The autobahn’s allure

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This morning when I rode to work, I-95 was a miserable crawl. It took me 90 minutes for what, in better times, is a 20-minute blast.

On the way back home, the road was miraculously clear, and I was reminded briefly of what the highway was like when it was opened in 1963. They called it a "ribbon of hope" back then, because of all the economic opportunity it would bring from Maine to Florida. Nobody calls it that now.

I-95 was built to carry 50,000 cars a day; today, it carries 150,000. It’s not going to get any better. Development has filled in along the highway corridor, and there’s no room for expansion.

When the interstate highway system was established by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, the Cold War was at its height and the idea was a network to more-quickly transport the military around the country. Military needs were also much on the mind of Adolf Hitler, who had a hand in creating the first modern highway system, Germany’s autobahn.

I’m writing this listening to Kraftwerk’s 1974 album Autobahn, which I’ve owned for almost 30 years. I always loved what one reviewer described as its "landscape of synthetic momentum," conjuring up a fast night drive on an uncluttered highway.

Hyde Flippo’s book The German Way says the autobahn "has taken on an almost legendary mystique." I know it was a thrill for me to first encounter its smooth surfaces and absence of speed limits in the 1980s (and in a fast Mercedes no less).

Germany’s Avus highway in Berlin, finished in 1921, was a precursor of the autobahn (as was the autostrada built by Benito Mussolini, and opened in 1924). But much of what is now 6,800 miles of limited-access roadway was constructed while Hitler was in power. Some 1,200 miles were added in 1938 alone.

The German fuehrer imagined construction of "the greatest network of roads in the world," with the added benefit of giving work to the armies of unemployed. In a grim irony, however, it was Russian prisoners of war who did much of the actual work, and because Hitler’s tanks and trucks were hard on road surfaces, most of their travel was by rail.

The autobahn has gentle curves, long acceleration lanes and few steep grades. "Virtually all the world’s serious drivers have heard of it and longed to take their shot at it," says one history. It’s disappointing, then, to discover that some sections of the autobahn do have speed limits. The overall recommended limit is 81 mph, but some sections with heavy traffic or dangerous curves are posted at 50 to 75 mph.

I’ve driven faster on the autobahn than anywhere else, attaining and holding 100 mph for hours on end. German cars are made for conditions like this; they’re at their best on long cruises, where their superior road-holding and stiff suspensions come into their own.

I was reminded of this driving the $46,000 2004 Audi S4 Avant wagon. The car offers a six-speed transmission, 340 horsepower V-8 engine, all-wheel drive and stability control. It represents everything we know about how to make high-speed sports sedans. It offers a pinnacle of driver control. And here I am puttering it along at 20 mph in gridlock! Give me just an hour with it on the autobahn!

Sadly, the traffic jams that plague I-95 are now a fact of life on the autobahn, too. Maybe I should stick to listening to that old Kraftwerk album. Incidentally, their latest disc has nothing to do with driving; it’s about the Tour de France bicycle race.