“It can only be said with profound sadness that, in the present age of civilization, the ordinary hard-working citizen is still unable to afford a car, a means of up-to-date transport and a source of enjoyment in the leisure hours. One must have courage to face problems and what cannot be solved within one year may become an established fact within ten years.”
In 1913 Berlin, construction began on what would become the world’s first highway, the Bundesautobahn. As with many innovations that changed the trajectory of our collective existence, the roadway was purely experimental. Initially used for racing, which is fitting given its place in history, the Autobahn, as it would one day be know the worldwide, featured two eight-meter lanes separated by a nine-meter wide median.
While the motorway was extended during the Weimar Republic, serious construction would not take hold until the 1933 Nazi takeover. Even then, as many American visitors noted, its construction was hardly justified by the number of vehicles in the country given the inordinate relative expense of ownership. The quote above, from a speech delivered March 3, 1934 at the Berlin International Automobile and Motor Cycle Show, nodded to the injustice of the luxurious nature of a faster and more convenient mode of transport.
While Hitler appreciated the utility of a full network of highways, and indeed spearheaded a program to build two north-south and east-west motorway links opened in 1935, it would be some time before the autobahn was filled with the “people’s cars” Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was assigned to design in 1938. To finance advance production, 360,000 Germans paid in full or in installments to order their new Volkswagen, but before they could even envision taking delivery, the state-of-the-art factory was requisitioned to crank out military vehicles. Prioritization was of the essence as Czechoslovakia and Austria were already under German rule and troops were readying to march on Poland.
World War II ultimately halted construction of the Autobahn, which at the time totaled about 1,322 miles. In the years that followed, misuse (think tanks on I-95) and heavy traffic left what had been started in ruins. While West Germany embarked upon repairs after the war ended, it wasn’t until after the 1990 reunification that the Eastern portion could begin repairs. Today, the Autobahn is the longest highway in the world, stretching 8,026 miles. And the “people’s cars” were eventually manufactured en masse. Volkswagen remains the largest global automaker.