Small, sleepy towns sometimes hide outsize secrets. Such is the case with Reifnitz, a village on the shores of the Worthersee in the foothills of the Austrian Alps that each and every summer hosts the single largest gathering of Volkswagen fanatics in the world. For the last 36 years, VW owners from across Europe have crowded the streets of the tiny town for an extended long-weekend party that only recently attracted the official attention – and participation – of the automaker it celebrates.
The grassroots of the Worthersee Treffen (or ‘meet’ in the native tongue) extend well past the automotive sphere, and in fact springs from the very specific German traditions associated with Father’s Day (which is almost always held on the final Thursday in May). Drinking in a hunting lodge, lakeside cottage, or clearing in the woods has long been the preferred party for this particular holiday, but it took a small gathering of Volkswagen Golf GTI owners to mix their love for local brews with the desire to show off their cars at the inaugural Treffen in 1981 to get the ball rolling at Worthersee.
Today, that ‘small group’ has expanded to over 200,000 attendees, who bring with them thousands of cars crammed onto roads that were clearly designed to handle the more old school, horse-drawn traffic of days gone by. Indeed, as I approached Reifnitz by boat – the only way to reliably get in and out of the Treffen due to the miles upon miles of German metal idling on nearby highways in a visually-pleasing traffic jam of epic proportions – I can see that it’s already crowded to the point where it will be a challenge to walk from the dock to the gate that officially marks the entrance to the festival.
Unlike the line at airport customs, or waiting for Space Mountain, however, this is exactly the kind of human-and-vehicular traffic are you more than happy to be caught up in. I’m shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-fender, with the beating heart of Europe’s VW community. Plates proudly identify Swiss, German, Austrian, French, Belgian, and even British cars inching their way between Reifnitz’s old stone houses and more modern shop fronts. There are no horns, no shaking fists, just the inescapable aroma of unburned hydrocarbons escaping from engines that have in some cases been purring since Konrad Adenauer was in office.
The Worthersee festival may have been inspired by a beef-fueled celebration of German patriarchs, and alcohol certainly keeps the Treffen train chugging along in modern times as well, but I was impressed by how civilized an event seemingly built on day drinking managed to be. There was no belligerence to be dealt with when snaking through crowds of revelers, even when watching a rowdy game of motorcycle-soccer or a burnout contest that didn’t stop until both tires had exploded to roars of gratitude from onlookers. This certainly wasn’t what years of indoctrination regarding the habits of European sports hooligans and speed-seeking troublemakers had me expecting. Something else stood out, too, especially when contrasted against major American automotive gatherings, and that was just how many women were parking their meticulously-customized rides throughout the village, an indicator of how evenly the gender split for GTI owners has traditionally been, but also an interesting commentary on Austria and Germany’s inclusive car culture.
My expertise in Volkswagens is limited, but my enthusiasm is not, having grown up inside Jettas and Golfs driven by friends whose families had fully converted to the Teutonic cult. I’ve ridden in my share of Type 2 T3s and Karmann Ghias, but I’d never before been exposed to such a full spectrum of Volkswagen’s history as I encountered at Worthersee. The familiar is everywhere, only twisted by the minds of owners determined to express their personalities on canvases versatile enough to have propelled millions of commuters, performance fans, and families alike over decades of production.
The ability to take a vehicle so ubiquitous as to be virtually wallpaper on European streets and transform it into something unmistakably individual takes talent, passion, and dedication, all three of which were in ample supply at Worthersee. Once I had crept past the small plaza that demarcated Volkswagen’s significantly-reduced corporate presence at the Treffen – which had ballooned to include Audi, Seat, and Skoda as well before the brands collaborated on a pull-back from what is truly an owner’s event, not a corporate confab – I was confronted again and again by just how creative VW owners were able to get with their rides.
Does that car have its entire entirely decked out in ‘Heidi’ imagery? Why yes, it does. Is that yet another rusted-roof GTI rat rod with what looks like a rocking chair bundled to the cargo basket? It would appear so. Does this convertible Corrado (itself an oddity in a sea of misfit toys) have a chrome-plated cat with an electrical plug for a tail airbrushed onto its hood? Of course it does. Almost every vehicle as far as the eye could see had been customized to reflect the tastes of its owner, or at the very least, the general trends flowing through the Volkswagen community at the time it was built.
These stylistic time capsules were joined by legitimate pieces of history that are rarely, if ever, seen on our side of the Atlantic. A man walked up to me and asked me, in German (a language I do not speak), whether the car we were both looking at was a Passat. I replied in the affirmative, having only just confirmed that the blacked-out, 70s-era, Giugiaro-penned four-door hatch before us was indeed an early example of VW’s fastback take on the Audi 80 sedan. I had never before seen one in the flesh. The box-flared, turbocharged GTIs and full-leather show cars were balanced out by these modest stewards of the brand’s past, giving me the chance to make acquaintance for the first time with an Audi 100 LS, and Audi 50 hatchback, and a 1978 Dasher coupe that I wasn’t even aware existed.
Automotive pilgrimages are a time-honored tradition amongst superfans, and brand-specific religious experiences are scattered all across the globe. Corvette owners have Kentucky, Chrysler drivers have Carlisle, Japanese car fans have Yokohama’s Daikoku-futo PA. It’s abundantly clear that if you’ve got the Volkswagen virus running in your veins, you owe it to yourself to book a flight on Lufthansa and hit up Worthersee next May. If you can’t make it that soon, or don’t want to wait another year, then don’t worry – we’ve got a massive gallery of pictures from the 2017 Worthersee Treffen for you to check out right here at Roadkill.
Is there a cool car show or race near you? Tell us about it in the comments, or shoot some photos and send them to us with the story. Theguys@roadkill.com ATTN: Local Scene