Insider's Guide to the Autobahn

Charlie Magee
Insider\'s Guide to the Autobahn

A95: Munich-Garmisch

The best stretch for driving flat out is the last twelve miles of this superbahn, where traffic is usually light, visibility is good, and the tarmac sweeps through the countryside in moderate radii. We're in a 480-hp Porsche 911 Turbo cabrio, pedal to the metal in fifth - make that sixth - gear. At this speed, you need four eyes: one for the road directly in front of the car, one to scan the horizon for slower vehicles, one for the mirrors, and one for the instruments. The speedo shows 297 kph . . . 301 . . . 306 . . .311 . . . 314 . . . 314 . . . 314. That's 195 mph. On the return run, we'll briefly hit 200 mph on the short downhill section near Murnau. This is white-knuckle, eye-wateringly fast. Even though your concentration is sharply focused, a clear picture stabilizes for only fractions of a second. The Porsche's front end feels suspiciously light, almost floaty. Pressed down hard by that fat tail spoiler, the nineteen-inch rear wheels squat down and try to keep a straight line, but the grooves in the road are too far apart even for these ultrawide Michelins, so it's in and out rhythmically over the transverse expansion joints. They look like nothing, and yet they can seriously deflect your trajectory.

The Autobahn is a myth surrounded by half-truths, anecdotes, and fables. The most popular legend, which has entwined itself around Germany's long-distance road network for several decades, concerns the Nazis and their alleged role as the country's master builders. It's a common belief that Adolf Hitler, the worst warlord of the western world, was instrumental in establishing the autobahn and thereby securing mass employment. Like many achievements claimed by the Third Reich, this one was blown out of proportion by the propaganda machinery. The man in charge of the ministry in question, a certain general inspector Fritz Todt, promised the public 6900 kilometers of intercity highway, for which he planned to hire 600,000 workers.

But that turned out to be wishful thinking; before the war that ended Hitler's regime began, only 3860 kilometers were completed, and only 250,000 people were given temporary jobs. Even more to the point, the idea to build a fast and safe road network wasn't the brainchild of the insane moustached dictator. The concept had, in fact, been established in the early 1920s by various privately owned construction companies, led by the Hafraba consortium that, for its first project, planned to link Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Basel. When the Nazis marched in, they appropriated the Hafraba program, complete with detailed plans for routing, structural engineering, and low-cost surface technology based on large, prefabricated slabs of concrete.

A96: Landsberg-Mitte

We talk to Michael Kemény, whose towing company serves a busy thirty-mile stretch of the autobahn. When the master of four tow trucks spots our red Porsche, he switches on his computer and pulls up the Porsche 911 GT3 RS photos. The incident happened last spring. The road was still wet in places from a heavy shower, but the guy in the almost-new, white 911 was going all out. On the approach to an overpass, he hit a puddle of standing water. The car spun around and hit the guardrail while traveling backward at an estimated speed of 125 mph. Between two guardrail sections, the impact virtually gutted the Porsche and mashed its occupant. The pictures are not a pretty sight. But according to Kemény, high-speed fatal accidents like this are the exception to the rule. "People who drive fast typically pay a lot more attention to their driving than does a businessman who is busy lighting a cigarette, talking on the phone, and keeping one eye on the navigation system. In nine out of ten cases, the really big crashes aren't caused by excessive speed but by carelessness. Classic mistakes include not checking the mirrors, not using the turn signals, and not keeping enough distance from the vehicle ahead. The result is often a chain reaction: truck hits van, van spins, van gets hit by another truck. From there, all it takes to become a really big mess is a single burst fuel tank."

A31: Essen-Emden

Flat as a pan and straight as an arrow, the stretch of highway between Essen and Emden boasts an innovative, porous, pale-gray surface that is designed for optimum drainage, grip, and visibility. This is truly a high-tech stretch of autobahn, as wide as they come, with solid, triple-steel barriers on both sides and a shoulder generous enough to harbor a semitruck or a bus. Trouble is, the A31 is only a two-lane affair. That's OK at five a.m., but it calls for extra attention on a Friday afternoon. We're heading for the Papenburg proving ground in a bright red Audi R8, headlights on, turn signal flashing (a common left-lane tactic to get the attention of other drivers). On this piece of blacktop, 300 kph (186 mph) almost feels like limp-home mode. Sure, you can hear the engine shrieking at full song, you can feel the wind trying to play tag with the coupe's chiseled contours, and you can sense the quadraphonic drum from the hard-working tires.

But there's no tugging at the steering wheel, no kickback from the front axle, no g-force attacking the rear suspension. The sole confirmation that we are moving at such a high rate of speed is provided by the huge differential between our velocity and that of the traffic around us. Our speed of 300 kph is 50 kph (31 mph) more than what a governed BMW or Mercedes-Benz can do, it's a third quicker than all those flat-out mid-size diesels, it's more than twice as fast as the average speed on German autobahns (less than 120 kph, or 75 mph), and it eclipses any given bus or truck by at least 200 kph. To detect a vehicle approaching from behind at 300 kph, the slow-lane user would have to check his mirrors every seven seconds or so. Fat chance.

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