The question of automotive preservation jogged an unblogged memory loose today, from earlier in this chaotic summer when I was in Wolfsburg, Germany. I was touring the Zeithaus, or “House of Time,” in Volkswagen’s sprawling Autostadt, taking in the remarkably well-curated exhibit of some of the most influential and important cars of all time. Unlike the GM Heritage Center, for example, the Zeithaus is not reserved for VWs alone, but includes fine examples of undeniably iconic cars from various marques. Organizing VW’s official museum in this way gives the brand a sense of sophistication, sending the message that VW knows quality even when it’s not the one producing it. And the Zeithaus’s curators use this well, offering up such flattering (if ultimately apt) comparisons as an Audi A2 poised alongside a Citroen DS.
But as we reached the area showing the roots of the Volkswagen Beetle, full of KdF cars and early Beetle prototypes, I realized something was missing. If Volkswagen were sophisticated enough to give credit where credit is due to, say, Citroen for the DS, surely there would be at least one Tatra in the joint. After all, Ferdinand Porsche has admitted to at least being inspired by Hans Ledwinka’s Tatra designs. And even if he hadn’t admitted a thing, it’s tough to deny that the Beetle design wasn’t on some level influenced by the contemporary Tatra V570. So I asked my guide, a slick young Dutchman who had probably spent half his life with the company: “are there any Tatras in the Zeithaus? Where are they?”
My guide gave me a peculiar Dutch look that didn’t betray a thing. “Tatras?” he asked. “What’s a Tatra?”
I bring this up not to shame Volkswagen, let alone my otherwise highly competent guide. After all, there’s no shame in admitting that one, or one’s company, owes some kind of intellectual debt to an inspired predecessor… but it can be difficult. My point, rather, is that history is delicate… and always written by the victors. One reason I’m less than entirely enthused about creating a National Register for historic automobiles is that many of the most important automobiles in history are well preserved. And yet the majority of preservation is done by automakers themselves, which have the resources to create whole museums depicting the evolution of the automobile… and the motivation to curate them selectively. Sure, a handful of influential automotive museums exist, but they tend to focus on assembling the most rare and beautiful vehicles ever made, rather than faithfully depicting the evolution of the automobile.
Does any of this warrant hyperventilation on a weekend evening in September? Of course not. But it’s worth considering. Just as placing a Tatra or two in the Zeithaus would be worth considering for Volkswagen’s curators. After all, history is like a rambunctious child: difficult to sanitize and resentful at the mere attempt.