Bavaria seems an unexpected location to explore a particularly rarefied slice of Japanese automotive fandom. But if the main street of Augsburg on a Friday night is anything to go by, car culture is alive and well on the cobbles of southern Germany.
Kerbside tables let you sip locally brewed helles and enjoy the show while a younger crowd congregate round the central fountain, the hot summer air full of chatter, laughter and – yes – occasional bursts of revs and tyre squeal.
This isn’t necessarily what we were expecting of this most affluent and conservative part of Germany.
Finding a new and undiscovered automotive tribe in the crowded car world isn’t easy these days. From classics to customs or supercars to SUVs, there’s a scene for everyone.
Japanese cars, of course, inspiring a whole chapter of enthusiasts with enough sub cliques within that to ignite any number of obsessions. As the Gran Turismo generation comes of age, many are taking previously virtual rides into the real world and fuelling a new boom in imports of JDM Supras, Skylines, Soarers and Subarus.
More discerning fans are also looking further back into Japanese automotive history and chasing the early Celicas and Hakosuka GT-Rs rarely seen outside of their homeland. If there is a yet-untapped scene to jump on, this may well be the one.
Where to stay
Hotel Drei Mohren
Located bang in the centre of town, the Hotel Drei Mohren is ideally placed to explore all of Augsburg’s delights, be that the car spotting, historic buildings or many and various pubs and bars.
A stolid, traditional and conservative establishment it’s a slice of old-fashioned Bavaria with just enough modern flourishes to keep it in the real world.
According to the hotel, all of the 132 rooms, apartments and suites are characterised by an elegant interior and are oozing with charm.
Equipped with a flat-screen TV, minibar, work desk, padded sitting area and a bathroom with marble vanity top, even the standard rooms offer maximum comfort.
Expect free Wi-Fi, parking, fitness area, spa, bar and restaurant, although parking is tricky and costs.
Visit the website for more information.
The rare-groove nature of the cars, their wild looks and exotic engineering all ticking the boxes for anyone with a taste for the unusual.
In fact, we’re willing to bet Google will be your friend identifying some of the cars you see here. Because we needed to look some up and, without sounding too big-headed, considered ourselves clued up on such matters.
Google would become a close companion, because we’re here to drive the Mazda Classic Challenge, a light-hearted rally event run out of the incredible Automobil Museum Frey and basically an excuse for like-minded owners to share a drive through the Bavarian countryside and a beer and barbecue at the end of it.
It is our immense honour is to be driving a 1968 Cosmo Sport, the dinky little sports car that launched Mazda’s obsession with rotary engines. It’s a true exotic and a proper classic in the traditional sense of the word.
But Mazdas up to the mid-90s are welcome on the event, so what does that mean? German retirees in British Racing Green MX-5s with string-back driving gloves? Or tattooed youngsters driving the same but with rat-look riveted on wheelarch extensions and 12-inch Euro look wheels? Tracksuited Fast & Furious wannabes with Veilside RX-7s? Modern-classic purists chasing the elusive bone-stock import in a world of modified JDM heroes?
Cars soon fill the courtyard and stickers are applied. Owners greet each other with high-fives and man hugs. But this exuberant show of affection isn’t the biggest surprise.
We naturally expected the event to be mobbed by MX-5 owners but count just a couple of early and conspicuously bone stock NA versions.
A slammed RX-7 on white aftermarket wheels with the inevitable fabric towing strop poking out of its bumper ticks one box. But the rest? Beyond the safe assumption they’re all Mazdas, we have literally no idea what we’re looking at. Welcome to the world of 70s Japanese classics…
What to drink
Brauhaus Riegele Ausburger Herrenpils
Herrenpils is a signature product of one of Augsburg’s bigger breweries. Beer is a huge part of Bavarian culture but this city was the first to pass a purity law as far back as 1156, Riegele a relative youngster in the market having opened in 1386.
The Herrenpils is a classic, crisp German pilsner and slips down easily with food or as a refreshing accompaniment to an evening of car spotting.
Fancy something lighter and even more refreshing? Try the Urhell. Ready to risk the hangover from hell? Dark or light Weizen is your poison. Suffice to say Bavaria is a beer lover’s paradise, even by German standards.
These days we’re more used to the Japanese brands asserting their identity through confident and distinctive design that’s way more daring than the derivative conservatism served up by European premium brands.
Fifty years ago, things were different and, as Japan started to export its cars, its carmakers more often than not copied the style of the markets they were moving into. Which is why 70s Mazda had dinky saloons that looked like Alfa Romeos or BMWs to appeal to Europeans. And big, chrome-laden coupes with more than a dollop of American chintz to sell to the States.
Sometimes they combined both into one car. But every now and then something truly weird would emerge, this mash-up of styling influences occasionally combining successfully into something unique and distinctive.
Count the Cosmo Sport among them. It’s tiny, with a front end that combines a bit of Triumph Spitfire with Alfa Romeo Duetto and a rear with more than a hint of miniaturised Ford Thunderbird about it.
And at its heart is a Japanese interpretation of the German-designed rotary engine, conceived by the unfortunately-named by Felix Wankel.
Others tried but only Mazda was stubborn enough to persist and in 1967 the Cosmo launched a 45-year love affair with rotaries that only ended in 2012 with the death of the RX-8.
Many of the cars here also have rotary engines. Most require an undignified squint at the badge to identify them, these R1000s, RX-3s, RX-4s and RX-5s sold in various markets across the world but rare in Europe and unlikely to have been on your radar before.
The Giugiaro-designed R130 coupe is a Japanese take on Italian-influenced German saloons like the Neu Klasse BMWs. Some mix of influences. Meanwhile, the hulking RX-5 coupe looks like something out of Superfly, albeit recast from Harlem to Tokyo.
And the US-market flareside Rotary Pick Up we stumbled upon inside the Automobil museum? As mechanically mad as it is oddly cool.
The Cosmo leads out the convoy on the road, the harsh blare of its rotary announcing our departure. The route takes us in a wide circle south of Munich and across rolling, agricultural Bavaria to Ammersee and then to the Mickhausen hillclimb in the hills south of Augsburg.
There are informal challenges along the way, including photo puzzles in the route book and exercises like guessing the number of ping-pong balls in the boot of an MX-5.
Gumball-style hedonism it ain’t, the convoy quickly strung out and meetings with other participants confined to stilted conversations and admiration of the Cosmo at the various stops along the way.
Head for the hillclimb
There is more epic scenery to be found in Bavaria, the Alps and Austria probably only another hour south. But for this route, it’s more a succession of small and immaculately kept villages with open, well-sighted and flowing roads between them.
Traffic is light and the organisers have kept the route easy to follow and enjoyable. Only at the lakeside lunch stop with pikeperch and potatoes washed down with Apfelschorle and coffee do we encounter the more touristy side of the region.
What to eat
Pale Bavarian breakfast sausage with compulsory sweet mustard (morning wheat beer optional) is a local delicacy, if not the most appetising looking way to start the day.
Paired with a pretzel it’ll make you look like a local though.
Expect pork-based dishes to figure highly at every time of the day too, Bavaria’s traditional food certainly filling, full of protein and suitably sturdy if not exactly varied or suitable for vegetarians.
The Cosmo is a delight to drive, rasping noisily, brimming with character and mobbed at every stop by the Mazda fans.
For a 50-year-old car it feels remarkably poised on the road, with responsive steering and sensibly weighted controls. And, boy, does it like being revved. The relatively measly 130hp isn’t going to set your trousers on fire but cars like this are all about the sounds and sensations and it looks absolutely gorgeous with its steelies tucked deep within its arches.
Things are more suited to the Cosmo’s size and performance when we reach the Mickhausen hillclimb, a 1.2-mile stretch of public road with a rich history of competition stretching back to the mid-1960s.
What to see
Automobil Museum Frey
Walter Frey’s amazing collection of Mazdas was a private affair until last year when, with the manufacturer’s support, he opened to the public in a converted tram depot.
Around 45 cars form the central display, rotating around a collection of over 120 machines. From every which variant of RX-7 to rarities like the rotary-engined Parkway bus, it’s perhaps the biggest concentration of Japanese rarities outside of Mazda’s Hiroshima home.
Visit the website for more information.
Wide, smooth and bordered with Armco barriers, it’s a relatively gentle gradient, but would be a rather more serious proposition than the likes of Shelsley Walsh back home. It’s as close to a track as we’ll get on this route and adds a good dollop of spice to the drive.
It’s clear the car mania we witnessed the previous night in Augsburg extends out here too. After losing some of our group, we pause in a small village and chance upon a charming little workshop with a wonderfully patinated Volvo PV.
The scene looks like contrived shabby-chic but is in fact totally authentic. As we take it in, an old gent passes in a 1960s Mercedes Fintail convertible, waving to the chaps at the workshop as he passes.
In another farmyard, we pass a 2CV van parked alongside an Audi 100 Avant and an old Feurwehr VW T3 in an eclectic mix of automotive delights.
Out here, you get the impression people don’t love cars as lifestyle statements, they simply love cars.
Passing through the small town of Buchloe, we’re trying to recall why the name sounds familiar, before remembering it’s the home of Alpina and its tastefully upgraded BMWs.
By the time we finally make it back to the Frey museum, our backs are sweaty and clinging to the interior, even though we’ve only covered around 120 miles or so.
That’s 120 more than most people have done in a Cosmo and we feel suitably honoured, albeit ready for a chilled Riegele.
We clap politely as the German presentation congratulates those more inspired by the challenges and photo quiz than we were and head back into Augsburg to resume the car spotting.
It being Saturday, the quality of participants has increased – Porsches and Lamborghinis joining the blacked-out BMWs but all significantly out-cooled by an AMG Mercedes SEC and rat-look Lincoln Continental.
The truth becomes clear the following day. Multiple passes by the same car are less about cruise culture and more to do with the fact it’s impossible to escape the city centre’s one-way system.
Sunday mornings are taken seriously in Bavaria and we want to avoid the ignominy of being punched like one of our compadres the previous day.
It seems appreciation of noisy, flame-spitting rotary Mazdas isn’t shared by everyone in these parts and after one lap too many of the fountain, one moustachioed old gent took matters into his own hands.
There’s always one. For the rest of us, there’s an untapped seam of car geekery in this part of Germany.