For Audi enthusiasts

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30 July 2009

With such northerly latitude, 5:00 pm in Munich feels like mid-afternoon in most of the USA’s lower 48. The sun still shines direct and hot as I am ushered into the back of a Q7 V12 TDI at the Kempinski Hotel on the grounds of the Munich Airport. It’s a quick blast north on the A9 to Ingolstadt, and I arrive just in time for the celebration of the hometown marque’s 100th anniversary.

I began my trip from Washington, DC nearly 36 hours ago, which seems like a long time until you consider Audi’s been preparing for this day for the last century.

Today is THE day of Audi’s inception and as such the most intense event in the year-long celebration process has been planned for this very evening. Events large and small have been ongoing since January and will continue to year’s end, but today it is July 16. On this day in 1909, August Horch began the company that first bore his name. And, since that company is Audi after all, we’re hardly surprised that they plan to celebrate the occasion in grand style.

Off the A9, we’re soon cruising the familiar streets of Ingolstadt near corporate headquarters. In no time at all the Audi SUV is rolling down a roped-off access way that slices between a large crowd of guests crammed into the Audi Forum piazza on one side and the towering Museum Mobile on the other. The diesel SUV circles past the painstakingly recreated Auto Union streamliner that sits on display and stops beside a cluster of photographers. The shutter hounds are eager to snap a shot of a German starlet, politician or captain of automotive industry — instead, they get me.

I’m ushered in to the receiving area – the very same you’d use were you to take European Delivery of your Audi in Ingolstadt. Tonight though, the Audi Forum has been redesigned to accept a massive crowd of well-wishers and revelers for the birthday party with no hint of customers seeking delivery of their new automobiles. The upscale Avus bistro is being used as a staging point for servers while the more informal Movenpick restaurant has basically vanished.

There is some time before the proceedings get under way, so I decide to explore the on-site changes. I stroll past the lounge and terrace that usually attracts a lunch crowd, though tonight it’s jammed with men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. A sharp eye trained on this group will spot everyone from an NBA player (Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki) and world-renowned designers (Wolfgang Egger, Giorgetto and Fabrizio Guigiaro) to Audi board members past and present (Wolfgang Hatz, Michael Dick and Ralph Weyler). The place has the air of a Davos world leader summit only the VIPs here are instead the who’s who of the Audi world.

Past the jammed lounge, the Museum Mobile is open, welcoming and surprisingly empty. Either most guests have not made it this far or they are already positioning themselves on the Piazza for the main show.

There is a signal that the event will be starting shortly, so I make my way back out through the lounge again. Familiar faces are even more prevalent and the power level has been dialed up a notch. There is Dr. Ferdinand Piech and Dr. Martin Winterkorn from the Volkswagen side of the corporate family. From the Porsche side, Dr. Wolfgang Porsche and Wendelin Wiedeking are present, greeting Audi chairman Rupert Stadler at the moment. Were this a family affair, it seems all of the corporate cousins have made the trip.

Then, everyone is seated and the show begins. The host for the evening is Thomas Gottschalk – perhaps an unknown to Americans, but his TV talk show Wetten, dass? is the most successful in Europe and that might make him the gold-locked male equivalent of Oprah Winfrey.

Since it is, after all, about the cars, the spectacle that will make up the next two hours begins with a parade of historic Audi vehicles. Specimens range from an early Horch and the recreated Audi Front 225 Roadster through the company’s more recent history as represented by the Audi 100 Coupe S, one of the last 10-valve Ur quattros and a Group B S1 racecar. From there Audi showcases its future with the brand new TTRS and the A1 Sportback concept car.

Chinese pianist and Audi Ambassador Lang Lang takes the stage, along with the ‘Lang Piano Service’ in a custom-painted DKW 3=6 van filled with Audi interns moonlighting as would-be piano tuners. It’s doubtful their services are needed for anything more than DKW product placement so they quickly leave the stage and the virtuoso sits down to play both Chopin and ‘Happy Birthday’ on the new Audi Design Piano from Bosendorfer.

Speakers addressing the crowd vary. Of course, Audi AG chairman Rupert Stadler makes his introduction and speaks about the future of the brand. Surprisingly, Stadler mentions hybrid technology being a bridge to an electrified mobility future. He makes no mention of the impending Q5 and A1 hybrid models specifically nor whether hybridization will be paired with TDI technology, but it’s an interesting choice in subject matter.

Volkswagen Group chairman Dr. Martin Winterkorn also congratulates the brand, going on to point out that the Volkswagen Group would not be where it is today were it not for its profitable Audi subsidiary. He’s particularly qualified to comment on this subject, having done a stint as head of Audi prior to Stadler. Winterkorn is largely credited as the father of the modular MLB platform program that will successfully support Audi models from A4 to A8.

Via a video screen, celebrities such as Jay Leno relay pre-taped congratulations. There’s also a video address from Dr. Ferdinand Piech, the Porsche grandson who maintains a position on Volkswagen’s board and is largely credited as being the father of the quattro system, a cornerstone of the Audi marque’s rebirth.

Speakers are not limited to auto executives or celebrity car geeks, and an added security detail circulating around the forum hints at this. German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes the stage mid-way through the presentation and, in addition to admitting she drives an Audi, she lauds the company as a “flagship of German industry”. She then launches into a talk on the future of the German economy and how companies such as Audi will play a key roll.

As Merkel brings her comments to an end, the German head of state is joined on stage by Gottschalk, Stadler and several Audi interns to announce 100 new intern positions at Audi and, even more newsworthy to most on hand or watching via webcast, the group pulls the wraps off of the new Audi A5 Sportback.

Following this, Merkel is presented with a memento: a metal Audi-stamped cube floating within a glass cylinder, suspended by magnetic force. The rest of the world is then presented with the Sportback, a car attendees examined as the New Frankfurt Philharmonic played a Leslie Mondoki symphony.

I get an even closer look at the red S-line package Sportback when the crowd adjourns to the delivery center for a post ceremony dinner. As with so many modern Audis, the Sportback is less handsome in photos than it is in person. One quickly forgets the traditional stigma of what a five-door represents, at least to Americans, when the car is taken in as a whole. The fastback roofline makes the A5’s haunches more pronounced, a look that transforms the A5 and gives it more of a Bentley Continental GT stature were it not for the fact that it has two too many doors.

I note that both of the two A5 Sportback models on display in the Audi forum and in the delivery-center-turned-dinner-hall are S-line models. As with so many of the B8 generation of Audis, the look of the cars is greatly complimented by the more aggressive packaging and particularly a larger wheel and tire fitment.

At dinner, the spotting of familiar important faces continues. Executives and significant players from virtually all ends of the Audi spectrum have come to this one place in order to celebrate. I catch Le Mans-winning driver Dindo Capello chatting in Italian to a table laden with a royal flush of renowned Italian designers of epic proportions. There’s Giorgetto and Fabrizio Giugiaro of ItalDesign fame, along with Audi’s Wolfgang Egger and Stefan Sielaff as well as Volkswagen Group design maestro Walter da Silva. It is a heady group.


Having swapped his usual Audi Sport team gear for a designer tuxedo, Audi Sport boss Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich strolls past and takes a seat with his drivers and Audi Sport colleagues. Audi racing legends Hans Joachim Stuck and Emanuele Pirro stand chatting nearby, as does Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen.

Stadler, Winterkorn and Piech join honored guests such as Lang Lang at a head table just below the stage.

I’ll admit I’ve attended many auto show launches, races and corporate parties with Audi over the years and none were as grand as this. I’ve seen highly significant new models and concepts launched, such as the time the Le Mans quattro concept raced down Frankfurt city streets flanked by vintage racecars or when the production R8 it spawned raced through a Parisian city park with Tom Kristensen at the wheel. I’ve seen TK win his seventh and eighth titles at Le Mans and McNish pilot the R8 LMP1 to its swan song win at Lime Rock. These have all been incredible feats, but the sheer number of power players under this one roof–the executives, the racers and all the politicians celebrating here tonight—it is all a bit overwhelming. It seems every detail has been thought through. Every facet of the brand is represented.

The evening comes to an end all too quickly. I’m due to fly out the following morning, so I’ll be missing German rap phenomenon der Fantastischen Veir on the Piazza on Friday. Saturday, Audi Tradition and the visiting Audi Sport driving stars on hand will be demonstrating nearly every significant racecar ever campaigned under the marque of the four rings. The forecast calls for rain, but that won’t deter them.

By the end of the weekend, these cars will run the Donauring circuit through Ingolstadt’s city center. The V16s of the Auto Unions will blare, the Audi 200 Trans Am’s siren blow-off valve will shriek and the R15 TDI will race whisper quiet through the cobblestone and brick archways of the city in that eerily silent manner common to modern diesel racers. The rain will fall, and Allan McNish will get to drive both an Auto Union D-type and the R15 as the drops glance off his tartan-painted helmet.

The multi-day celebration will close with a concert and fireworks in a nearby Ingolstadt Park. The most ardent will finally pack it in and, alas, I’ll be an ocean away by then.

Whether I stay for the remainder or not, one thing is for sure. This extended weekend’s series of events is a fitting culmination of Audi’s first 100 years. More so, it is also a powerful start for the next 100 as Merkel alluded to in her speech. Audi’s future is bright, perhaps brighter than it ever has been during its first century, and that bodes well. The second century has now officially just begun and Audi has charged across the starting line with more momentum than we’ve ever seen.

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