the factory for transporting heavy items around the Wolfsburg assembly floor. This early concept (1946) gave birth to the VW Transporter which has been configured in so many different forms over the years, such as the open backed ‘pick up’, the double cab (or crew cab), the closed bus (immortalised by the surfer brigade), closed panelvan and many variations of these derivatives.
Another floor below is kept free of vehicles but is tastefully decorated with large photos and paintings depicting famous racing scenes. This open area is set aside for functions such as awards, book signings, talk evenings on matters of automotive historical importance, and is equipped with a large bar and comfortable seating. It is worth a look around just to see the fascinating photos and paintings, but the real gems wait on the two floors above.
However, it is not only the museum contents that are to be examined, as the old factory building is itself a technical wonder, as the marshy foundation soil of the area in southeast Hamburg demanded an almost unique construction. The building is 70m wide and its backbone is formed by a skeleton of 14 vertical steel pillars and a corresponding number of cast iron traverse girders supported by hinged bearings. The result is a flexible latticed structure, which allows the soil and foundations to sag to a certain extent. More than 100 years ago this was indeed a remarkable architectural feat, so much so that in 2005 the Hamburg city administration declared this impressive piece of industrial architecture a protected national monument.
In just four short years, Automuseum Prototyp has garnered a reputation that sees an impressive 50,000 visitors passing through its doors per year. This is one to add to your list of ‘must see’ museums, as you will find some history here that you won’t see elsewhere.