By on May 26, 2015


Old one and new

Old and new.

If you’re into Volkswagens – especially of the modified variety – Wörthersee is to you what Sturgis is for Harley riders or Carlisle to Mopar fans. Thousands and thousands of VW fans take over several small, quiet towns around a beautiful mountain lake and turn them into a festival of belly-scraping Volkswagens, Audis, Seats and Škodas.

And there’s beer. Lots and lots of beer.

It’s probably the same story with all big enthusiast gatherings. In the beginning, there was a bunch of dudes who shared a taste for a certain kind of car and wanted to get together occasionally. Years came and went. The small, underground gathering turned bigger and eventually massive. Somewhere along the way, business came into the picture, and the party turned into massive show.

Or, in some cases, a county fair on steroids, which is the case with Wörthersee.

Unlike, say, a biker meet or some hot rodder gathering, the GTI Treffen was never really a “counter culture” event. When about a hundred owners of Golf GTIs came to Reifnitz for the first time in 1982, the GTI was just a quicker version of a sensible family hatchback, and the oldest one was not even 8 years old by that time. Not exactly the German equivalent of a souped-up ’32 Ford.

That's how an original Golf II Rallye looks like

An original Golf II Rallye looks like this.

The event was even conceived with the idea of boosting local tourism from the very beginning. In the next three decades, the gathering grew and grew, gained corporate sponsorship from VW itself, and became world famous.

So, how does GTI Treffen look and feel now, after more than three decades since its birth?

I spent three days at the venue itself and in a nearby lakeside town to find out. Here’s the outcome.

The most important thing about Wörthersee is it’s not just one event. It’s two. The “official” one that Škoda wanted me to see – the one with massive stands for all the VW Group brands, plus several tuners and aftermarket brands – looks a bit like a typical motor show that’s been moved from a big hall to a tiny city. The concepts are unveiled, hot girls (sort of – as a Czech, I have high standards for that) are posing around shiny, gleaming cars, as are rally drivers, designers and sometimes even corporate bosses. I’ve even heard the reason for GTI Treffen’s relationship with Volkswagen Group is due to Ferdinand Piëch living nearby – and now that he’s resigned his chairmanship, the amount of money spent on the event will diminish.

The new Scirocco GTS

The new Scirocco GTS

The official, corporate money fueled event is not of major interest, though. The real reason to come here is not to look at some concept cars and factory tuner specials. I came to see what the real volks bring to Treffen.

From what I read, it’s best to come at least a few days – or even a week – before the main, four-day event. I couldn’t do that, but I tried spent as much time as possible walking around, taking pictures and inhaling the atmosphere. I wanted to find out what it was all about.

Getting a grasp of the car culture involved isn’t as easy for me as it may seem. While I’m European, and modifying Volkswagens is one of the prevalent automotive cultures of our continent, I was never into it and I didn’t grow up around people with cars like these. I know American car enthusiasts and their events. I hang around some people with JDM machines. I know people with vintage cars, Italian cars, old Benzes and Beemers. I’ve been active in the “old” Ford community in the past. I even know some guys with air-cooled VWs – but a slammed Golf? Covering an event full of those is about the same for me as if you sent a hipster from Seattle to write about a Nickelback concert.

Bunch of Russian guys, drinking beer

A bunch of Russian guys drinking beer – not vodka, unfortunately.

The basics are, of course, similar to any other automotive gathering. People who share a taste in cars come somewhere and then either park their cars, sit around and drink beer, or drive their cars around while others watch them, drinking beer, before they park their cars in the evening and go for a beer. One could even suggest that with most such events, the cars are nothing but a vehicle, while the beer is the purpose.

With Wörthersee being in Austria, which is in between Bavaria and Czech Republic, it’s quite clear that the beer will be of utmost importance. And it is. As is blaring pop music and scantily clad women. It’s important to note Wörthersee is on the very south edge of Austria near the Slovenian border and the climate here is closer to northern Italy than it is to Central Europe. The temperature hovered around 28 degrees C for most of the event.

Old school?

Old school?

Since I’m no Jack Baruth and I wouldn’t even know what to do with them, I left the girls alone and concentrated on the cars.

The access to the town’s center is restricted during the event, so only “cool” cars can come and cruise there. The others gather around Reifnitz or in other small towns on the lake. Looking at the long stream of “selected” cars in the town, I can’t help but think they look awfully similar to each other. That’s something that can be expected at such a gathering, and the comparison with American or JDM enthusiast events, which came up in my head, is probably a bit unfair. After all, Volkswagens aren’t the most diverse cars in the world and it’s hardly any surprise they look similar.

But there’s still one difference when compared to, say, a VW Beetle gathering. If you randomly choose five VW Beetles from such gathering, they’ll probably be totally different, even if they’re the same car. Odds are, one will be a totally stock, vintage example. The second may be some Cal-look beast, the third can be a tangerine-colored custom monster in the style of ’70s street rods, the third may be a “rat” and the last one in yet another, totally different style.

Yes, those are '50s style Moon caps on a Golf

Yes, those are ’50s style Moon caps on a Golf

Look at cars at GTI Treffen and you don’t see as much variety. Basically, the only thing you’ll see there is a lowered Golf on huge wheels. There will be a few stock Golfs, and a few VW cars that are not Golfs, but they’re usually Golf-based or similar enough to a Golf that it doesn’t matter. In a few rare cases, you get huge Golf-like cars with Audi badges, and in even rarer ones, you’ll see some air-cooled stuff and a handful of supercars. Other than that, it’s Golf, Golf, Golf, Seat, Golf, Golf, Passat, Škoda, Golf, Golf… you get the idea. Even the non-Golf cars are Golfs in one way or another.

What is really interesting, though, is that even though everyone uses basically the same canvas, they use it to paint very different pictures. I guess if you started with anything other than a stanced FWD Volkswagen on large wheels, you would be shot in Wörthersee, or at least not allowed to have any beer, which is similar. At the same time, everyone wants to stand out and be different, so people get creative.

Alex Roy would approve?

Would Alex Roy approve?

The result is a strange but very vibrant car culture, taking many styles of modified cars around the world and melting them into one.

You can’t change the basics. You’ll always have a low hatchback, wagon or maybe sedan – coupe or convertible, in very rare cases – with a front-mounted engine driving the front wheels. Similar lines. Low suspension. Big wheels. And, since the culture is based on Golf GTI and inspired by racing and rally cars, you need to make you car at least look fast.

At the same time, actually going fast has pretty much gone out of fashion for these guys. Many of the cars here may look fast, but only in the same way a Hot Wheels does: oversized wheels, air suspensions, no-profile tires and so on. To make the most of the areas where there’s some space for creativity, owners spend lots of time, money and effort on paint, stickers and various add-ons to make their cars unique. On the surface, these cars are much closer to lowriders than typical American hot rods or JDM tuner cars.

Need to stand out? Try a blackboard hood and a giraffe

Need to stand out? Try a blackboard hood and a giraffe

And one of the ways to be unique is to give your car a theme. Sometimes, it ends up with something like “LeMons race car meets artisan lowrider”. You see Golfs in camo paint and with military insignias as stickers. You see Golf or Passats with U.S. patrol car black-and-white paint. You see old stuff on the roof racks of MkI Golfs and you see cars made to look like rat rods. In fact, it’s surprisingly popular to use hot rod and rat rod style details, like chrome Moon caps, or insignia and stickers, like Maltese crosses.

In the end, it’s like you took all the world’s car cultures and applied them solely to Golfs. It’s a bit strange for the outsider, but it’s definitely interesting to watch.

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