America has a fine tradition of automotive spy shots, but it pales in comparison to Germany’s “Erlkönig” tradition. So much so, that Germans seem to exhibit a downright Pavlovian response to camouflaged vehicles, chasing anything that looks like it might be a factory prototype. Even if it’s actually a vehicle they probably see every day. How did this conditioning take root in the German psyche? For that, we need a brief history lesson.
The first-ever spy shots of an automotive prototype (a Mercedes 180), taken by Auto Motor und Sport in the 1950s, were accompanied by lighthearted adaptations of Goethe’s poem Der Erlkönig because, in the words of one editor
These images, which by todays standards are ridiculously harmless, were considered an unprecedented provocation by the automobile industry. [Then-Editor-in-Chief Heinz-Ulrich Wieselmann] finally decided to sweeten the bitter pill for the industry by accompanying the images with endearing text. In this spirit, he rhymed a little poem in the style of the Erlkönig (Alder King) to go with the first pictures
Who rides there, through the rain and wind so wild?
Is it a street cruiser from the other side,
who in this dimension was left behind,
Or could it be Daimler’s youngest child?
[Ed: translation is mine]
Goethe’s poem, which tells of a child’s death at the hands of a mythical Alder King that his father (who carries him through “rain and night”) can not see, is so well known that the reference was clear. Ever since then, camouflaged prototypes are know as Erlkönigs, and Germans hunt them with abiding passion.
So much so, in fact, that a firm selling graphic wraps for automobiles decided to give a BMW X5 a mule-style wrap that was actually an advertisement for its services… and it ended up on Youtube, identified as an “Erlkönig” of an X5 facelift. Which proves not only that even non-auto-obsessed Germans will chase anything with four wheels and camo on it, but that this was genius marketing move.
Incidentally, the motto that makes up those spirals says “make your car look new.” Brilliant.