Erlknig 101: Germany's Prototype-Chasing Culture Jumps The Shark

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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.

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  • Robert Schwartz Robert Schwartz on Oct 14, 2011

    There is a Shubert Lied of the Goethe poem. It is so depressing that not only is the kid dead at the end, the whole audience expires too. Lots of fun stuff:

  • Advo Advo on Oct 15, 2011

    So if you're not satisfied with the attention your Ferrari is getting among the sea of other Ferraris, then you have to make it look like a prototype. That is funny and brilliant to get attention. I couldn't make out the lettering in the vid, though. It might have to be bigger or less swirly.

  • Tassos BTW I thought this silly thing was always called the "Wienermobile".
  • Tassos I have a first cousin with same first and last name as my own, 17 years my junior even tho he is the son of my father's older brother, who has a summer home in the same country I do, and has bought a local A3 5-door hatch kinds thing, quite old by now.Last year he told me the thing broke down and he had to do major major repairs, replace the whole engine and other stuff, and had to rent a car for two weeks in a touristy location, and amazingly he paid more for the rental ( Euro1,500, or $1,650-$1,700) than for all the repairs, which of course were not done at the dealer (I doubt there was a dealer there anyway)
  • Tassos VW's EV program losses have already been horrific, and with (guess, Caveman!) the Berlin-Brandenburg Gigafactory growing by leaps and bounds, the future was already quite grim for VW and the VW Group.THis shutdown will not be so temporary.The German Government may have to reach in its deep pockets, no matter how much it hates to spend $, and bail it out."too big to fail"?
  • Billccm I had a 1980 TC3 Horizon and that car was as reliable as the sun. Underappreciated for sure.
  • Inside Looking Out I did not notice, did they mention climate change? How they are going to fight climate change, racism and gender discrimination. I mean collective Big 3.