Hamburg’s Prototyp Museum is the Coolest Car Shrine You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

Car Culture 8 May 13, 2019 by

Nurburgring. Stuttgart. Munich. These are the locations that first come to mind when you think of car-lover destinations in Germany. Not Hamburg.

So no, Germany’s second-largest city wasn’t what we had in mind when Codemasters invited us to try out F1 2019 last week. It was hosting the event in a location you wouldn’t find on the Hamburg’s Wikipedia page’s museum section either. Tucked away in the transforming HafenCity district, Prototyp Museum barely announces its presence from the street. But inside, we found a veritable treasure trove of petrol-powered passion, spanning the life of the automobile.

Porsche Takes Center Stage

The tour unofficially starts with, appropriately enough, a Formula One car. The Porsche 718-2 is a rarity, predating the brand’s one and only dedicated F1 entry, the 804. It takes pride of place in the game preview room.

A few steps away is another unexpected appearance in the form of the Footwork-Porsche F1 motor. It’s hardly of the same pedigree as something like the 919 Hybrid — also on site, upstairs — being an unmitigated disaster of a motorsport engine. But it’s a cool piece of history nonetheless, and as a bit of a saving grace, it can be considered the impetus for what would eventually become the Carrera GT’s heart. That’s gotta count for something, right?

Once the tour properly starts, Porsches make up the majority of the early portion. Half a dozen greet us in the first room, including four 911s of various vintages plus a 356 Speedster and 914/6. It’s still shocking to see a dainty first-generation model parked next to a modern GT2 RS. Even discounting the livery, the new car is all aero optimization and barely-contained aggression. The purity of lines on the original is refreshing, but it’s also fascinating that so much of that essential goodness exists today. (Much to the chagrin of some, surely.)

Herbie! And Other Cars For the People Too

Sharing floor space with the pack of Porsches are two Volkswagens. We can’t help but smile at the Bulli. A panel-van version done up in full Prototyp support livery, it’s the perfect complement to all the rear-engined sports cars.

Not far away is a famous Hollywood star that needs little introduction. That’s right: it’s Herbie. He’s not just a mock-up either, but is one of the actual cars used during filming. It’s a reminder that automotive obsession can start at an early age, all thanks to a light-hearted film. Herbie was undoubtedly the catalyst for an entire generation of gearheads, this writer included.

Elsewhere on the tour, there’s a handful of other VW-related models. Given the intertwined histories of it and Porsche, we expect to see some common ground beyond the 914. The appearance of the military-use VW Schwimmwagen and Porsche 597 Jagdwagen — the former one of the most off-beat Gran Turismo additions ever — goes well beyond expectations. That’s a twin test we want to see!

Then there’s the wonderful creations of Wolfgang Denzel. Much like Porsche, Denzel crafted open-topped sports cars on VW mechanicals through the ’50s. The Prototyp houses two models from the obscure marque: an early WD Sport and a later 1500 S. They may look similar to the contemporary Porsche 356, but early Denzels used the VW Kübelwagen as their base. The earlier of the two models, with its inset headlamps, is actually the only surviving example of a four-seat Denzel. The simple red interior looks like a great place to sit for a cruise — though we imagine it’d be a pretty sedate one, four-up, with the 35hp 1.1-liter engine.

Historic Hidden Gems Show a Wild, Experimental Past

We may be living in an age of impressive automotive feats — road car lap record! Race car lap record! — but the Prototyp shines a light on the Wild West that was the post-war car world. In these heady days, everything was done by hand, and aerodynamic knowledge was limited. Drivers would have an idea on how to wring yet more speed from their machines, and instead of running countless simulations, they simply took them out on track.

Perhaps the car that best embodies this ethos is Otto Mathé’s Fetzenflieger. Just look at it: Mathé could swap out its hand-beaten aluminum body panels for different series’ rules. Those panels are seemingly shrink-wrapped around the mechanicals, meaning that strange shape tips the scales at only 870lb. The car doesn’t even hit waist level, and if it were any smaller, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was foot-powered.

Yet Mathé raced the thing on ice! A motorcycle accident in 1934 left him without full use of his right arm. He therefore installed the shifter on the left side, and when he needed to row the box, Mathé leaned against the wheel and used his good hand to do it. Imagine that sort of maverick move today. It’s little wonder that in 1952, of the 20 races Mathé entered, he won every single one.

And the name? Roughly translated to “shreds flyer”, it’s to do with the… unique approach to maintenance. Mathé left the side of the engine bay open to be able to change spark plugs as quickly as possible. During races, he’d cover this with no more than fabric (doubling as air filters). Misfires would routinely set the covers ablaze, leaving flaming scraps behind the car as it raced on.

That safety-be-damned, can-do spirit is everywhere. It may not look like it, but the tiny NSU Kompressor is a four-time record holder. Thanks to a streamlined body and featherweight 640lb curb weight, it claimed speed records for 1km, 5km, 10km and 1 mile, on the autobahn (of course). Its half-liter supercharged engine produced 110hp, carrying the car to a top speed of 261km/h then (162mph). That’s more than the limited speed of most modern German cars!

A few steps away is more aluminum goodness in the shape of one of the five Glöckler-Porsche race cars and a Petermax Müller streamliner. Slicing through the air is a common theme down the hall too, with one of the very first Porsches, the Type 64 “Berlin-To-Rome” looking sinister in black. Elsewhere is the pretty and petite Polensky Monopoletta, a BMW motorcycle-powered Formula Three contender.

The Big Guns

If these names are all a little too obscure, there’s always this one: Schumacher. Resplendent in its fizzy-drink livery, the Jordan 191 was the famous German driver’s very first seat in F1. He made his debut at none other than Spa-Francorchamps. Having only driven an F1 car for the first time days earlier, Schumacher scouted the track on a bicycle before qualifying in seventh. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Jordan isn’t the only non-German car here. There’s another, and rather surprisingly, it’s also an F1 machine. Toyota’s 2009 test car sits across from the green machine, in bare carbon fiber. The TF109 was the final F1 attempt for the Japanese giant — and also its most successful. Comparing it to the minimalist Jordan, the Toyota shows just how much more complicated formula cars had become over the nearly two decades.

What’s the German connection here, though? Well, Toyota Motorsport GmbH was in charge of the F1 squad. Where’s TM headquartered? Well, the “Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung” acronym should give it away: Germany. Cologne, to be exact.

That’s a Wrap

After half an hour, the guided tour is done. We’re left to wander the rest of the premises at our own pace, and nearly every car is wonderfully barrier-free. Shelves of books and audio snippets are peppered between cars to get even more back-story on some of the exhibits (or just hear the howl of a good flat-12). There’s even a well-stocked gift shop, where we (barely) resist spending a small pile of Euros.

If you find yourself in Hamburg and have even an ounce of petrol in your veins, you owe it to yourself to check out the Prototyp Museum. Tickets start at only 4.5€, and operating hours are 10:00–18:00 everyday except Monday (when it’s closed).

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