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I am a Goggomobil

Georg Klein pays homage to the cutest thing that ever graced the autobahn

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There are times in life when even those accustomed to confiding only in their nearest and dearest or their party chairman feel compelled to make a public confession – if, for example, Germany’s best-selling tabloid is lending an ear. At such moments, even Bavaria’s otherwise very prudent Minister for Business, Infrastructure, Transport and Technology can't resist unburdening his soul. According to Bild, Erwin Huber said: "Brussels should not be allowed to degrade the Germans to a people of small car drivers!"

Once these tough words have hit the reader’s retina, a counter-confession is not far off: "I am a Goggomobil," my wife heard me groan out loud, to our mutual astonishment, as I sat in front of the computer screen. It probably sounded agonized. It may have sounded like an acute phobic fantasy in anticipation of the impending humiliation. But in fact, my mind was gripped by something other than the defiant threat in Huber’s statement. I felt neither fear of loss, nor the masochistic pleasure on which the statement plays. And if the Bild were to come to our house, I would not shrink from explaining my exclamation word for word.

But first, younger readers will need a nice picture to introduce them to the Goggo. It was a micro-car from Germany, or, to be more precise, from Lower Bavaria. In 1951, Glas-Werke, a company located in the town of Dingolfing that started out making dependable agricultural machinery, took a chance by launching a Vespa-like scooter onto the market. And in 1953, after the overwhelming success of this model, a prototype of the first Goggo car opened its cute round eyes on the ambitious German republic. It is surely no coincidence that I was born the same year!

The Goggomobil and I came together quite naturally. The first car owner in our family was Uncle Karl, my mother’s brother. In 1957, he swapped the saddle of his BMW 250 for the tinny cabin of a second-hand Goggo. The space allotted to me by the Süddeutsche Zeitung for this confession is not sufficient to mention all the things I owe to my uncle’s Goggomobil. There was room inside not only for my entire childhood, but also for five actual people. My uncle, my parents, my little brother and I drove it regularly my grandmother's. And once – I swear it’s true! – a single tank of petrol got us from Augsburg to Neuschwanstein Castle and back.

The last Goggomobil did not roll off the production line until 1969. That same year – again surely no coincidence – Erwin Huber, an ambitious young man who had been working in the city’s tax office, returned to evening school in Munich to take his hogh school exams. Like him, Glas-Werke had been aiming high. Its top model, the pompous eight-cylinder Glas 3000, was even dubbed the "Glaserati". But the company had seriously overestimated its own potential. The cold-hearted fellow Bavarians at BMW took over Glas-Werke and scrapped one model after another, including Germany’s most successful small car, the Goggomobil.

I am quite sure that Minister Huber has been filmed and photographed a thousand times and more getting out of his official car. Sadly, I do not possess a snapshot of my uncle in his immemorial pose in one of his two Goggomobils. The only picture that shows him with any motor vehicle is almost entirely filled by the long, unpleasantly turquoise front end of an Audi 100. He treated himself to this car, Audi’s top model at the time, a year before he passed away. But Uncle Karl, who had previously also driven one white and one sky blue VW Beetle, never did become a real big car driver. Although he was a well built man, still attractive even in the year cancer claimed him, at the wheel of the Audi he looks strangely out of place, somehow frozen, oddly immobile.

"The Germans should remain a people of big car drivers!" This would be Erwin Huber’s tabloid slogan, given a positive spin. And because every declaration that comes from the heart really calls for an unveiled "I", it would be better still if he had said: "I don’t want to be degraded to a small car driver, I want to remain a big car driver!" So much direct honesty would have been far riskier than his talk of degradation to small cars. But I would have been touched by such a declaration in favour of big car driving. And if such a statement does publicly pass the lips of a politician anytime soon, I will refrain from publicly calling him a populist ass. For despite all its brazen crudeness, the championing of large engine capacity would allow us to hear once more the familiar voice of good old Auntie West Germany, who piles up demands like rolls of fat around her belly and fails to notice that the automobile behind whose wheel she is wedged has run out of petrol.

A propos uncles and aunts: my uncle was still alive during Germany’s first oil crisis, and I can remember his consternation as he recounted, at our kitchen table, how the petrol pump attendant to whom he had remained loyal whatever car he was driving, had refused to fill his tank, selling him only 20 litres on account of the limited supplies.

Many years earlier, under the same kitchen table at which my uncle would later rail against his fuel-related fate, I had sat listening to the confessions exchanged by my aunts with my mother: one of my relatives – maybe he still doesn’t know it! – was conceived one winter’s day on a track through the woods near Augsburg in a small car often driven in the early days of West Germany. It was not a Goggo, it was not a racy BMW Isetta, it was not a robust Lloyd. I won’t beat about the bush any longer – it was an Italian Fiat 500. It is good to know that this kind of thing was and still is possible. It emboldens me to nothing less than the hope that we, the Germans, could, as future drivers of delightful small cars, become more mobile, generally more agile, and more erotic. It might even do something for our fertility rate.


This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on February 9, 2007.

Georg Klein was born in Augsburg in 1953, and lives with his family in Berlin and East Friesland. His novel "Libidissi" was celebrated as one of the best books of 1998 and widely translated. In 1999 his book of short stories "Anrufung des Blinden Fisches" was published, and he won the Brüder Grimm Prize. In 2000 he won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from his novel "Barbar Rosa".

translation: Nicholas Grindell - let's talk european