By on March 29, 2016

Poolshooting 15.08.2010

Just short of ten years ago, I clambered out of a claustrophobia-inducing Lufthansa coach seat in Frankfurt, grabbed my luggage, and headed for the parking garage. I had paid for my own flight — which did not surprise me in the slightest, because I was a cycling journalist at the time, not an automotive one. After a brief disagreement with my wife concerning the likely German phrase for “parking garage,” we found the right building, then the right floor, and finally the right spot. Occupying the spot was a Volkswagen Phaeton not entirely unlike the two that I’d left in my driveway at home. It was a short-wheelbase model with a VR6 and a specification too modest to ever cross the Atlantic, but the relative familiarity of the car and the controls made it slightly easier for me to get used to driving in Germany.

As we headed east and the evening fell in the windshield ahead, the perfect order and strident prosperity of what I’d grown up calling “West Germany” gradually faded, replaced by open fields, small towns, and abandoned concrete cube housing sprouting a decade’s worth of weeds. We were on our way to Dresden — to the ruined cathedral, to the cobblestones, to what Sandra, my bright-red-haired guide, called “the Saxon temperament.” We were headed to Die Gläserne Manufaktur. The Transparent Factory.


Germany, of course, is where Volkswagen builds its follies, in both the literal and architectural senses of the term. There’s the Autostadt, that bizarre theme park that lets you experience a mist-shrouded intimidation-by-Aventador. When the production team behind the Clive Owen action film “The International” wanted to showcase some outrageous buildings, the two places they secured permission to film in were the Guggenheim in New York and the main Autostadt showcase in Wolfsburg. You can order a new Volkswagen in Germany and have it automatically delivered to you from a massive crystalline tower. Frankly, it all kind of makes the RenCen look like a Best Western.

Die Gläserne Manufaktur is on yet another level entirely. It’s a manufacturing plant, but it’s one with hardwood floors, quasi-levitating platforms, and barely a solid wall surface to be seen anywhere. I’ve worked in and around automotive assembly plants quite a bit over the past decade. They’re all noisy, crowded, frenetic places. Even the best-practices modern plants, like BMW’s facility in South Carolina and the East Liberty plant where Civics are made, are dangerous places where ear protection is required and people follow carefully painted lines on the floor lest they lose their lives in the space of a moment thanks to a swinging welder or fast-moving automated transport.

In the Transparent Factory, by contrast, you could hold a quiet conversation or play a parlor-sized acoustic guitar for a friend. I found this out firsthand when I visited the place as part of an American Phaeton owner’s group activity. We were given a late lunch in the massive suspended globe above the main lobby that serves as executive dining hall and musical performance space. They sat me next to the plant manager (“Ah, you are the American with two of our cars,” he noted) and provided me with a plate on which vanishingly small portions of lamb and parsley were framed by a half-circle of caviar.

I was set free to roam the factory, which even at the time was rather more busy building Bentley Flying Spurs for the European market than it was with Phaetons. The highlight of the tour was the “marriage station” where the Volkswagen D-platform’s massive backbone driveline was bolted into the unibody in a computerized ballet that was ethereal to watch due to its muffled silence.

“This is the button that performs the marriage,” the worker told me. A blue Flying Spur waited, still in bachelorhood, above us.

“Can I push the button?” I asked.

“It is forbidden,” he replied, in clipped English. Sandra, my minder, turned away. “Push the button,” he whispered, winking. So there’s a 2007 Flying Spur somewhere in Germany for which I performed the marriage. Hope it held up okay.

The Transparent Factory was more than a simple assembly plant. It was an expression of Ferdinand Piech’s ultimate vision for Volkswagen: a few highly-trained Germans assisting a multitude of flawless machines as they created consumer objects of impeccable desirability and function. My compatriot Basem Wasef, no stranger to caviar or overseas flights himself, wrote a piece about the 21 most interesting features of the plant a while back. These various facts were all explained to me as I wandered from station to station, but I was struck more by the otherworldly spirit of the place than by any particular bit of trivia regarding Canadian maple flooring. It was truly a folly; beautiful, fascinating, impractical.

No longer. Production of the Phaeton stopped last week as Volkswagen finally admitted failure in as quiet a manner as possible. Bentley production is all at Crewe now, as far as I know, so there’s nothing left to build. The factory is being revamped to be “a showcase for electromobility and digitalisation,” which to my Generation X cynicism means not a fucking thing. They say that production could resume at some point in the future. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

We left Dresden that afternoon and headed to Berlin. Over the next week, our trip eventually took us to Cologne, the Nurburgring, and even Castle Baruth itself. Well. Calling it a “castle” is a bit of an overstatement. There are bigger McMansions in Columbus, Ohio. The current Baron, the castle’s owner, managed to recover it from the German government after unification and half a lifetime of being a mere private citizen under the hammer and sickle. The place needs some work, to put it mildly. Still, what does your family’s castle look like? The good news is that you can get a decent pizza just a short walk away, although “pepperoni” to a German pizza-maker means “green peppers.” Don’t do that.

The town of Baruth merged with its neighbor, Mark, a while ago, creating “Baruth/Mark.” (My suggestion, to name it “Bark Maruth” in honor of a certain Ohio musician’s drunk-alias-to-even-more-drunk-groupies, was not honored.) Things in East Germany are kind of tough lately. A lot of the people, and a lot of the jobs, went West. In that environment, the Transparent Factory stood as a sort of monument to the sheer power of Piech’s will; the sheer hubris required to create a 12-cylinder Volkswagen and a hardwood-floored assembly plant in which to build it and then to place it all in the East because hey, why not? There was something majestic about it. I meant that in the classic sense. To stand on the floor of that factory was, after a fashion, to understand the creation of Versailles.

Having told its diesel customers that they could have their cake and eat it too for so long, VW is now preparing to meet its own royal fate, perhaps in the French fashion as well. I don’t offer any excuses for the men who made those decisions, and I don’t agree with those who think that the government has no business regulating emissions in the first place. That doesn’t mean that I don’t mourn the Transparent Factory’s closure. You can think of it as the fall that must follow pride, or as a folly in itself, but you would be a fool not to see Die Gläserne Manufaktur for what it is: a human triumph of ambition and vision. We should all dream so large, consequences be damned.

VW Glass Factory sign in Dresden

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76 Comments on “No Fixed Abode: Farewell to the Transparent Dream...”


  • avatar
    JimZ

    “Even the best-practices modern plants, like BMW’s facility in South Carolina and the East Liberty plant where Civics are made, are dangerous places where ear protection is required and people follow carefully painted lines on the floor lest they lose their lives in the space of a moment thanks to a swinging welder or fast-moving automated transport.”

    Or cell-phone yakking forklift driver…

  • avatar
    Fordson

    Good piece – very well written and evocative.

  • avatar
    pdl2dmtl

    Nice piece. Phaeton was against all that VW stood for: people’s car.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      Wow, good point.

    • 0 avatar
      Chan

      To be fair, the Phaeton is not the only modern VW to stand against the brand’s namesake. No “people’s car” should be as unreliable and costly to maintain as VWs.

      • 0 avatar
        JustPassinThru

        And yet, all “people’s cars” are.

        The Yugo…made by the People’s Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.

        The Lada…made by the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.

        The myriad former-private brands made by British Leyland…brought under government ownership by the British Labour Party, which was in control of the UK for two decades.

        And…let us not forget, our own Government Motors?

        We don’t know how reliable would have been the KdF-wagen if it had been brought out to public sale by the National Socialists…but I daresay that since the people selling it could execute those who spoke out against the product, the people making and selling it, or the nation-state that owned the operation…probably, trouble-free, economical ownership would not have been a priority.

        VW was fortunate in its early years to have a chance to emphasize quality of manufacture. But in buying NSU, to get its water-cooling expertise…it also apparently got a far-different corporate culture.

        As with People’s Republics…I’ll stay far away from this People’s Car. This people cannot afford it – and I say that from experience.

        • 0 avatar
          NoGoYo

          Lada unreliable? Sure, why not. But costly to maintain? Of course not! The incredibly simplistic design and tremendous production numbers has to keep parts costs down.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Jack, you need a still bigger stage.

  • avatar
    John

    You can pay for a lot of fancy shmancy stuff when you are swindling your customers. Bernie Madoff lived pretty well.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Nice piece. You capture both the folly of Piëch and the still-disjunct atmosphere of Germany very well.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    As a German-Swiss with Bavarian ancestry I’m amazed that VW allowed dandelions to grow in the yard even if it meant pulling each one out by hand due to environmental regulations.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Have you ever been? I’m actually looking at putting something together in June to Switzerland, which I believe will be free of issue.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        Switzerland (where I spent two years of my early childhood and most of my summers through high school) is sort of like Germany, distilled, with more and bigger mountains. It’s considerably richer and uses that wealth to promote order everywhere.

        Expect outrageous prices (sometimes double what you’d pay in the US), spotlessly clean streets everywhere except possibly the very centers of Zurich or Geneva, zero crime, rigid and mercilessly enforced adherence to driving/cycling/walking rules, trains that run on time to the second, shops that are generally closed on Sunday and sometimes on Monday morning, and a lot of trouble if you do something like use a gas mower on Sunday or leave a firewood pile disorganized.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Seriously thanks guys. My birthday is next week and I had originally planned to revisit Dublin and see Muse. However due to some family problems and the so-so health of my best friend, I never booked the trip and now the cost is prohibitive to just skip over for a few days.

          However I did also want to visit Switzerland, and I happened to notice a certain favorite band of mine is headlining the Caribana Festival in Geneva on June 1 while Muse will play Prague on June 4. I should have enough points for a free flight to Zurich so I am thinking about building a ten day trip around these two concerts and AirBnB’ing some accommodations (I wasn’t planning on driving much but if I could get a convertible in automatic I might consider it). Does this sound realistic to those of you who have traveled to the region? Thanks again.

          http://www.caribana-festival.ch/en

          @PrincipalDan

          Through my grandmother’s grandmother (Mary Barie), we have a Bavarian Catholic lineage. I believe her father’s name was Franciscus Barie, b 1835, and was killed in 1895 when something fell on him from a crane at the steel mill here in Pittsburgh. Through grandma’s grandpa (Clark) I was able to trace the lineage back to the 12th Century and if I follow the split of a female line around the 14th Century (Zatouche I believe) I was able to get it back to around the year 800.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Budget twice what you’d expect for food and transportation and that sounds totally realistic.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Before I came to work I saw the train from Zurich to Geneva was I think “A81” but maybe it meant 81 CHF. Not cheap but its a 200km ride. How much is food at the grocery store?

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            A good rule of thumb is to expect prices that are twice the number of CHF as the number of dollars you would pay in the US. At one time the exchange rate was close to 2 CHF/USD and purchasing power was similar, but the CHF has been the Magic Appreciating Currency against everything else in the world for almost two decades straight, just ending last year.

          • 0 avatar
            NN

            I spent 10 days this past October in Europe…specifically Prague and Switzerland. Flew into Prague, spent 3 days at a fantastic airbnb right in downtown. Took a really cheap one way flight from Prague-Milan on Easyjet, rented an Alfa Romeo and drove north to Interlaken for a few days. The flight was cheaper than train travel, and of course faster, and allowed me to avoid one-way across border car rental fee which is very expensive. Milan is only 45 minutes from the Swiss border so we flew back to the states from Milan. Prague is cheap…do your nice restaurant meals, etc. there. Switzerland is expensive so we went to grocery stores and stocked up on fruit/cheese/bread/sausage/wine/beer and did a lot of hiking which was magnificent. Grocery store prices are more akin to Whole Foods than Walmart but not really too high. Driving was easy, beautiful and fun in the Alfa Giulietta.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Thanks for the info, NN. This is the sort of thing I envision for myself. Maybe ten days, fly into Zurich (day or so), train to Geneva for this concert (spend two days there), fly into Prague from there for maybe 4 days, then back to Switzerland for the remaining time. I’m making this up as I go if you can’t tell lol.

          • 0 avatar
            Piston Slap Yo Mama

            28CL: We just got back from two weeks in Schladming Austria, ostensibly for skiing, but after the rented ski boots rubbed the skin off my shins and the missus twisted her knee twice we decided to revisit Hallstatt, Salzburg, Graz, Hohenschwangau and Munich. My takeaway is that NOW is the time to go, before the Euro begins to regain value. Gas is approximately $4.25 / gal and eating out was the cheapest I’ve experienced in Europe with great dinners rivaling my local ho-hum restaurants in price. Cheap lodging is as easy as looking for a sign on the country marked ZImmer – or just use AirBnB. Pro-tip: learn a bit of German if you haven’t already. The locals are much more receptive when you make the effort to mangle their language.

      • 0 avatar
        JuniperBug

        Switzerland is beautiful. I actually got back from a day in Geneva yesterday, and spent a summer helping guide cycling tours from Lausanne to Interlaken, as well as working for a construction company in Lucerne in 2007. It’s a great place to visit, but a culture that’s fairly difficult for North Americans to integrate into on a deeper basis, and I say that as someone who has the citizenship and the ability to speak much of the local language.

        If you drive while there, be advised that laws are obeyed more obediently, and being at fault in an accident will result in the police giving you a CHF 1,000 fine, even if no laws were broken and even if you were the only one involved.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Never been. There are some genealogy nuts in the extended family tree who have traced our surname back to written church records dated 1475 in Geneva. I’d love to go someday. My mother’s maiden-name indicates that her ancestor was a “man from Westphalia” although other branches of the family are Bavarian Catholics.

      • 0 avatar
        Alfisti

        Switzerland is gorgeous but the cities i could take or leave as they feel a little antiseptic. Head to Interlaken, Lauterbrunnen and the jungfrau region.

        prices will be epically high for everything, you have been warned.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          Seconded the recommendation to head to the Bernese Oberland. I think the best hiking I’ve ever done in my life started from Lauterbrunnen and Kandersteg.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Thanks for the recommendation. I’m not much of a hiker and I’ll be by myself, but I could see me hiking just a bit in order to get some beautiful photographs.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            As you’d expect in Switzerland, hiking is considerably safer and more orderly than it is here. Trails are all impeccably maintained. There are little yellow metal signs guiding you and providing distance information on even the most rugged and remote trails, like this:

            https://www.backroads.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/trail-signs.jpg

            (Std. stands for “Stunde,” meaning hours.)

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Showing the distance to something in minutes appeals very strongly to my Midwestern self.

        • 0 avatar
          JuniperBug

          To add to Alfisti’s excellent suggestions, Gstaad and Gruyere are also lovely towns. Montreux is a nice town a stone’s throw from Geneva and holds the second largest annual Jazz festival in the world in the beginning of July. There’s also the 1,000 year old Chillon castle, which I consider worth the hour or two it takes to tour it, especially given the scenery which surrounds it.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Thank you for the recommendations. I may have to plan a second trip to see this jazz festival which will occur too late for me to see.

    • 0 avatar
      ChesterChi

      In my experience (having lived in Germany until age 17, and going back to visit roughly once a year), parks and landscaping in Germany are always maintained very poorly. Even in the wealthiest suburbs of Hamburg, the public parks are barely maintained at all.

      If Germany was adjacent to Mexico, this might be different.

  • avatar
    Notadude

    Ugh, Jack, stop making me feel sorry for VW. It gives me stomach ache.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Just one more example of VW killing itself.

    And all those workers out of a job…for something they had no hand in. Sometimes we forget that when companies engage in fraudulent or illegal behaviors, there are real consequences to real people. Sad.

    Maybe they can build Audis there or something?

    • 0 avatar
      sirwired

      Well, to be fair, the Phaeton was always a bad idea, the whole TDI scandal just made it no longer possible to keep throwing stupid amounts of money at it. In truth, the project never should have gotten off the ground.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Your hair was all grey!

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Where did VW hit the point of no return? I think it was well before they made this factory.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Probably the same time that WorldCom, Enron, Washington Mutual, Countrywide and every other outfit that nuked itself did…the day it decided to cheat to make money.

      Beware the dark side, Luke…once you go down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny…

  • avatar
    tresmonos

    If only every shuttered factory that I’ve set foot in received such an eloquent eulogy.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick 2012

      The massive OEM engine manufacturing/casting complex I worked at for a brief period was mostly dead. Unlike the Glass Factory, this one was the site of deaths, horrible injuries, shortened lives, union strikes, and general misery. Unlike Willow Run or Rouge, it wasn’t an arsenal of democracy – not much good to reflect on.

      • 0 avatar
        jhefner

        I landed in Cleveland for the first time a year or two ago, and the bus to the rental cars takes you right by the Ford Cleveland engine plant, where the “Cleveland” V-8 of the 1960s was built. It had such a derelict appearance on the outside and even in aerial photographs that it was hard to believe it was still open; it resembled the half-running synthetic rubber plant I worked in for while, where half the plant was shut down and had roofs collapsing and everything; they finally demolished that half in 2006.

        • 0 avatar
          Nick 2012

          ” it resembled the half-running synthetic rubber plant I worked in for while, where half the plant was shut down and had roofs collapsing and everything; ”

          In 2005-ish, half of both Cleveland Engine plants WERE empty! We called it the light side and the dark side.

          • 0 avatar
            tresmonos

            I guess kind of like the shuttered Oakville minivan body shop and truck paint shop. When they ripped them out, I had a slight cough 24/7 that I just will chalk up as a precursor to possible mesothelioma later on down the road of life.

        • 0 avatar
          tresmonos

          That casting plant is gone. Fun fact – I had a FCG (Ford College Graduate Program) friend who was forced to park his non Ford vehicle in the ‘far’ lot at Cleveland Casting. On his first day, he came out to his Chrysler, stripped of doors, hood, trunk, wheels/tires and stereo.. up on cinder blocks. We were laid off unceremoniously together 8 months after that (2008). I felt pretty lucky with my student loans but paid for POS cavalier driving away from the Conference and Events Center AKA 2008 Way-Forward layoff factory. Life can be cruel, but it ALWAYS can be worse.

          • 0 avatar
            Nick 2012

            When were you there, Tres? I was an FCG in Finance in 05. Another FCG friend, whose parents bought her a decent (US-made) Toyota to replace another car ruined by a drunk had to park in the out lot. Her car was keyed mercilessly.

            I could park my Canadian-assembled Impala and Grand Marquis with impunity.

            They moved me to POEE when they were winding down CEP1 3.0 duratech to switch over to 3.5L volume (I’ll never understand why they had two versions of the Duratech – the RFF and DAMB.

            After watching the Way Forward round 1 gut the plant, then round 2 gut POEE, I quit in 2006 and went back to school.

            It was one hell of a wakeup call to watch SECURITY escort out 30 year plus employees a few months after graduating college.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Why did he get a lesson but you get a pass, or did you not have this Cav yet?

          • 0 avatar
            tresmonos

            @Nick
            I was a FCG late 2006/early 2007. Got laid off in 2008 during one of the last 3 rounds – they laid off every FCG that had less than 3 years of experience except for maybe three that had family members protect them. I never visited Cleveland – I was based in Chicago / Dearborn.

            @28
            I never worked at Cleveland, just was pals with the dude and he was frequently in Dearborn during training, etc. I parked my POS in the far ‘foreign’ lots for years, even after I returned to the company for a 2nd and 3rd time. Finally bought another vehicle that was a Ford (12 years after my first car purchase).

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            POEE has been renovated and re-staffed.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Buick City and Willow Run deserve eulogies more eloquent than I could ever hope to deliver. Wixom Assembly always felt like “home” to me, but as a kid, Buick City was my industrial version of the Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    “a few highly-trained Germans assisting a multitude of flawless machines as they created consumer objects of impeccable desirability and function”

    And what of the rest of the population?

    Hey! These brats are excellent!

  • avatar
    laserwizard

    What drugs do you take to write – it was like reading ping pong – never settling on a theme other than distracting snippets of useless information.

    I wasn’t sure if this was about a trip, a factory, or about pushing a button.

  • avatar
    dkleinh

    Having lived in Germany during the collapse of the Berlin wall and through the reunification, I am not surprised that such a place was built in the east. After the reunification, the german government was pushing development in the east. I was a post-doc at a Max-Planck Institute and we were sending scientists and equipment to eastern institutions to bolster them. I was fortunate to travel to Dresden in 1992 when a couple of friends/colleagues received recognition for being young outstanding scientists at the annual Max-Planck society meeting, specifically held in Dresden that year. Germany was looking to the east, at least then.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Since this piece was about the Phaeton, here are the highest mile’d US examples per model year which traded hands recently. Yes, one apparently did 218K and was sold running.

    MY04

    02/23/16 ATLANTA Regular $3,500 218,159 Avg BLACK 8G A No

    MY05

    03/01/16 HOUSTON Regular $2,800 179,598 Below BLUE 8G Yes

    MY06

    12/17/15 CHICAGO Regular $6,000 105,143 Avg BLACK 8G A No

    The most expensive one of the three MYs was this and it was sold nearly two years ago:

    08/13/14 DALLAS Regular $11,600 65,287 Avg BLACK 8G A No

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    I remember sitting in a new Phaeton at the local auto show when they were first introduced here and being wowed by it. It seemed so far removed from the rest of the VW stable at the time and yet not. But I knew it wasn’t going to go well. When my Dad balked at the sticker, I said that it would be a good purchase in two or three years when no one bought them and the residual was nothing. I really hated being right about this.

    We’ve had decent luck with VW/Audi products as a family, my brother is one his second TDI Golf wagon, though he is sadly affected by the nonsense going on. It’s a great car, though not a huge fan of how the DSG works. I really was planning on a new TDI in a few years and was hopeful the GTD would come here. I still wouldn’t mind a GTI though, but VW’s creation( and handling) of this scandal is pretty lousy, even by VW standards.

  • avatar
    rcx141

    Amazing. All that architecture, and it ends in a cloud of self destructing EA189 diesel engines and papier mache DSG gearboxes

  • avatar
    -Nate

    A sad ending but no real surprise .

    I remember watching the videos of this plant when it opened and thinking ” but , why ? ” .

    Because it clearly couldn’t be profitable .

    Nice write up Jack , sorry your favorite is gone .

    As one who grew up in the glory days of VW’s air cooled , cheap and noisy but oh so well made and reliable vehicles , (Pops bought a base model Kombi gray market VW Van in 1954) I think VW should have kept on making low priced cars but them I’m just a mechanic not a filthy rich auto maker so what the hell do I know ? .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Thanks Jack. I really enjoyed this one, and I don’t really know why. I think it’s the mid story “it’s forbidden. … Push it!” It makes the whole emissions test cheat seem more human, more understandable, and more German. One silly line and I’m more at peace with and understanding of VW’s circumstances.

  • avatar
    ReSa

    Just a thought: fly into München, spend a day or two, take a 4 hr train ride to Zurich and then onto Geneva. Or skip Zurich and spend a little more time travelling to Geneva (via Prague?) i think easyjet and other low-cost carriers fly to/from Geneva regularly.


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