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A Concise History of Germany’s Autobahns

How Germany’s famed highways came to be—and what it’s like to drive as fast as you want.

Aaron GoldWriterGetty ImagesPhotographer

The autobahn. Germany. Take a poll, and you'll likely find that just about every gearhead dreams of driving on autobahns, Germany's speed-limit-free, no-holds-barred highways—though driving them isn't necessarily the experience you might expect. How did these famed road networks come to be, why are there no speed limits, and what's it really like to drive at any speed you like? Cinch up that seat belt and let's find out.

Early German Autobahn History

The world's first limited-access highways—ones on which vehicles could only enter or exit at designated points—were built in New York in the early 1900s. In Germany, construction on the first controlled-access highway began in 1913, though World War I delayed its opening until 1921. The Automobil Verkehrs und Übungsstraße (Automobile Traffic and Training Road), built just outside of Berlin, doubled as a race and test track. It was basically two straightaways bracketed by banked turns, but its divided roadways and limits on other types of traffic made it Germany's first modern highway. It remains part of the roadway network to this day, complete with the original wooden grandstand.

Hitler's Reichsautobahn

Germany's planning for an inter-city highway network began in the mid-1920s, with a Cologne-Bonn road opened in 1932, but it wasn't until the Nazis came to power in 1933 that construction began in earnest. The Nazi party initially opposed a highway network on the grounds that it would primarily benefit the rich aristocrats who could afford a car. It wasn't until Adolf Hitler realized the propaganda value of individual mobility—a nation-wide road network and an affordable "people's car" to populate it—that the Nazis embraced the idea. The project would become the world's first high-speed road network.

Construction on what became known as the Reichsautobahn proceeded rapidly, with an emphasis on east-west and north-south connections, and routes that showed off the German scenery. But working conditions and pay were poor, and by the late 1930s, with armament manufacturers offering better jobs, labor was becoming difficult to find. The onset of war detracted from construction efforts, and the Nazis didn't see the road network as much of a military asset, though some sections did have their center medians paved so they could be used as airstrips. Work on the Reichsautobahn was halted in 1943, by which time about 1,300 miles of roadway were completed.

Post-War and Post Unification Renewal and Expansion

Following Germany's defeat, the road network that would soon be known as the Bundesautobahn (Federal Highway) was in bad shape. Many sections were never completed, others were damaged by Allied bombs, and several bridges had been destroyed by the retreating German army. Ironically,

the autobahns in Germany proved more useful for Allied military forces than for their domestic forces.

Repair of the existing road network began in earnest, and by 1953 the West German government began to focus on expanding it. By 1964, the system had grown to 1,865 miles, and in 1984 it exceeded 4,970 miles. German reunification in 1990 expanded the system to 6,835 miles, though poor conditions of the highways in the former East Germany—many of which had narrow medians and no shoulders, just as they were in 1945—put the emphasis back on repair and modernization. By the turn of the century the German Autobahn System was growing again, and in 2004 it became the third-largest superhighway system in the world, behind the U.S. and China. Today, there are some 8,078 miles of autobahn in Germany.

Is There Really No Speed Limit on Germany's Autobahns?

The notion that there are no autobahn speed limits isn't entirely true: About 30-percent of the network has speed limits that range from 80-130 kph (50-81 mph). Some of these limits are static while others are dynamic, changing based on traffic and road conditions. Some roads have night-time or wet-weather speed limits, and some classes of vehicles, such as heavy trucks, have their own speed limits.

For cars and motorcycles traveling the bulk of the autobahn, there is an "advisory" speed limit of 130 kph (81 mph). It's not illegal to go faster, but in the event of a crash, a driver's liability may increase based on speed, even if the driver was not at fault. German automakers have a "gentlemen's agreement" to limit the speed of their cars to 250 kph (155 mph). Some lower-performance models have lower speed limiters in order to avoid exceeding their tires' limitations.

The autobahns also have a minimum speed requirement: Vehicles must be able to maintain 60 kph (37 mph) on flat terrain. Some stretches have minimum speeds of 90 kph (56 mph) or 110 kph (68 mph) in certain lanes.

Autobahn Germany: History of Speed Limits

The Nazi government passed the Road Traffic Act in 1934, limiting speeds to 60 kph (37 mph) in urban areas but setting no limit for rural roads or autobahns. In 1939, responding to fuel shortages, the government lowered the limit to 40 kph (25 mph) in town and 80 kph (50 mph) on all other roads. The West German government did away with all federal speed limits in 1952, ceding authority to the individual states. An appalling rise in traffic deaths led to a country-wide speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph) in 1972, though autobahns remained unrestricted.

In December 1973, the oil crisis prompted the West German government to set an autobahn speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph). The measure was instantly unpopular and was repealed the following March. The advisory speed limit was adopted in 1978. Legislation to set a hard speed limit (usually 130 kph/81 mph) comes up on a fairly regular basis and is always defeated.

Building (and Maintaining) For Speed

If you live in places where road construction and/or maintenance leaves something to be desired—Los Angeles and Detroit come to mind—German Autobahns are designed for high-speed driving. Freeze-resistant concrete or asphalt is laid over a heavy roadbed, with a combined depth in the neighborhood of 30 inches. Curves are gentle and slightly banked, and grades are limited to 4 percent. The roadways are split with a center median that features dual guardrails or concrete barriers. The routes generally avoid large cities, which are accessed by spur roads.

At high speeds, pavement irregularities can become fatal obstacles, so Germany's autobahn roadways receive frequent and detailed inspection. Repair generally involves replacing sections of the roadway rather than patching, which sounds like a dream here in the U.S.

Autobahn Germany: What's It Really Like to Drive? 

Driving the high-speed sections of the autobahn in Germany is not a matter of simply flooring the accelerator and watching the speedo climb. Speed limits come and go, especially near cities, and high-speed sections are punctuated by speed-limited sections enforced by photo radar. Lane discipline is strict (though not as well observed as you might expect, especially nowadays), tailgating is frowned upon, and passing on the right is strictly forbidden.

When driving on an unrestricted section of autobahn in Germany, you must look far down the road—you may be bombing down the highway at 180 kph (112 mph) when a car doing 130 pulls into the left lane in front of you to pass a truck limited to 80 kph. You also have to keep one eye glued to the mirror for Porsches and big Mercedes coming up fast from behind—they really do seem to materialize out of thin air. While the Germans are fanatical about road inspection, there's no guarantee they will find a pothole before you do, so you also need to keep a careful eye on the road condition ahead

The end result is that driving fast on German autobahns can be an exhausting experience, a sharp contrast from the more relaxed driving style common on American highways. The concentration you must exert rises exponentially with speed; it's an adrenaline rush for sure, but once you've tried it, you'll understand why so many autobahn drivers in Germany cruise at more sedate speeds—or just take the train.