REIFNITZ, Austria – For many Volkswagen enthusiasts, there are only three essential letters in the alphabet: GTI. And for them, there is one important destination: a tiny town in Austria which, once a year as it has for the last 38 years, becomes the centre of the GTI universe.
Reifnitz sits on the shores of Lake Wörthersee. There are only about 850 people living in the town, but during the Wörthersee Treffen (Wörthersee Meet), more than 150,000 people cram in to see and be seen in some 6,000 cars, whether they’re original, restored, customized, or tuner Vee-Dubs.
GTI is the focus, but pretty much everything is welcome. You see examples from Volkswagen Group brands – Audi, Skoda, Seat, and Porsche – and even a few from Mercedes-Benz and BMW. A gearhead’s a gearhead, after all.
The GTI began life in 1976, when Volkswagen dropped a fuel-injected, 110 horsepower four-cylinder, borrowed from Audi, into its lightweight Golf. Exactly what those letters mean is open to interpretation, and even Volkswagen says it’s along the lines of Grand Touring Injection, or maybe Gran Turismo Iniezione. Whatever the origin, the GTI arrived on our shores in 1983 as the top version of the Rabbit. While our current GTI is based solely on the Golf, Europeans can also get GTI versions of the Polo and Up.
The Wörthersee event began in 1982 when a local restauranteur and Volkswagen fan thought an event could generate some tourist cash before the summer season began, and about 100 people showed up with their cars. Just as with the bikers who famously meet up every Friday the 13th in Port Dover, Ontario; or the old-car fans who spend a weekend cruising Woodward Avenue in Detroit, the event grew. It became so popular that in 1987, the entrance into town was adorned with a 25-ton granite GTI sculpture.
Behind the stone car, Volkswagen builds a massive display each year to show off vehicles. Even so, Wörthersee Treffen is not an official Volkswagen event. It’s organized by the town, and the automaker is basically a guest – albeit one that pumps boatloads of euros into sponsorship. There’s also support from a wide variety of companies that set up vendor spots to sell everything from souvenirs and shirts, to lowering springs, stereos, and car cleaning products.
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The show traditionally runs on Austria’s Father’s Day long weekend, which this year was May 29 to June 1. I was there for one day, and of course, it was the day it rained. It turned the grass parking lots into mud holes, and made umbrellas the hot ticket with vendors, but it wasn’t enough to dampen everyone’s enthusiasm.
Reifnitz isn’t very big and it’s laid out roughly in a square. The streets are an endless stream of drivers slowly cruising around it (at least, they’d like to; sitting bumper-to-bumper and then crawling forward a metre or two is the norm). If a parking spot opens up, someone grabs it so they can walk around. Once they come back and drive out, someone else moves in.
The licence plates indicate owners have come from several European countries, but over at Volkswagen’s booth, there are more familiar ones: some from the United States, and one each from Canada and Mexico. In conjunction with a VW program, these drivers shipped their cars from a port in Rhode Island to Emden in Germany, and then drove them 1,200 kilometres to the show.
The Canadian entry – the first Canadian car ever brought to the event – was a 2004 GLI belonging to Jerry Xiao. He’s from Calgary but he’s studying mechanical and electrical engineering in Vancouver. He shipped his car from British Columbia to Toronto, and then drove it 1,000 kilometres to the US export point.
Most entrants were on a 14-day tour, but Xiao has extended his to forty days. He’d already driven to visit the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg. “I’m going to go through ten, maybe twelve countries,” he said. “It’ll be about 10,000 kilometres. Then I’ll ship it back to Rhode Island, and drive it home from there to Vancouver. It’s my first time here, and I wanted to come here so bad.”
Making stuff go fast is in his blood: he’s on a Formula SAE team, a student design competition to build an open-wheeled race car, and four years ago, he dropped an Audi 3.2L engine into his GLI and beefed it up to 280 horsepower. He’ll probably hit a higher score on his European tour, but on an unlimited stretch of the Autobahn in Germany on his way to the show, he hit 261 km/h.
The entry from Mexico was a 1990 Jetta Mk 2, belonging to Marco Landero of Mexico City. He drove his car 400 kilometres to Veracruz, where it was put on a ship to Rhode Island and then transferred for the overseas journey. A mechanical engineer, he decided the way Volkswagen built his car – at its plant in Mexico – wasn’t enough. He swapped its front end with a British version to make it right-hand drive, and added a VR5 engine and Porsche brakes. “It’s a dream for Mexicans to come here, because it’s the biggest show in the world,” he said. “I’m only here for a week, but I want to come back. I also own a Jetta Mk 1, a Corrado, and a Golf Mk 1. (Volkswagen) is the only car I like.”
Each year, Volkswagen asks apprentices at its factory to come up with cars for the show, and the two teams showed up with the Golf GTI Aurora, from the Wolfsburg plant; and the Golf Estate FighteR from the Zwickau, Germany, plant. The 380 horsepower Aurora includes a 3,500-watt sound system, which can be operated by a hologram projected into the trunk, or by a tablet that also shows the engine and vehicle information.
The Golf Estate FighteR is notched up to 400 horses, 100 more than the Golf R Estate available in Europe. Equipped with strobe lights and a 360-degree camera on the roof, it’ll be used as a safety car for racing events at the Sachsenring course in Saxony.
Wörthersee Treffen is a delightful mashup: the bass beat from tuner cars reverberates off ancient, Alpen-style cottages; women in clubwear cheer on cars drifting around a track, across the road from women in dirndls carrying steins at a beer garden; a Trabant sputters across the intersection behind an equally noisy VW van; and everywhere, people are just happy to be surrounded by everything GTI and planning what they’ll bring next year.