Freedom. ‘The secret of happiness is freedom,’ wrote Thucydides. ‘Freedom is the will to be responsible to ourselves,’ declared Nietzsche. ‘Man is free at the moment he wishes to be,’ wrote Voltaire.
I don’t own a car. Public transport in Germany is so good that there is no need. On the few occasions that I venture to out-of-the-way destinations, away from the ICE high-speed rail network, I rent a car from Hässliches Entlein, or Ugly Duckling, the spiritual cousin of America’s Rent-a-Wreck. Their cars are used but reliable, slow yet functional.
Late last month I was waddling back to Berlin along the A24 autobahn, travelling at a comfortable 130 kph (about 80 mph), when a silver Porsche 911 Turbo passed me doing about Mach 2.0. Its slipstream ruffled my duckling’s feathers, as well as my ego, but I managed to keep both under control. Then around Parchim I pulled in to a service station and spotted the rocket car, and driver. Was Michael Schumacher or Sebastian Vettel at the wheel? No, it was an ecstatically happy Japanese tourist.
As motorists around the world know, German autobahns have no speed limits. While gridlocked in a Bangkok traffic jam or stuck behind a crawling logging truck on the Trans-Canada Highway (maximum legal speed: 110 kph), foreign drivers dream of putting their foot to the floor and letting fly along Germany’s asphalt. Also with some 850,000 Germans employed in the motor industry, and the sector controlling 29% of the European manufacturing market, politicians and car-makers alike want to keep that dream alive. In fact lobbyists for the country’s six manufacturers -- VW, Audi, BMW, Daimler, Porsche (VW) and Opel – argue that it is vital for economic success that Germany’s cars and roads continue to offer the promise of high-speed freedom.
Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger is an catchphrase engraved on the heart (or the accelerator-pedal-pushing foot) of every German male driver. It means free – or unrestricted – speed limits for free citizens. It’s a product of the first oil crisis, dreamed up by the German automobile club ADAC, to counter calls from environmentalists for temperate and responsible autobahn speeds. Atomkraft? Tempolimit? Nein danke.
The notion of unrestricted speed not only helps to sell German cars abroad, it also draws speed-obsessed tourists to Germany. On the A24 for example there is a 150 km stretch of road where drivers can try to break the land speed record, which is exactly what my new friend from Tokyo was trying to do.
‘I fly to Berlin for a week,’ he told me over a swift espresso. ‘I rent a Porsche or S-Klasse Mercedes and drive to Hamburg, then swing back via the Berliner Ring and head for Nuremberg. I’d like to take in Munich too but, as the A99 ring road isn’t finished yet, the journey is too slow.’ He added, ‘In my life I am truly happy when the speedometer hits 250 kph.’
Driving at the take-off speed of a Boeing 747 is not my idea of a relaxing holiday. And the reality of course is that this country’s 12,174 kilometres of autobahn are usually too busy for unrestricted speeding. But that doesn’t stifle the German – or Japanese -- male’s hunger for speed.
‘I feel so free,’ he told me as he snapped on his driving gloves, fired up the onboard reactor and vanished in a cloud of blue exhaust smoke.
As I squeezed behind the wheel of my Ugly Duckling, and continued waddling my way home, I felt a pang of envy, and remembered the words of author André Gide.
‘To know how to free oneself is nothing,’ the Nobel laureate once wrote, ‘the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.’
Obviously Gide never drove a Porsche.