By on October 14, 2011

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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7 Comments on “Erlkönig 101: Germany’s Prototype-Chasing Culture Jumps The Shark...”

  • avatar

    Love the cinéma vérité shots of the cameraman’s feet as he chases this ugly thing.

  • avatar

    I think “Alder King” must be tongue-in-cheek; either that or German alder trees are different from those that infest the Pacific northwest. They grow like weeds and will take over almost any cleared lot in just a few years. Our lake place has about 30% alder in the forested part and 90% of the crap that falls down to be cleaned up is alder. They don’t provide decent fall colors – half the leaves fall green, and those that do turn just go to a yellow-brown color. On top of that, alder wood gives the least heat per pound of any common wood.

    • 0 avatar

      per the linked Wikipedia article:

      The Erlkönig’s nature has been the subject of some debate. The name translates literally from the German as “Alder King” rather than its common English translation, “Elf King” (which would be rendered as Elfenkönig or Elbenkönig in German). It has often been suggested that Erlkönig is a mistranslation from the original Danish elverkonge, which does mean “king of the elves.”

      In the original Scandinavian version of the tale, the antagonist was the Erlkönig’s daughter rather than the Erlkönig himself; the female elves, or elvermø, sought to ensnare human beings to satisfy her desire, jealousy and lust for revenge.

  • avatar

    Pretty awesome to find this here. Just maybe two weeks ago I made an admittedly weak attempt to look up the word ‘Erlkönig’ because I kept seeing it on A-M-und-S and although I can read German just fine, I wasn’t aware of the word or what it meant.

    Now this shows up here…TTAC, are you wiretapping my mind?

  • avatar

    I live in Munich and see those swirly camouflaged prototype vehicles from Audi and BMW very often as well as the non-camouflaged BMW vehicles with “Werkstattwagen” stickers on the rear. I saw the MINI Coupé in base configuration a few months ago all alone on the parking space before they were premièred to the media. Car and Driver was delighted in using the photos I took.

    I instantly recognise this intersection in the video as I ride the Bus 54 or Bus 154 through this traffic circle very often. The intersection is Kaulbachstraße and Martiusstraße in Munich.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    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:

  • avatar

    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.

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