'Porsche Cathedral': Museum for men and their motors

The car industry is in crisis - but you wouldn't believe it in Stuttgart's new museum, which opens today
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The Independent Online

The German car industry may be on its knees but Porsche, a company that takes pride in its motto "nothing is impossible" will cock a corporate snook at its detractors today by unveiling a €100m (£93m) museum dedicated to promoting the glory of its iconic sports cars.

Even before today's inauguration, the new building, located next to the company's headquarters at Zuffenhausen near Stuttgart, has been nicknamed the "Porsche Cathedral". It contains more steel than the Eiffel Tower and a "rolling exhibition" of some 300 cars that can be started up in situ. The giant glass and steel building sits perched on three metal columns which enables it to "float" 50ft above ground. Inside, a cavalcade of sports cars, some brightly coloured and dating back to the late 1930s are presented like giant sweets in an outsize, glistening white chocolate box that covers 60,000 sq ft of floor space.

"The exhibition halls have been kept almost completely white, because the elements of colour are provided by the cars themselves," explained the museum's director Achim Stejskal.

"We did not want to put any additional scenery around them."

The vault-like interior of the museum is equipped with elevators, gently inclining ramps, a roof terrace, seminar rooms, sophisticated car workshops and a gourmet restaurant called "Christopherus" – the aim is to create an ambience that will cause the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and his Teutonic equivalents to drool uncontrollably.

The museum was meant to open last year for the Porsche company's 60th anniversary. But the building has been completed months later than planned, at the start of a deepening recession and costing double the €50m originally earmarked for the project.

As if that were not enough, Porsche is currently under investigation by Germany's financial regulator, BaFin. The company is suspected of "market abuse" over its secret buyout of Volkswagen shares in October last year – a controversial backroom deal that has led to Porsche being described as "less of an automobile company than a hedge fund with carmaker attached".

The transaction was cited as one of the main reasons for the suicide of the German billionaire industrialist Adolf Merckle earlier this month. The owner of the giant Ratiopharm drug company, Mr Merckle bet the wrong way on the deal, lost millions in the process and threw himself under a train only yards from his home in southern Germany.

Yet Porsche and the team of Austrian architects commissioned to design and oversee the museum have not allowed such troubles to sour their supreme moment of automobile glory. Roman Delugan, one of the project's chief architects said: "The idea is to raise Porsche's glorious history above its day-to-day existence. The cars are raised to the heights of glorification."

His partner, Elke Delugan-Meissl was just as enthusiastic about the project and insisted that both architects' intention had been to "unleash emotions". "Visitors," she insisted, "would be sucked into its space and enjoy a personal, emotional experience," while looking at the cars.

Klaus Bischof, the museum's co-director and an experienced car mechanic himself, said the museum faced stiff criticism when the project was first mooted. "Many people thought we were crazy and said a museum like this was impossible" he explained, "But for us at Porsche the term "impossible" does not exist. That is why we went for both the design and the concept."

The main part of the exhibition contains 80 Porsche designs including the original 1930s Volkswagen Beetle conceived by Ferdinand Porsche himself. It was the car that inspired Adolf Hitler, and relaunched with British help after the Second World War, the little vehicle went on to become a symbol of the country's post-war economic miracle before giving way to the ubiquitous Volkswagen Golf in the 1970s.

All of the cars in the museum are kept in perfect running order and are maintained to compete in vintage motor rallies and car shows worldwide. Visitors can watch the cars being fine-tuned by a team of resident mechanics in glass-walled workshops on the first floor. A stable of racing cars, more than 150 silver trophies and an automated flashing script containing key quotes from top drivers is meant to underline Porsche's prowess as a grand prix car manufacturer with more than 28,000 trophies under its belt.

Pride of place is given to the legendary Porsche Type 64 – a drop-head, hand-made aluminium-bodied sports car that is held to be the mother of all subsequent Porsches. The car, also from Ferdinand Porsche's drawing board, was specifically designed to compete in a Berlin to Rome car rally between the fascist Axis powers of Italy and Germany in 1939. The outbreak of the war meant that the rally never took place, but the revolutionary Porsche T64 survived and was put on the road for the first time in 1948.

The car's aerodynamic design is what made it stand out at the time and as the museum informs its visitors, it was the victors of the First World War who inadvertently contributed to the roots of all Porsche's subsequent success.

Under the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, Germany was banned from developing its aircraft industry, so it used the technology for cars instead. By 1938, Germany's Zeppelin factory wind tunnel was being used to develop the first car spoilers.

Now Porsche, along with the rest of the German car industry, is suffering badly as a result of the credit crunch. Orders are currently at their lowest level for 15 years and the big names such as Mercedes, BMW and even Porsche itself are being forced to cut working hours at their plants to meet the shortfall.

At the same time, German manufacturers are the subject of heavy criticism in Europe for their obsession with building fast, gas-guzzling cars instead of adopting the low pollution and low consumption polices of their rivals in neighbouring countries such as France. Germany is still the only country in the world that does not enforce a speed limit on large sections of its motorways. Its carmakers like to boast that its sports cars are "autobahn tested".

Such policies are of course anathema to Germany's powerful Green party, but the GermanGovernment is dependent on the car industry as a job provider and one of the country's top export earners and is reluctant to alterthe status quo.

Last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government said it was considering awarding the owners of gas-guzzling cars tax breaks as a way of easing the burden during the credit crunch.

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