Visit to Your Car’s Birthplace

27showroom3vw650.jpgImagine buying a car direct from the factory where it was built. Or more often the case these days, getting on a plane and flying thousands of miles to see where your car was crafted and assembled. My uncle did this a few years ago, traveling to Gothenberg, Sweden with his wife and daughter to visit the Volvo factory floor and enjoy an unforgettable car-buying experience. This sure beats a “certificate of authenticity”.

Other car makers have recently followed suit including BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz — all long accustomed to devout customer champions. European car companies are creating museums and brand experience showrooms that celebrate their history, culture, and prestige of the brand, including a peek for customers to see where the magic happens. A recent New York Times article, describes a visit to the BMW factory in grandiose religious terms, and the economic impact of BMW’s brand strategy:

Starting in October, about 170 vehicles a day will be delivered to the cathedral-like showroom at BMW Welt (BMW World, in English). Rather than picking up a new car at a local dealership, drivers who pay a little extra for the privilege come here to receive delivery of their vehicles, finding them bathed in a spotlight and rotating on a turntable.

Even in a country famous for its worship of the automobile, rarely has so elegant a form been harnessed to so mundane a function. “Our dealers are like local churches, while BMW Welt is St. Peter’s Cathedral,” said Michael Ganal, BMW’s director of marketing.

BMW’s new service will be similar to that of Mercedes. German customers will buy their cars through a dealer and, for an extra charge of 457 euros ($630), will be able to pick them up at BMW Welt. (Americans can also pick up cars here; the price for European delivery will increase somewhat.) The owners will get a tour of BMW’s Munich assembly plant — its oldest, which produces the 3 Series compact — as well as vouchers to eat at restaurants in the delivery center.

But BMW Welt has grander ambitions. Its architect, Wolf D. Prix of the Vienna firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, said his model was not Volkswagen’s Autostadt but the Acropolis in Athens. “It’s a kind of covered plaza, where things can happen which are not necessarily connected with buying a car,” Mr. Prix said.

Nowadays, that competition turns as much on heritage and image as on horsepower and handling.“These buildings are an attempt to re-create product differentiation on a different plane,” said Garel Rhys, director of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University in Wales. “As the cars become almost homogeneous in technology, the battle is on the marketing side.”

…At a time when Detroit’s Big Three are retrenching and selling off assets, the German edifice complex also attests to the much healthier state of the auto industry here than in the United States. Still, with Toyota’s 18-year-old Lexus line outranking BMW and Mercedes in quality and reliability surveys, analysts say the Germans have little choice but to promote their pedigrees.

…Other German carmakers apparently feel the same pressure. Last year, Mercedes opened a sparkling, futuristic Mercedes-Benz museum in its home city, Stuttgart. Across town, Porsche is constructing its own ultramodern museum, whose construction makes it appear to hover above the ground. The granddaddy of such facilities is the Autostadt, a seven-year-old complex adjacent to Volkswagen’s factory in Wolfsburg, which features a museum and visitors center where customers can choose new cars that are then fetched from the factory and parked in a pair of circular glass towers.