GABE NELSON

Why no Disneyland of cars in Detroit?

Automotive News | March 19, 2013 - 8:11 am EST

Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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WOLFSBURG, Germany -- When Volkswagen AG executives designed the Autostadt, a combination of museum, theme park and car dealership down the road from VW's corporate headquarters, they were not following an old German formula.

They were imitating America.

Ferdinand Piech, the mercurial former CEO of Volkswagen who is now the company's chairman, came up with the idea in 1994.

Over the next several years, executives studied American amusement parks like Disneyland, where rides mix with merchandising and Disney's brand of entertainment.

They took notes on the World of Coca-Cola, an exhibition that opened in Atlanta in 1991 to give tourists a taste of the beverage company's history and products.

There was nothing like these corporate shrines in Germany. The United States was clearly "the center of the fun industry," Autostadt CEO Otto Wachs told American reporters last week at his office, so "we learned from your country."

In 2001, on a site that used to hold a grim coal heap, VW opened a complex that now draws 2 million visitors a year, making it the second-biggest tourist attraction in Germany, after the Europa-Park theme park.

Most buyers in Germany custom-order new cars, and at the Autostadt they now take delivery of 175,000 cars annually, one-third of the Volkswagens sold in Germany.

Building the Autostadt, which translates to Car City, cost $500 million. The entry fee of 15 euros (about $20) will never make up the expense on VW's balance sheet, Wachs acknowledged, but no matter -- executives have pumped another $400 million into the attraction since its opening.

They say the attraction has helped VW draw top talent to its gritty, industrial hometown of Wolfsburg (sound familiar, Detroiters?) and gives customers a fun experience that will keep them coming back to the brand.

Sure enough, rival BMW has tried the same trick with its BMW Welt, or BMW World, near its headquarters in Munich. Daimler AG has opened Mercedes-Benz World outside London, where visitors can drive on test tracks.

But even though America provided the inspiration for the Autostadt, there is no similar automotive theme park in the United States.

There was AutoWorld, the $80 million indoor amusement park in Flint, Mich., that became a punch line when it closed after six months, in 1984. And yes, there's the new iteration of the Test Track ride, sponsored by Chevrolet, which opened in December at Disney World's Epcot Center.

But nothing like the Autostadt. Volkswagen considered building something similar in the United States, Wachs said, but there was no obvious site in a country so large. Florida? California?

Or how about Detroit? Some of the city's most powerful executives -- including Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, Ford Motor Co. executive chairman Bill Ford and Penske Automotive Group owner Roger Penske -- have recently kicked around the idea of building such an attraction, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"We agree, it would be cool to have something big like that in Detroit," Ford told Free Press columnist Tom Walsh in January. "The question is, 'What exactly is it? What does it look like? And what would our contribution (from Ford) be to it?'"

As the Detroit automakers continue to regain their financial footing, they may have a hard time resisting the idea. An off-road theme park would be a natural fit for Jeep Wrangler buyers. Maybe GMC could prove that it is "professional grade" with a complex where customers can pick up new trucks and put them to the test.

After all, as any marketing guru would say, customers are not just paying for a hunk of metal when they buy a car. They are buying an experience -- the kind VW looked to American corporations to learn in the first place.

A collection of antique Volkswagens from the classic car museum at the Autostadt.

Photo credit: GABE NELSON

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