BERLIN – Self-described speed-freak Christian Graf von Wedel owns a 370-horsepower BMW that’s designed to go twice as fast as some single-engine planes.
Ask him about driving it on Germany’s speed-limit-free autobahns, though, and he’ll tell you it’s hardly worth the trouble, at least near his Frankfurt home.
An autobahn isn’t always an autobahn, said Wedel, a real estate investor. There are few good places in western Germany to drive fast.
While Wedel’s frustration might surprise foreigners who think Germans all zip down the 8,000 miles of autobahn at blinding speed, it’s increasingly difficult to find limit-free stretches of road with traffic sparse enough to really open the throttle.
Slightly smaller than Montana, Germany has more than 80 million inhabitants and 43 million cars vying for space on its freeways.
Today, 35 percent of the system has some kind of speed limit, up from about 25 percent in the 1990s, according to the ADAC automobile club.
In the car-crazed country, the autobahn even became a hot topic in next month’s election when Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, called for a nationwide limit of 75 mph.
Gabriel was instantly slapped down not just by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats but also by his own party’s chancellor candidate, Peer Steinbrueck. The Social Democrats, trailing in the run-up to the Sept. 22 vote, quickly reversed course before the issue could total their election chances.
There’s no relationship between speed limits and safety, said Andreas Hoelzel, a spokesman for the ADAC in Munich. We have some of the best-built and safest highways.
Hoelzel said the ADAC backs increased use of autobahn digital signs that can temporarily impose speed limits if there’s heavy traffic or bad weather. About 7 percent of the autobahn now has such signs.
Driving fast is such a part of the German DNA that the website Speedjunkies4life has created a map showing the speed limits – and lack thereof – on Germany’s highways. Wedel says he doesn’t need a map to know where to go: the autobahns in the former Communist east. On highways there, he has taken his BMW 5-Series up to 185 mph, faster even than the 170 mph he has managed on the fabled Nuerburgring race track, where he sometimes drives.
Let’s say you’ve picked up a Porsche at Zuffenhausen, the automaker’s main factory in southwestern Germany, he said. Don’t think you can get it up to full speed around there.
Instead, Wedel recommends the A4 east of Dresden to Poland, about 55 miles. After winding through southern Saxony with views of the Zittauer Mountains, it ends in Goerlitz, a city untouched by World War II bombs, where 4,000 buildings dating back as far as 500 years have been declared historic monuments.
An even remoter stretch in the east is the A15 in Lower Lusatia, a region known for lignite strip mines and pine forests interspersed with oaks and birches. The A15 was constructed by the Nazis to link Berlin and Breslau, now the Polish city of Wroclaw. The autobahn was viewed as a prestige propaganda project by Hitler, and his regime built thousands of miles.
Another highway popular with speed-seekers is the 220-mile A20, or Baltic Sea Autobahn, north of Berlin. The eastern half is so devoid of vehicles that plans to build four rest stops with gas stations have been put on hold because of revenue concerns.
The A20 runs through Merkel’s election district in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Merkel opened the A20 in December 2005, less than a month after she was first sworn in as chancellor. Planned but never built under the Nazis, the roadway cost almost $2.7 billion to complete. It’s money well spent, Marc Adelmann will tell you.
On the A20, Sunday morning is fantastic because trucks are banned, said Adelmann, owner of a dealership that sells used Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. He recently took a Maserati for a spin on the highway and pushed it to 175 mph.