A Chaletrolet? 1,700 mi. Camping Trip through Germany in my '66 Bel Air
How a road trip to visit World Heritage sites, car museums, tuning shops, a drag race event & A LOT of petrol stations made me happy - and broody.
After a lifetime of dreaming about it, I was able to buy an old American car last year. Granted, while I was playing with toy cars, I was imagining sliding around in a badass muscle car with a hot damsel in distress in the passenger seat.
Definitely my absolute dream car. Seen at Race 61 in Finowfurt - more on that event later...
Well, 30 years later a few things have changed. The badass muscle car is a jolly station wagon, sliding around became camping and the damsel is a nagging friend who is in distress upon not being able to find a restaurant that serves more than mediocre schnitzel.
It's also worth mentioning that as I grew older, I didn't feel the need to run from the law and/or bad guys anymore. Instead, I want to do road trips to explore Germany. It sounds weird, but I actually didn't see much of my homeland yet. That must change!
The plan for my first proper trip was to not have much of a plan. I made a list of cities and places to potentially visit and based on that I wanted to enjoy the most freedom possible. So, apart from the drag race event I didn't book anything in advance.
And I think Doc Brown would agree when I say: The way I see it, if you gonna travel through Germany in a car, why not do it with some style - and use a real freedom machine?
Spoiler alert: The trip was fun and everything I wanted it to be. And yet it also made me broody. I'll explain why later. Let's get on with it.
On a deserted Soviet runway in Brandenburg.
What could be a better vehicle to drive long distance, squeeze through medieval towns and navigate through unknown big cities than a car that
- is 5.4 m x 2 m (212.6 in x 78,74 in) and weighs over 2 tons?
- has no power brakes, no power steering, and no AC?
- starts to float away from you like Wilson at speeds of over 90 kph (~55 mph)?
- treats itself to at least 18 l/100 km (13 mpg) while leisurely leading the traffic jam?
- tortures its passengers with wind noise, lack of sound-deadening, and a glasspack exhaust?
- is a bit too nice to abuse it?
Yupp, I can't imagine anything else either.
In addition to that I specifically bought the big Chevy to use it as RV to sleep in. Since it obviously has no electrics and no plumbing it reminded me of the traditional Alpine chalets that were used by shepherds during the summer months. Hence the name "Chaletrolet" was born.
Camping in the Heart of Darkness
As a trial run, we left Berlin to drive to the area in Brandenburg with the least light pollution in all of Germany to watch the Perseids.
Since we were neither eaten by wolves nor by the locals, we called it a successful test. So, a few weeks later we took off towards the Harz mountains.
That meant crossing the North European Plain in Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt. This is a fitting territory for US classics. The big Chevy felt right at home while strolling along the straight, even, and deserted roads that passed by fields of hops foreshadowing the liquid delights to come.
Indicated 55 mph (so actual 50 mph) on a straight, wide road is the sweet spot...
Here's also where the "Heart of Darkness" gets a second meaning. Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, and the Harz Mountains in Lower Saxony are areas that were hit hard by an ageing population, rural depopulation, and economic decline over the last 30 years. This is clearly visible in small towns like Coswig.
The Harz is not much better off. On top of being cut in half for four decades by the Iron Curtain and the loss of jobs in mining, the area suffers from a dwindling number of tourists. In times of cheap flights international destinations simply became way more attractive to visit. Sadly, for valid reasons. As mentioned before my travel companion was complaining a lot about the lack of variety and quality of food. This blandness of the cuisine perfectly symbolizes how dull, old-fashioned, and melancholic the dying region feels. Why wouldn't you enjoy some dolce vita or sangria at the beach for the same money instead? Since I grew up in rural Germany this dreariness isn't new to me. For my Ukrainian friend who only lived in big cities (including three European capitals) it was rather surprising though.
All of this is an absolute shame because the area is charming. Cities like the World Heritage site Quedlinburg and Wernigerode look like a Disneyland version of Germany. And the beer from local breweries is delicious! I also want to note the beautiful and culturally significant World Heritage site Weimar.
And the car? Straying around in those medieval cities to find a parking spot for the Big Bel Air is probably one of the last real adventures one can experience in Central Europe. It also shouldn't come as a surprise that the mountains have some interesting challenges to offer as well. The eyes are being pulled towards the temperature and oil pressure gauges more often when climbing up that's for sure. Did I mention the single-circuit hydraulic drum brake system yet? If I had disc brakes, I could've at least used my clenched butt cheeks as brake callipers while plummeting downhill...
Luckily the car stoically brought us to our camping grounds every day. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Chaletrolet looked a bit alien there.
After being tailgated all day we did some proper tailgating with local delights in the evening.
All in all, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather. However, before taking off I was very worried about strong winds, thunderstorms and especially hail. The huge tarp I bought to protect the car if need be turned out to be a mistake though.
I think it would do the job, but after a test run during a dry and windless night, I realized quickly that I violated two rules of camping with an RV that I just made up:
1. Keep moisture and dirt out to preserve the cosiness inside.
2. Keep everything organized and be economical with the limited space you have.
Of course, the tarp was wet because of dew in the morning, and while I struggled to fold it back into its original - small - shape it just got more and more dirty on the ground. It felt a bit like having a grown-up pet tiger that ruined your house: "But it was so small when I got it!?" Thankfully, I was able to store the now bulky and filthy package away in the compartment below the trunk floor - just.
Luckily, the "moonshine bay" is fairly spacious.
Still, now I had more damp dirt in the car than I felt comfortable with. I most definitely need a better solution for next season. Any ideas?
Other than that, the Bel Air performs well in the RV role. With a trunk size of 2.20 m x 1.20 m (86,61 in x 47,21 in) two people can comfortably sleep next to each other and the height is also adequate.
Visiting Automotive Museums
After visiting Weimar, we drove back to Berlin. A couple of days later I took off alone to dive into the second part of the trip. After the serene, green, and historical beauty it was time to get more nerdy, greasy, and grimy. I wanted to see Germany's machine rooms. In other words: Drivetribe Country.
The first stop was Wolfsburg. This young, planned city is as affluent as it is soulless. You can see and feel that it merely exists to produce cars. A lot of cars. In fact, the Volkswagen factory is the world's biggest car plant.
The famous Volkswagen power plant in Wolfsburg.
I didn't care much about the city's lack of charm though. I just wanted to visit the highly polished Autostadt anyway. I was lucky to be there on a Monday in the off-season because I had Volkswagen's event and exhibition area almost for myself. This was especially great in the car museum where I had the pleasure to spend a lot of time with two of the greatest automotive icons of all time up close and - dare I say - intimate.
Obviously, I knew about the Bugatti 57 SC Atlantic before yet seeing it in person changed my opinion about it completely. The overall beauty of the shapes and the spectacular details deeply moved me and within seconds the car was catapulted from an "also ran" into my top 5 cars of all time. I totally understand the ludicrous value. Magnifique!
I have nothing new to add about the glory of the second icon except that since my childhood the Countach dropped in my personal estimation from "absolute favourite car" to "stunning, but not for me anymore". Boy, was I wrong! I'm still not sure about the bloated 80's evolution, but the Periscopio in this sensual deep red colour is THE SHIT. Yes, the Countach is back in my charts with a vengeance and competes with my absolute dream cars for my imaginary millions again. Why did I ever doubt the OG?
In front of VFL Wolfsburg's football stadium.
I want to give a shout out to the exceptionally nice Autostadt staff who were not only positively chatty about the displays and curious about their guests, but also tried their best to get me one of the famous Volkswagen curry sausages. And when to their own surprise they found out that no sausages were served in any of the restaurants that day they gave me a free ticket to visit the Autostadt again. That's an amazing service!
The next stop was Munster. Around this small town in the Lüneburger Heide the NATO troops trained for facing the Soviet hordes.
A house in the typical style of the Lüneburger Heide.
As a positive side effect of these wargames, Germany's biggest tank museum can be found there. I love me some big cats if you know what I mean.
From there I drove to Bremen. As the poorest of all 16 federal states, it's quite a contrast to fancy Wolfsburg. There a friend showed me "Schuppen Eins" (Barn One). It's an automotive themed business, creative and event hub. The most interesting cars I saw there were made by Bremen based, defunct manufacturers Lloyd and Goliath.
Steel, Coal, Pits & Tuning Royalty
Those defunct Bremian companies represent the decline of manufacturing and heavy industry all over Germany quite well. But the effects of that process are most visible in Germany's old industrial heartland - the Ruhr area.
I romanticise Europe's biggest agglomeration for its industrial and cultural heritage as well as its unique identity. It's remarkable to me how the steel and coal that was produced there shaped Germany in the last 150 years. Both positively and negatively. On the one hand I wouldn't enjoy the spoils of wealth and a functioning infrastructure without it and on the other hand I live in a house hastily built in the 1950's to replace the building that was destroyed during the war. A war that wouldn't have been possible to wage without the enormous industrial capacity and hard labour of the people of the Ruhr. And this duality can be experienced when visiting too.
The coke oven plant "Zollverein".
It's astonishing what the cities in that area have been through during the last century alone. World War 1, hyperinflation, French occupation, Great Depression, strategic bombing during World War 2, toxic ground and rivers, deindustrialization, and economic decline. As a result, the area looks as inviting as a meth heads backyard and has one of the highest unemployment rates in all of Germany.
And yet you can also feel a proud resilience, experience cultural wealth and engineering excellence. Between the ruins and museums of the big steel works and coal mines the area reinvented itself. Part of that are smaller manufacturing businesses that profit from a skilled labour force.
Oh, and the people love cars! This passion and the aforementioned craftmanship are the foundation of world-famous tuners like BRABUS as well as smaller tuning shops like JP Performance. The founder of JP Performance is tuner, tv presenter and YouTuber Jean Pierre Krämer. He's arguably Germany's best-known car enthusiast. Since laws, regulations and the engineering of modern cars make tuning more and more difficult JP Performance is in the process of becoming a "lifestyle" brand that encapsulates clothing, burgers, and a car museum in addition to the core business. If you want to know more about JP watch Hoonigan's video about him.
JP's friend and fellow YouTuber Marco Degenhardt has his interesting mix of car dealership and museum just down the road. While JP is focusing on the newest developments in the industry, visiting Marco's "Halle 77" is like travelling back in time to Germany's tuning scene of the 80's and 90's. Amazing stuff!
Speaking of travelling back in time:
Race 61 - Burnouts, Racing, Rock'n Roll
The last stop of my trip was the Race 61 in Finowfurt. It's a rock'n roll festival and 1/8 mile race event for classic dragsters and muscle cars.
Rain aside - not the worst view from a bedroom.
It differs a bit from the usual classic car meets because of the narrower focus and the fact that "cruising" on the premises is almost encouraged. And while I'm pretty sure that there are rules against burnouts nobody gave a damn about tire shredding directly in front of the stage. That way I was able to enjoy my first ever dosage of burned rubber smell while attending the first concert in over 1.5 years simultaneously. And who would've thought that rockabilly mixes well with the sound of V8 engines? That should be a thing! ;-)
The cherry on top is that the event took place on an old Soviet airbase that was turned into a museum. That created an extraordinary atmosphere.
Because of the hot rods, music and costumes the event felt like a mix of American Graffiti and Roadkill. It was a great and much needed escape from the realities of 2020/2021. I'll be back for sure!
Back in Berlin - Final thoughts
Back at home - greeted by a piece of the Wall. People thought that it will never fall.
I feel blessed that I was able to make that trip in an awesome car and I had a blast! The Chaletrolet worked flawlessly and every mile in it is an event.
The internet always demands that enthusiast cars should be used properly. Is that proper usage, internet?
There was only one moment in which I struggled because of the big Chevy. I booked a hotel in Dortmund and had three requirements: Free parking, close to the city centre and cheap. I should've researched better because when I arrived - tired after 5 hours of driving - I was greeted with this:
The backyard was tight, the entrance to the garage even tighter, and there were scratch marks on the asphalt. I didn't even bother to try my luck and noped out of there. I found a parking garage close by and felt good about leaving the Bel Air there. That being said: It cost 30€ per day. So much for a cheap hotel...
It also needs to be mentioned that the car is exhausting to drive. Roughly 2.5 hours a day are just about enough. This is especially important because every journey takes longer than you might think. One reason is the low top speed in the real world the other is that you stop more often to rest a bit - at least I did.
And last, but not least I have to write about petrol station visits. I know that the petrol gauge works, but I don't want to find out the hard way that it might not be as precise as it should be. That's why I fill up when the tank is about half full. Bearing that in mind, stopping for fuel four times in one day while driving 490 km (300 mi.) from Dortmund to Berlin gives you an idea of why I feel the need to highlight this topic.
On the third petrol station visit in one day they paint it in your honour...
As for the trip itself it was the right decision to not plan that much beforehand. Could I have experienced more with proper scheduling and research before taking off? Most definitely, yes. Do I care? No.
So, when everything is swell, why am I broody?
I think you noticed that I was writing a lot about change. I changed my perspective on things, my requirements for a car changed and of course companies, cities, regions, and political systems changed. Sometimes these changes were for the better and other times they had devastating effects. Change is an absolute certainty and yet as human beings we're struggling with it.
And we are living in a time in which big changes are necessary and unavoidable. In this light a tour like this feels a bit like the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah. A last hurrah of irrationality. Aimlessly roaming around, wasting fuel and eating cheap schnitzel is a lifestyle that'll be put into museums soon. We might only be able to relive it a few times a year during special events like Race 61. Although I'm rational about that I'm also struggling with it emotionally.
I also wasn't subtle about the economic and demographic differences that are noticeable in Germany. There's frustration already and the disparities are causing friction. I hope that regions and people won't drift further apart instead of respecting each others views and finding solutions together.
I don't want to bum you out, but it wouldn't feel right to me to just wax lyrical about the greatness of the Turqouise Wonder Wagon and the fun I had without touching on what unsettles me!
Be excellent to each other!
Seen in Wolfsburg at the AutoMuseum Volkswagen.