The Federal Motor Vehicle Office registered more than 660,000 historic vehicles in Germany at the beginning of 2021
Photo: Haiko Prengel
In the reserve for endangered cars in the Berlin Classic Remise, the Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9 is, so to speak, the top dog.
No post-war Daimler had a larger engine; the S-Class engine from the seventies measures almost seven liters.
Despite the enormous thirst for gasoline of over 20 liters per 100 kilometers, there are enthusiasts who still drive such automotive dinosaurs with enthusiasm today - as if there was no climate crisis.
Old cars are in a difficult position. The world is facing a turning point, the impending environmental catastrophe makes new forms of mobility urgently necessary. Even younger gasoline and diesel cars are being sorted out in order to replace them with vehicles with alternative drives - above all electric cars. The targeted traffic turnaround seems to have passed by only one species: classic cars.
The Federal Motor Vehicle Office (KBA) registered 661,520 historic vehicles in Germany at the beginning of 2021.
This means that the number has almost tripled in the past ten years.
The KBA only counted oldtimers for which a minimum age of 30 years is required.
In addition, there are many so-called youngtimers from the nineties and early noughties with the antiquated emission standards Euro 1 to 4. They still have to wait for the H license plate, but they can already have cult status.
Business is still going on, but the scene is unsettled
More driving bans, environmental zones and higher fuel and CO₂ prices, as discussed in the federal election campaign, could soon threaten the very existence of all these cars.
Higher vehicle taxes would also often make maintaining them uneconomical.
The Berlin Classic Remise is still very busy.
The restored tram depot from the imperial era is a hotspot for lovers of old cars.
Work is done hard in workshops.
Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other valuable mobiles are in individual glass boxes so that the public can marvel at them.
Dealers offer high-priced classics for sale.
Business is still going on, but the scene is unsettled.
"How things will continue with classic cars in the future is already an issue," says Peter Sturzbacher.
He is a dealer in the Berlin Classic Remise, and he is currently polishing the chrome bumper of a very old limousine.
He does not want to give his real name publicly, he fears hostility from the other traders.
The incumbent Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) is considered a “safe bank” in the classic car scene, explains Sturzbacher.
Old cars are Scheuer's avowed hobby.
For example, the Minister of Transport bought the old BMW 3 Series from the former CSU boss Franz-Josef Strauss.
But even among the Christian Democrats there are increasing voices calling for a radical change of course in climate and transport policy.
The spearhead of this movement is the Climate Union, which wants to advance the environmental issue within the party - also with a view to a possible black-green government coalition.
Then higher gasoline prices might not be the only measure.
"Perhaps the future handling of old cars will also be regulated at EU level," says classic car dealer Peter Sturzbacher.
"For example, by tightening the criteria for the H license plate and only issuing it from a vehicle age of 40 or 50 years."
The H mark was introduced in Germany in 1997.
It is intended to protect historical vehicles as a special »cultural asset«.
For vehicles with an H number, the vehicle tax is capped at 191 euros.
Owners of large-displacement classic cars benefit greatly from this.
For a Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9, the tax would normally be almost 1,800 euros.
Even old diesels can continue to drive with an H number without any problems, and the license plate's privileges also include free travel into the environmental zones.
Free travel in environmental zones
Drivers are reacting to this with increasing lack of understanding - especially since owners of significantly younger diesel cars were banned from driving in various large cities in order to keep the air clean.
Locally affected are diesel up to the Euro 5 emission standard. Classic cars without emission control do not even meet Euro 1.
Numerous lobby groups and associations across Germany campaign for the privileges of classic cars.
Trade fairs, specialist workshops, auctions, trade - the ongoing hype about old cars is a billion-dollar business.
The lobby extends into the Bundestag, where the parliamentary group of Automobiles Kulturgut fights for the interests of classic car owners.
There was no threat of driving bans, the chairman of the parliamentary group, Carsten Müller (CDU), reassured the unsettled scene.
"Technical cultural assets on two, three, four or even more wheels can still be experienced on our roads," quotes the "Oldtimer Markt", according to its own statements, Europe's largest specialist magazine for classic cars and motorcycles, the chairman of the parliamentary group.
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Debate about H-license plate: Gammelklage by Haiko Prengel
Increase of eleven percent: For the first time, more than half a million classic cars in Germany
The reason for the excitement is a changed road traffic law, according to which the authorities can impose measures to protect the population from noise and exhaust fumes. The old car scene interpreted this as a gateway for driving bans and reacted almost hysterically. An online petition quickly gathered over 50,000 signatures against the change in the law, which is a minimum quorum for politicians to deal with the issue again.
The parliamentary group Automobiles Kulturgut dealt with it on June 11th, it was the last meeting before the federal election.
Thereafter, the change in the law is largely limited to bureaucratic reformulations: "The excitement that driving bans threaten is unfounded," it says in the minutes of the meeting.
The chairman of the parliamentary group, Carsten Müller, left a SPIEGEL inquiry about the future of vintage and youngtimers unanswered.
There are definitely good arguments for fans of classic cars
In any case, the parliamentary circle was not happy about the hasty petition. Due to its massive dissemination in social media, the topic is receiving attention that is “quite counterproductive”, complained the lobby association Initiative Kulturgut Mobility in a statement: “The quintessence of the politicians present was then, first of all, no sleeping dogs in parliament to wake up."
The excitement nonetheless exemplifies how irritated the classic car scene is when it comes to the change in mood in transport policy.
And how thin-skinned, die-hard petrolheads react to criticism of their hobby.
For them, the red rag is above all the greens, many fans of classic combustion engines see themselves threatened by an ecological dictatorship.
Climate activists like Greta Thunberg are also attacked.
Some stickers with the words "Fuck you Greta" or "Fridays for Hubraum" are stuck over the exhaust of their vehicles.
However, this emotionality is of little help in the debate and could even turn out to be an own goal.
It would make more sense to discuss objectively - because lovers of old cars certainly have arguments on their side.
The three-way catalytic converter became mandatory in all new cars on January 1, 1989.
Many younger classics have regulated exhaust systems and are therefore even cheaper with vehicle tax than with H license plates.
So by no means every older car is a displacement monster.
And not all classic cars blow their exhaust gases into the air unfiltered.
Many, especially younger, old and youngtimers are even economical.
In 1988, eleven small and compact cars competed against each other in the test carried out by the specialist magazine “Auto Bild”.
The Renault 5 GTD won with an average consumption of 4.47 liters, followed by the Daihatsu Charade with 4.57 liters and the VW Golf GTD with 4.89 liters.
Because cars have become bigger and heavier (also due to increased crash requirements) over the years, many new cars are hardly more economical today.
Old and young timers make up a small proportion of the total number of cars.
In 2020, the VW Beetle was in first place in the classic car registration statistics with almost 40,000 registered copies, followed by the Mercedes W123.
But the VW »Bulli« T3, BMW 3 Series and Porsche 911 were also in the top ten.
In over 48 million cars, the proportion of scrap iron is only around one percent.
In view of the figures, proponents of the automotive cultural asset like to point out that Internet streaming services have bigger CO₂ footprints than all classic cars in Germany combined.
Many classic car owners do not drive their treasures every day, the mileage is often low.
But that's only because they usually have an everyday car, which most insurance companies have as a requirement for the low tariffs.
On the last point, however, the devil is in the details.
The probably not insignificant part of this admittedly low mileage is not a zero-sum game, but comes on top.
These are not just trips to work and so on, which would have been taken anyway, but pleasure trips, for hobby purposes.
Are e-fuels the salvation?
"We love oldtimers" is the name of a brochure that the ADAC produced together with professional associations.
"This compilation can be helpful for classic car owners in order to have factual arguments ready for driving our beloved classic cars in a sometimes heated discussion," advertises Germany's largest automobile club, which also makes money from the classic business;
for example with classic car rallies or classic car insurance for cars "from the age of 20".
»Studies show that oldtimers only cover an average of 1500 km per year.
This means that the mileage of vintage vehicles accounts for less than 0.1 percent of the mileage of the entire vehicle fleet, "explains ADAC Classic Spokesman Oliver Runschke when asked by SPIEGEL.
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The ADAC has no indications of stricter access conditions for the H license plate.
"As far as we know, none of the major parties sees the need for a tax or minimum age increase for the H license plates," said Runschke.
The club cannot currently predict how taxation for old used cars will develop.
"However, the vehicle tax was only recently reformed and equipped with a CO₂ component."
Most combustion engines will not have a great future - unless it is possible to make their operation more environmentally friendly with synthetic fuels. Research is currently being carried out on hydrogen-based e-fuels. Millions of old cars could thus continue to be driven much cleaner. However, e-fuels are expensive to manufacture, and the loss of effectiveness is also high. A widespread introduction at petrol stations seems unlikely.
Classic dealer Peter Sturzbacher insists that at least the H license plate remains untouched, even if the requirements for old cars become stricter. Sturzbacher knows that a tightening of the laws can seriously threaten the cultural heritage of automobiles, despite the fact that the license plate is retained, and draws an interesting parallel to the gun scene. It has also flourished - his father collected old rifles, shotguns and the like as an investment. Then several laws would have significantly restricted the collecting of weapons. According to Sturzbacher, the result was a dramatic drop in prices. "This shows how quickly an entire scene can go down the drain through a law."