DRIVEN: Ultimate Fantasy 2: Driving Your Car on the Autobahn

September 26, 2012
Volkswagen Scirocco Right Side View
It's been a big year for my little Volkswagen Scirocco. Not only did it reach retirement age -- twenty-five years old, enough to qualify for California historic-vehicle license plates -- but its odometer rolled over the 100,000-mile mark. I spent months collecting parts and building a brand-new monster engine for it. And then things got really crazy when, in a conference call, senior web editor Phil Floraday proposed the idea of devoting an issue of the magazine to automotive fantasies.
I raised my hand so hard I knocked the telephone clear off my desk. My Scirocco and I were days away from celebrating our fifteenth anniversary together, yet I had never had the opportunity to keep my foot buried long enough to achieve maximum velocity -- something I've done in dozens of other cars through the years. That just didn't seem right.
I had calculated my car's theoretical new top speed based on dynamometer numbers, but I wanted to know more about the car in which I've invested so much time and money. I wanted to know not just how fast it would go with its new engine, but what it would be like at Vmax. The only place I could do that, of course, is Germany. So before Deutschland finally succumbs to pressure from the European Union and gains a national speed limit, before I blow a connecting rod through the block of this hyperactive homebuilt engine, and before my editors come to their senses, I'm on the phone to make travel arrangements for the Scirocco.
Volkswagen Scirocco Front Left View
Cosdel International Transportation is more familiar with sending Bugattis around the world than 1980s Vee Dubs -- it's the unofficial shipping company for the megabuck entries at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance -- but for about as much money as my business-class plane ticket, Cosdel arranges first-class round-trip accommodations for my VW. I can barely hear the information they're giving me because I'm on a cordless phone in the garage stuffing greasy parts into the trunk. To own an old Volkswagen is to understand that if you have a spare part with you, the corresponding part actually attached to the car won't break. The corollary is that anything you forget at home will surely fail -- particularly if that part is made of unobtanium, as are most old VW parts. So I stuff the Scirocco full of everything I can and head to Cosdel's customs warehouse.
I have a hard time saying good-bye to a car that I usually don't let out of my sight for more than an hour at a time, but I feel a little better when I park the VW next to a stunning orange Lamborghini Miura. Cosdel's agents will gently push the Scirocco into a container, secure it, and seal it: the next time it starts, it'll be inhaling European air, and I'll be the one who turns the key. My rolling boil of anxiety is reduced to a simmer the next day when Cosdel e-mails me a URL that I can use to obsessively track the Scirocco's location. Which I do 210 times a day over the next five weeks.

THE PICK UP

I arrive in Amsterdam a few hours after the car clears customs, and by the time I get to Cosdel's Dutch affiliate's office, I'm so nervous I'm shaking like a shih tzu. When the smiling agent swipes his key card and opens the high-security door, my heart almost stops. I'm looking not into the dark, threatening warehouse of my nightmares but at something more akin to a fashionable loft apartment with pristine dark-painted floors, tall walls littered with framed artwork, and potted ferns bathed in diffused natural light pouring in from north-facing windows. On one end, there's a plush couch, a wooden coffee table, and two leather high-back chairs. Resting quietly in a far corner are a Bugatti, a Delahaye, and a Spyker. In another is the Scirocco, glistening under the fluorescent lights and as immaculate as when it started its journey. I'll admit that I got a bit choked up. I waste no time bidding adieu and head straight for the highway, where I catch myself doing something I have never done on the Continent: passing a car on the right, which is a huge no-no over here. I've known for some time that I have two disparate driving styles: In America, I drive like I'm in New York, where I lived through middle school. In Europe, I follow the German driving rules I learned in high school. I always thought the sole determinant of driving style was geography, but to my surprise, the car counts, too. Being in a car that I've only ever driven in North America blurs the lines completely.
The drive to the German border takes only two hours. It's a torturous two hours, though, because while the Dutch have many things going for them (impressive linguistic abilities, beautiful countryside, cheese, tulips, and obsessive-compulsive lane discipline), they drive painfully slowly. When the speed limit changes from 100 to 130 kph (62 to 81 mph), they inch up from 96 to 104 kph. I guess ubiquitous speed cameras and $8-per-gallon gasoline will do that. Luckily, the Germans seem oblivious to such practical fiscal concerns, and a few kilometers after crossing the border, I see something that I've never seen while driving my Scirocco: the no-speed-limit sign.

VMAX VIRGINITY

The round roadside sign with five black diagonal lines could just as easily be a hypnotic spinning disc, because the second I see it, I am no longer worried about breaking down in a car that's 5700 miles from home. My plan to slowly approach top speed has vaporized into a hasty third-gear downshift and full throttle.
As you squeeze the accelerator at high speeds in most fast cars, torque flows as smoothly as syrup from a Mrs. Butterworth's bottle. It's nothing like that in my 2.0-liter sixteen-valve Scirocco. The engine has no balance shafts and sports a flywheel made of tissue paper, and at 7200 rpm, the hugely undersquare four-banger's piston speeds are in exotic-car territory. The vibration is second only to a lawn mower's and is accompanied by a guttural wail so profound it masks even the deafening wind noise. And road noise. And interior squeaks and rattles.
Third and fourth gears go by quickly, pulling the Scirocco to 110 mph -- a speed I admit to having seen many times in North America -- but once in fifth, it's a long, slow, six-mile climb to top speed. As the needle rises slowly past 122 mph -- the Scirocco 16V's original top speed -- the front end becomes so light it feels as though the tires might actually lift off the ground. For once, I'm wishing for the numb electric power steering that more and more German cars now have, because this is something I definitely don't want to feel.
And then it happens: the engine note suddenly goes flat. At first I think I've tripped the knock sensor, but over the next few minutes it becomes clear -- hitting the Scirocco's top speed, like breaking the sound barrier, is an acoustic event. In modern cars with fluid-filled, active visco-magnetorheological engine mounts (or just regular old sound insulation), you see top speed in the speedometer's readout. In this old Volkswagen, you also hear it. On a flat stretch of autobahn, that change happens at precisely 135 mph.

ENDURANCE RACING

It doesn't take long before slower traffic forces me to slow down, a topspeedus interruptus that happens regularly over the next few hours. The best part about encountering other traffic is that it provides an opportunity to find like-minded drivers with whom you can engage in impromptu rolling-start drag races. Long-distance autobahn driving is like endurance racing -- it's most fun when you find other cars that are evenly matched in speed. Strategy and nerve come into play. Who's downshifted and is ready to accelerate at the end of a 60-kph construction zone? Who's willing to probe the cornering limits at 135 mph? (Uh, not me -- not in a car named after a desert wind but designed to act like an airplane wing.) I would no sooner arm-wrestle Vin Diesel than I would race my old VW against a modern Porsche, so the Scirocco's first two speed partners aren't exactly exotic. The Mercedes-Benz R-class and the BMW X5, both diesel-powered, are fun to engage with, but my third playmate proves to be the perfect foe. With 1.4 liters of supercharged and turbocharged direct-injected gasoline anger under the hood, it's a much newer Volkswagen, and yet it can't pull so much as a car length away from me. Uphill, downhill, low speed, high speed, we are evenly matched. That my Scirocco's new best friend also wears a Scirocco badge is especially cool.

THE FAMILY REUNION

If you were going back to the old country, you'd probably visit your birthplace, and that's exactly what the Scirocco does. Although the big Osnabrueck facility where the car was built is still known as the Karmann factory and is still located on Karmannstrasse, the only Karmann badge in the parking lot is the one on the B-pillar of my Scirocco. VW took over the factory in 2009 after the coachbuilder went bankrupt, and the building now churns out Golf cabriolets and Porsche Boxsters. That new Scirocco on the autobahn, it turns out, was built in Portugal, so the plan to take a photo of my car in a crowd of new Sciroccos is thwarted.
A photo in a crowd of old Sciroccos will certainly do, though. Our next stop is in a little town called Dorfmark, where an annual classic-Scirocco get-together is underway. As I drive onto the field, a fellow Scirocco owner notices my car's California license plates. Before I can even get out of the car, he's standing at the driver's-side door.
"You must be joking with that plate," he accuses.
"Nope, I brought the car here from California."
"When?"
"I picked it up from the port about five hours ago and drove straight here."
Volkswagen Scirocco Right Side View
My Scirocco easily wins the award for the farthest-traveled attendee, and the other Scirocco owners spend an hour poring over differences between the U.S. and German-specification cars, differences so minute -- like the small strip of chrome on my door panels or the hook inexplicably welded to the underside of the hood -- that I hadn't noticed them in fifteen years of ownership. The entire experience is a Scirocco-centric deja vu of the time my family went to Italy to meet distant relatives. These distant relatives instantly welcome, feed, and entertain me as if I were family, and they offer to send parts that aren't available in the United States. We discuss the differences between VW dorks in Germany and VW dorks at home. (Same Scheisse, different language.) I want nothing more than to stay for the entire weekend, but I can't. When I get ready to leave, a dozen Germans flock to the front of my car like moths to a blinding blue flame. "Xenons!" they cry.
"Those are so illegal here," the event organizer exclaims, "but so cool!"
"Oh, aftermarket HIDs are illegal in the States, too," I admit.
A few minutes later, I'm preparing a confession to two German police officers who follow me to my hotel parking lot. To my surprise, they don't notice the xenons. Instead, they want to see my import papers -- apparently they, too, think I'm joking with the California plates. When they find out that the car is heading back to California after only a couple of days, they tell me I'm crazy, compliment the Scirocco, and pose for pictures with it. Germany is so cool.

TOP-SPEED FATIGUE

At 24 mpg, the first three tanks of 102-octane German unleaded yield the worst fuel economy I've ever seen in the Scirocco. That's a huge win for me, though, since two-thirds of that fuel was consumed at full throttle. As I continue on my top-speed-athon to visit friends in Cologne, it occurs to me that my biggest wish likely won't be granted: a photo of the Scirocco's speedometer with the needle buried. I expected more than enough speedo error to get the needle past 140 mph, but the GPS verifies that the quarter-century-old gauge is accurate to within 1 mph at top speed. Go figure.
I've hit velocities over 135 mph (in much faster cars) in America, but in Germany it's different. The roads are built for high speeds, and because it's all legal, you can keep your foot down for miles and miles, allowing the adrenaline rush to fade and for it all to seem, well, normal. Even the car's (twenty-five-year-old) cooling system is nonplussed by the hours of running at full load near maximum rpm. In fact, the water temp is normal (probably because there's a spare radiator in the trunk). After an hour or three with your foot in the carpet, you relax enough to think about what's really going on under the hood, which makes you want to do the unthinkable: slow down.
I can't help but worry about this engine that makes roughly 40 percent more power than it was designed to. What if a rod fails under the increased loads? What if that leads to sudden and catastrophic engine seizure, locking the front wheels and sending me skidding to my death, splattered against an old oak tree? I relax the pace and find a new cruising speed -- right at the point where the long intake's secondary throttle opens. The Scirocco settles into a happy 115-mph cruise, below the speeds where wind gets under the front end and all the noise becomes tedious. The engine is spinning at five grand -- a relatively relaxed pace made possible by the long fifth gear that I swapped in years ago, never dreaming it would pay such tremendous dividends on an autobahn.

MAY I HAVE THE 'RING, PLEASE?

When you get married, you buy your partner a ring. When you take your car to Germany for your fifteenth anniversary, you also buy it a ring. A lap of the Nuerburgring, that is. I have no delusions that I will break any records. I have no intention of even trying. In fact, I'm doing a lap of the Nordschleife merely so I can affix a Nuerburgring sticker to the back window of the Scirocco and make fun of my poseur friends back home who have similar stickers on their cars.
Oh, yeah, I'm feeling like a big man until the moment I pull into the parking lot. People, cars, and motorcycles are everywhere; Aston Martins with roll cages driven by professionals with helmets, brakes outgassing visibly and tires shredding rubber chunks audibly. It's a festival of fearlessness and testosterone, and everyone suddenly looks more qualified than me.
Thankfully, the butterflies fade the second I drive through the gate. Although I think I'm taking it easy, the VW's speedometer needle is pointing to a three-digit number every time I look at it -- usually after I pass a much newer car. I will never know just how fast or slow my lap was (ten minutes? eleven? twenty-five?), but I drove hard enough that the engine ran hot for a half hour after I left, and that was enough to earn the sticker.
Volkswagen Scirocco And Jason Cammisa

WHAT GOES FAST MUST SLOW DOWN

Thanks to the fifty or so additional horses I've crammed under the hood, my Scirocco is able to amass about 20 percent more kinetic energy than it was intended to -- something I figure shouldn't be much of a problem when it comes time to slow down. I learn just how wrong I am when I attempt to dive-bomb a rest area from a buck thirty-five. As I apply firm pressure to the pedal, the pads bite admirably, but by the time I'm decelerating through 80 mph, the pedal is nearly on the floor and the stench of nuked brake-pad material fills the cabin. I abort the stopover and allow the brakes to cool slowly until I reach the next service station. The heat generated by the deceleration was sufficient to permanently discolor the brand-new rotors. It's also enough for me to institute a voluntary speed cap of 115 mph for the remainder of the journey.
That's not much of a sacrifice, as I'm about to reenter the Netherlands and its depressing speed limits. I drop off my car at the gorgeous Amsterdam warehouse, having covered 1137 miles in three and a half days. The vast majority of those miles were driven at triple-digit speeds, and I experienced no mechanical maladies and no dangerous close calls.

THE WAIT FOR THE RETURN

As I track the progress of the Scirocco on its way home, I can't stop looking at the pictures of my car -- my car! -- in Germany. This was a vacation with an old friend, one that had brought me to the Atlantic seashore, the Pacific coast, and thousands of places in between. This is a car I know inside and out because I've removed almost every bolt at least once, and yet there were things I didn't know about it until I took it to another continent. It's one thing to drive some random car at its top speed on some autobahn. It's quite another to do that in your own car.
One day, Germany may have a speed limit. One day, public days on the Nordschleife might be a distant memory. (Don't think so? The Nuerburgring declared bankruptcy the very week I was there.) If you, too, share the fantasy of driving your own car in Germany, you should make your Vmax vacation a reality soon. As far as fantasies go, this one's a lot more attainable than you'd think.
The Logistics
Cosdel is a very high-end shipping company that specializes in shipping cars that are valuable -- monetarily or nostalgically. The Scirocco's container shipping was not inexpensive, but there are far cheaper ways of getting your car across the pond. Just as you have the choice between coach and first-class travel, so does your car. RoRo (roll-on roll-off) shipping takes longer and requires that someone start your car and drive it onto and off of the boat. The potential for bumps and bruises is higher, but you'll save a boatload of money. Round-trip RoRo shipping between the U.S. and Europe is closer in price to a coach plane ticket. Alternatively, if you want the security of container shipping and your car is small, you can share a forty-foot container with another vehicle.
One note of caution: many things, including weather, can delay shipment, so make sure you allow enough time. Cosdel doesn't charge a storage fee on the far end, and the warehouse in Amsterdam is likely nicer than your living room -- so why not let your car hang out there for a week or two rather than risk it not arriving on time?
Safety
There is simply no substitute for the stress, invigoration, and bonding experience that comes from driving your car at top speed for miles at a time, but it can also be dangerous. We recommend sending your car to a professional mechanic familiar with performing tech inspections on endurance-racing cars. That's exactly what we did with the Scirocco before its visit to Germany and the Nuerburgring.
My Fantasy
Family-Style Americana

by Rusty Blackwell
I'll take a two-month summer sabbatical from Automobile HQ so I can treat my wife and our two young kids to an epic road trip in our big-block, four-on-the-floor 1968 Plymouth Satellite station wagon, which will tow a nice '68 Shasta Airflyte travel trailer. (A '66 Chrysler Town & Country would be a swell way to pull a fancy period Airstream Caravel, though. Or a '60 Buick Invicta wagon dragging a Serro Scotty Sportsman Senior. Really, I'm not picky.) We'll visit places like Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, and the Olympic Mountains, hitting local car shows along the way. The next year we'll load up for Canada's Maritime Provinces and New England. Gas is $0.30 a gallon. The kids behave. There are no speed limits, and my rig will safely and reliably do 90 mph. When we return home, I'll park the car and trailer in my well-organized six-car garage, which has only one stall devoted to nonautomotive things like toys and lawn mowers.

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