By on May 24, 2009

From 1973 through 2005, my job was to create excitement for Volkswagens in the hope that people would buy them. The job had its ups and downs. We loved facelifts and hated totally new cars. With a facelift, we could travel to attractive and warm places for the photo shoot. “Because of the sun.” Not to mention the beach. And the nice amenities of the Hotel Negresco in Nice. With a facelift, we could tool around in broad daylight, and nobody would bat an eye or even think of snapping a picture. Which magazine would publish the spy shot of a re-designed bumper? Totally new cars were top secret. Not allowed to travel outside the confines of the VW factory. Even there, constantly under tarps. The only places we could photograph them were at the in-house photo studio or at the VW proving grounds in Ehra-Lessien.

Ehra-Lessien (“Ehra” for short) was—still is—in a godforsaken place north of Wolfsburg. Surrounded by woods, barbed wire and an army of guards, Ehra is Europe’s largest test track. According to Wikipedia, “they had originally built it here during the Cold War, because it was a no-fly zone on the East German border, safe from prying eyes seeing secret prototypes.”

We said they built it there because they saved barbed wire on the one side abutting the death strip of the border. It was a lie. Everybody who knew Volkswagen—but not the environs of Ehra, Boitzenhagen and Küstorf—believed our version. Ehra houses 100 km of roads of all stripes, from mudholes to banked corners which can be taken at top speed while your car is glued to a wall. You may have seen it on Top Gear, when James May hit 407 km/h in a Bugatti Veyron.

Sound exciting? Compared to Nice, it’s boring as hell. We hated Ehra. It was a bad assignment. “Ehra wem Ehra gebührt,” we said; a bad pun that requires knowledge of German to understand. The weather was usually rotten, especially in the months before the inevitable spring launch. Most of the time was spent waiting for the sun to come out. We spent weeks in Ehra in the rain.

I learned to drive in Ehra. I did Volkswagen advertising and didn’t have a driver’s license. I was in good company; VW of America’s advertising director in the 60s didn’t have a license. Helmut Schmitz had hired DDB, the agency that did the classic “Lemon” or “Think small” ads. (He ran that agency later.) Werner Butter, President of DDB Düsseldorf, didn’t have a license. He had lost an eye when he was young and didn’t qualify. Asked how he could sell a product he couldn’t use, Werner inevitably answered: “I also do ads for tampons.”

Not having a license made us unprepossessed: we would sell anything VW came up with. Engine in the back? Great. Front? Super. Aircooled? The best. Watercooled? State of the art. 4, 5, 6, 8 cylinders, gas or diesel, we loved it all. Also, we consumed inordinate amounts of alcohol during, after, and before work. A driver’s license would have been a waste of time and money better spent in bars.

But what do you do when you are bored and surrounded by cars and 100 km of non-public roads? You sit in a car. You turn the key. What did they say, push the gear, shift into clutch—or was it the other way round? I quickly found out. After some stints in Ehra, I could drive (illegally).

Again, it was time to launch a super-secret new car the world hadn’t seen before and wasn’t supposed to see before the designated date. So there we were sitting in a hut next to the Dynamikfläche in Ehra, and it was pouring rain. Outside were a bunch of highly classified handmade prototypes, some with only one side finished. Why waste the money on the other side if it doesn’t get photographed?

The photographer and his crew loved it as they were paid by the day. We played cards with the guards. They loved it, too, because watching us advertising yo-yos was better duty than standing in the rain. Their job: keep us from doing something entirely stupid like driving a hand-made prototype (that cost a million dollars to make) at 200 km/h through aforementioned banked corners. It happened. Once.

The Dynamikfläche is a huge skid pad, half a kilometer in diameter, flat as my Japanese wife’s chest. It’s surrounded by dense woods. With the rain coming down, it glistened like a lake. I mean, the Dynamikfläche did.

There was a faint “quack-quaak” in the distance.

One of the guards said: “Here comes dinner.”

The other guard dropped his cards and grabbed a canvas bag. The guards went outside. We followed. The rain had subsided to a drizzle, rays of sun on the horizon.

The “quack-quaak” turned louder. In the air, five ducks in perfect V-formation.

“Quack-quaak!”

The ducks were on final approach, headed for a landing on the glistening lake surrounded by the dense woods.

With a last “quaak,” they flared. Made contact with the concrete. Tumbled over each other in a big ball of duck feathers. Broke their necks and were dead before they stopped skidding.

The guards went out and collected them in the canvas bag that had obviously seen ducks that had met a similar fate on what must have been the world’s most expensive and most elaborate duck trap.

We declined the offer of a dead duck.

Next day, the sun was out and we could get on with our business of creating anticipation and desire for a new Volkswagen. At lunch, we shared some cold duck sandwiches. Guaranteed lead-free.

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29 Comments on “Autobiography of BS© Part 2: The World’s Most Elaborate Duck Trap...”


  • avatar
    shaker

    Great story – did you eventually get your license?

    I never thought about the duck trap ability of such a place – I suppose watching cartoon ducks as children gives us an inflated opinion of their intelligence (excluding Daffy Duck, I suppose).

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    I heard similar stories of similar things (duck-related that is) happening at GM’s Black Lake (lateral skid pad surface) at Milford PG.

    As a young engineer, I participated in SAE Young Engineer’s Day, and was sent to Chrysler’s Chelsea PG … I don’t remember much about the experience, except the service techs introduced me to venison, of the pickled variety (delicious)…

    Seems to keep the deer population down, and avoid deer strikes with the test fleet, Chrysler ran a lottery allowing PG employees to go deer hunting on PG grounds.

  • avatar

    Shaker:

    I received my license at the Department Of Motor Vehicles in Charlottesville, VA. I drove someone through a subdivision, he said: “You go inside young man, and we’ll fix y’all right up.” $15 later, I had my license, and became the terror of the White Hall to Boonesville stretch of Rte. 810

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    Werner inevitably answered: “I also do ads for tampons.”

    Spoken like a true Mad Man.

    Wunderbar.

  • avatar

    Remember, Jeff: This series is all your fault. You talked me into it. And thank you for the fine copy editing. At least someone who’s keeping me on the straight & narrow.

  • avatar
    mitchim

    Wow so many ducks! I do wonder if any americans know of the legendary Syncrude ducks? In northern Canada we have a HUGE duck traps called tailings ponds. They are protected from unexpected duck landings with propane cannons, scare crows, and I’m sure people are hired to ensure that waterfoul do not land on this pond.

    Low and behold after a huge snow storm last winter the trucks could not get out to deploy the cannons and hundreds of ducks landed to there oily demise. This is bad press. The company was charged with the fines by the provincal and federal governments.

    Point is ducks landing on pavement rolling to there deaths could make americas funniest home videos, verses ducks landing on a huge evil oil companies tailings pond is bad.

  • avatar

    Dammit Bertel, WRITE THAT BOOK!!!

    +great story.

  • avatar
    pista

    How flat?

  • avatar

    Pista:

    Farago’s editorial policy doesn’t allow me to show you. Nothing to see. Move on.

  • avatar
    Kman

    Great story, great write-up.

  • avatar

    Danke Bertel, excellent story.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    matt

    Care to explain that pun? Neither my copy of Langenscheidt, nor my rather basic German, are of much help.

  • avatar
    holydonut

    Bertel: What’s up with you and RF going after Japanese women?

    A good Chinese woman would know how to cook up one of those dead ducks. Roasted duck is delicious.

  • avatar

    Matt: Too complicated. Never try translate wordplay into another language,

    Holydonut: RF has the South African (Rhodesian?) wife. I have the Japanese. We have a Chinese cook. Her specialty is pastries.

  • avatar
    holydonut

    Ah you’re right… I read your post referencing a Japanese Wife and then Robert’s post about his wife getting naturalized… incorrectly combined the two.

    But I still think on average it’s not that flat… in Japan.

  • avatar
    matt

    Bertel: I figured it out. It helps when you try to conjugate the right verb. As it turns out, bühren isn’t a verb.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Bertel: Just now home … was thinking about the story the whole day … firstly, thanks, very entertaining. Secondly, how about the stories behind the prototype wrecks that led to the guards having to watch the protos? Would love to hear the story! Thanks again.

  • avatar

    Outstanding story, marred only slightly by obscure reference to Asian furniture purchased by better half ;)

    What stands out most for me is the comment that one of the ad men was missing an eye and therefore “did not qualify” to have a driver’s license in West Germany. Here in the United States, which is metaphorically the land of the blind, he could have become our king!

  • avatar
    Airhen

    Indeed, great story. And about those ducks, I’ve been on a few reduction hunts in parks, but it was never that easy! :)

  • avatar
    alfabert

    Zitat von Paulus von Tarsus (Theologe), der im Neuen Testament schrieb (Römer 13,7): “So gebet nun jedermann, was ihr schuldig seid: Schoß, dem der Schoß gebührt; Zoll, dem der Zoll gebührt; Furcht, dem die Furcht gebührt; Ehre, dem die Ehre gebührt”

    “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Bertel: I take it this means that your wife does not read English.

  • avatar

    Robert Schwartz: She does. And she said: “Schmitto-kun! That’s sexual hallassment!” But isn’t she beautiful? She can say anything she wants ….

    Robert Walter: Story too short. Once, a haughty and arrogant account exec of the agency came to “check how you guys get on with the job.” It was raining as usual. “Might as well test drive the product, while I’m here,” he said and off he was, doing max speed rounds on the track. He was quickly waved off the track and then off the job. The handmade proto wasn’t meant for fast driving, 80 km/h max. Amazingly, it survived. The AE wasn’t missed.

    Jack Baruth: Domo arigatou gozaimasu. Bow. Your reckless prose shall always be an inspiration.

    Alfabert: Thank you. “If you go to Ehra, you probably deserve it.”

  • avatar

    # Bertel Schmitt :
    May 24th, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Pista:

    Farago’s editorial policy doesn’t allow me to show you. Nothing to see. Move on.

    Maybe he meant the pavement?

    Terrific story.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Jack Baruth:”Here in the United States, which is metaphorically the land of the blind, he could have become our king!”

    In most (if not all) of the USA, one-eyed driving is permitted, as long as the good eye is better than 20/60 and car is equipped with side mirrors.

    Edit: (I’m sure that I missed the larger metaphor)

  • avatar

    Very nice story.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    This is great – so you did advertising as well as aftersales, or was it different time periods?

  • avatar
    agenthex

    RF has the South African (Rhodesian?) wife.

    Uh…, lol

  • avatar
    Riz

    At lunch, we shared some cold duck sandwiches. Guaranteed lead-free. — Hilarious!

    Thanks, Betel!


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