Exploring a lesser-known, once-hidden automotive world. Words Barry Wiseman.
For generations, Dresden was famed for its fine china. In February 1945 it became even more famous for a shocking event, when the Allies firebombed this seventh-largest city in Germany and caused terrible death and destruction. The very mention of Dresden made people shudder.
The reasons for and against this attack have long been argued. Much of the city was left unrestored but now the citizens have rebuilt it, resulting in the fine place – poignantly twinned with Coventry – that it is today. The Frauenkirche, on the city’s main market square, was left in ruins for many years as a war memorial until it was rebuilt after Germany’s reunification, using as much original material as possible, and reopened as recently as 2005.
A stone’s throw from the Frauenkirche on Neumarkt Square is the Dresden Transport Museum (Verkehrsmuseum). Soon after it was founded in 1952 it was moved to its present site, the Johanneum, another fine old building, which dates back to 1586. There are exhibitions of all forms of mechanical transport spread over four floors. It’s a great place for learning and understanding the technical history of the old German Democratic Republic.
Automobile exhibits range from a copy o Karl Benz’s 1886 patented motor vehicle to the era of cars less familiar to us. For instance, there is a magnificent Rohr 8 Type F, from 1933, a reminder of the finely engineered cars from pre-war Germany. The short-lived Rohr was built by Dresden-based company Glaser. The Simson-Supra S was a sensation in its day, a high-quality car with a 1950cc engine sporting twin overhead camshafts driven by a vertical shaft. On display is a version with a single camshaft, but the quality is apparent.
The Cold War forced East Germany to produce new car designs of its own. The museum has two smart IFAs, interesting cars rarely seen in Britain. The F8 cabriolet with its three-cylinder, two-stroke engine reminds us that some IFAs were based on pre-war DKW designs and built at the former Auto Union works at Zwickau. Production ceased in 1956, when the new Wartburg entered production in its factory at Eisenach. A sleek IFA P70 coupé is displayed, too.
Also on show is a prototype 1968 Wartburg 355 coupé with a glassfibre body, said to be a first for the German car industry. Nearby is another Wartburg, a Type 311 from 1955, raising memories of the two-stroke smell and haze that the marque created in Britain. On one occasion in Sussex, a drunken Wartburg driver involved in a hit-and-run accident was located by the police who were able to follow the exhaust smoke trail…
BMW’s East German wing in Eisenach was nationalised in 1945 but the BMW brand was maintained. In 1952, the Soviets passed the company to the German Democratic Republic, formed in 1949. When BMW restarted West German production that same year, the East German company changed its name to EMW, retaining the BMW roundel badge but with red rather than blue segments. EMW produced some successful sports cars, known as AWE (AutomobilWerk Eisenach) Rennsports. The museum has a very tidy example.
Dresden was the terminus of Germany’s first long-distance railway line. On display is the Saxonia, based on the English Comet and Germany’s first working locomotive, along with the 1861 Saxon Muldenthal. About eight locos are on display, with more at another branch of the museum. There is an interesting aircraft section and the museum is proud of its interaction areas, making it an exciting day out for children as well as an excellent way for car enthusiasts to explore a lesser-known world.
Verkehrsmuseum DresDen, Augustusstrasse 1, 01067 Dresden, Germany. hours: 10am-6pm Tuesday to sunday. Admission: Adults €9, students €3. Tickets available online. Good disabled access throughout.
Clockwise from top Saxon Muldenthal steam engine from 1861; AWE Rennsport Klasse F from 1954; Eisenach’s car-making story went from BMW to EMW to Wartburg.