Right about now, a small quiet village in Austria is playing host to the VW Group’s single most important event where it aims to connect with its petrol headed roots and launch the latest breed of performance fare. All week, talk of the UP GTi, a Hybrid Golf GTi and all manner of other new models have been spoken about, but their launch is not at Geneva or the regular show halls, but a pilgrimage site for the VAG faithful. To try and explain the event, and perhaps entice you into making the trip next year, I’ve looked back 2 years to when I landed myself into 3 weeks of Europe’s maddest modified car festival.
Once you have to explain it, or even rationalize it, you’re onto a loser straight away. If you’re not into the scene, chances are you’ve probably never even heard of it. Worthersee is an enigma of an event. To VW guys it’s up there as their Mecca, the ultimate dream show to attend someday, and they spend countless hours online soaking in every last bit of coverage. To an outsider though, it’s pure madness. But that’s what makes it soo damn appealing. For such a well-known event, a lot of mystery still revolves around this most unique of gatherings. As part of my college degree, the option was available to spend a year abroad. Little did my parents know the true reason I jumped at 10 months in a very sleepy corner of Southern Austria.
The Worthersee, which lends its name to the festival, is a stunning alpine lake, roughly an hour from the Italian Border, surrounded by the foothills of the Southern Austrian Alps. The city of Klagenfurt lies at one end, and 10 mins driving later you have Velden at the other. The term picture postcard comes to mind a lot in this part of the world. Tourists flock for countless outdoor activities, and the clear calm waters are enjoyed year round. But then, for three weeks in April and May, the quiet serenity is utterly shattered, and all hell breaks loose. Living less than 10 mins from the lake, I was ideally right at the centre of what must surely be one of the world’s craziest car events.
The very first thing to note is there is actually no physical event called Worthersee. ‘Wait what?’ you ask! In the late 1980’s, as the popularity of the Golf GTi was at fever pitch, a group of owners left Germany looking for adventure and a good weekend away. Reifnitz, located along the Southern shore of the Worthersee, became the go to spot for a few days away, and word soon spread about the antics that went on. Year on year, as car modification grew, the connection between the area and the custom VW scene went hand in hand. GTi Treffen was born out of these early pioneers. Centered in the town of Reifnitz, a tiny spot home to no more than a few hundred people yet boasting a stone statue of a MK2 Golf, the GTI Treffen (essentially German for GTI Meet) has grown now to a 4 day long celebration of all things VW.
This is, to many, the ‘official’ Worthersee. Backed by local government, ferry’s and busses are on the go all day getting people in and out. Crammed among the small streets, the big VW-Group brands all have official stands, akin to full size dealerships advertising their latest creations. It not until you look back that you cop that it was all proper performance vehicles that were on display, and there were no cloth-seated, TDi A4’s on the Audi stand, but rather the full range of RS machinery.
It has also become common for the various companies to unleash their own modified creations at Worthersee. Audi brought a Twin-Electric Turbo’d TT, Skoda an R5 Fabia estate and VW had both the Golf Clubsport Concept, and the Golf R Wagon. The VW stand itself is truly massive, with regular shows, dancing, official Volkswagen Bratwurst and forever pumping out their GTI theme song. It exists, but god it’s awful.
The GTI Treffen is designed as an attraction. As you stand on the deck of the Seat party boat, drinking vodka from a Skoda cup, you’re treated to a bird’s eye view of Sebastian Ogier doing a few rings in the Polo WRC, and he’d give King of The Cone a fair run!! Trade stands are everywhere selling everything from vinyl sticker’s right through to 400HP engine packages, yet it feels stale. Vehicular access is expensive, so the few cars driving around get rather tiresome after a while, although then again you’re never far from the next mind blowing build rolling past.
But hang on a second, what of the famous petrol station, the daylight burnouts and the millions of scene points. Well, let’s take a step back. While GTI Treffen is a large event, it is merely the end of one of the maddest months I’ve ever experienced. Three weeks before the Treffen, Vor Dem See kicks off. Many would assume that this is an organized thing, but genuinely it isn’t. This is the true side of what people would know as ‘Worthersee’. Velden is where everything starts. A very affluent lakeside village, this spot is the getaway retreat for countless wealthy continental tourists. Boats line the water front, and swanky restaurants and boutique’s rule the high-street. But up at the top of the hill overlooking the town lies Mischkulnig, a very non-descript Eni petrol station. It’s just like any other petrol station I suppose. The fuel, in typical Austrian standard, is similarly priced to Ireland. The day I first made the trip to Mischkulnig was a cold wet Tuesday in April. The forecourt was full of everyday vehicles and all seemed normal.
Then it begins to attack your senses. The concrete area next to the petrol station is home to 15 or twenty highly modified cars. Each bares a German plate, and each almost more stunning then the rest. This is 2pm in the day, yet not unlike what we’d know of Irish stations at night, the owners stood about talking about their cars while sheltering under the canopy. A constant stream of more modified cars roll past, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.
What brings these people here is the allure and cult like following this event has gained. Groups generally travel in groups, convoys of 5 or 6 cars making the journey together. My plate spotting instinct sets in. The Germans are out in force early on, as naturally are the Austrians. I spot nearly every EU plate over the next few weeks, I only found one Irish plated Jetta, as well as cars from further afield. But they all come simply to hang out and enjoy the cars. Guys from Amsterdam drove in a static MK1 Golf for 8 hours, washed the car, sat on deckchairs on the side of a road for a few hours and headed home. It’s all bonkers. Over the next few days, Mischkulnig gets busier. The wash bays are working round the clock, and the spaces next to the shop soon spill into the car park across the road.
But this isn’t just a case of park up and sit back on your phone having a nose at who’s checking out your car. People set themselves up on the banks along the road to take in all the cars coming and going. Queues back up for a few hundred meters as everyone wants to bounce off their limiter in front of the crowd. The braver fall for the chant of ‘Gumi, Gumi, Gumi’ and leave black rubber lines on the road. Oh and the beer is flowing!! Public drinking is legal, beer is cheap and everyone’s having a good time. By the end of week 1, the weather had picked up, and soo too had the crowds. Velden main street was a constant bottleneck, yet nearly every car in the traffic looked deserving of a prime spot had they been at a show like Dubshed or Players.
Now starting to get my head around what was going on all around, I got more adventurous. The sole reason that the name Worthersee is soo apt is that the whole are comes alive. Any large public space is liable to become an impromptu car show at a moment’s notice. Overlooking the whole lake is the Pyramidenkogel. A pretty tall radio transmitter, it’s known for its views, and the chance to travel down its 100m height on Europe’s largest slide. It’s a cool place, but even here the car parks are swamped with modified VW’s and plenty more. The road up the mountain is littered with lay-by’s, yet every one of them seem peppered with small groups of cars, their owners planted firmly in a deckchair enjoying the stream of cars blasting up the Pass.
Reifnitz lies below the mountain, and although preparations are underway for the upcoming GTI Treffen, every inch of footpath is covered in expensive, polished metal. Rotiform are holding a social gathering of a few cars running their wheels, while others scurry to similar events held by Vossen and others. Among these gatherings are properly big names in the tuning world, all enjoying their holiday in Austria among fellow petrol heads. Towards the end of the second week, the amount of British cars becomes noticeable. The Players crew are in town, while Brian Henderson is floating about in his bagged R8. Cars you know only through your phone screen are suddenly right in front of you, and you constantly have to stop and think before your head fry’s with the sensory overload.
The openness of the event, both in its loose nature and ability to hang out with car people is something I’ve never experienced before. There is very little parking up and just walking away from cars here. Owners really enjoys chatting about their creations, little tricks they’ve used or even just chatting about the adventures of getting here, or for a few lads from Belfast the adventure was in getting home!!
While I was able to take in soo much of the event through public transport and plenty of walking, there were obviously parts I’d not see. Secretive late night locations are the stuff of legend in any car scene, and Worthersee is no different. There are certain remote spots where burnt rubber has to be shoveled off the road each day, and it’s not uncommon for the walls of some underpasses to be black from exhaust flames. It’s all part of the underground appeal of this side of the event.
Certain cars will always attract a crowd, eager to take it all in. Nothing, and I mean nothing, drew more people in than the Donkey Tech MK2 Golf. To the casual observer, here was a very clean looking white 1980’s VW. It came complete with steel wheels, had a nice sedate brown tweed interior and even boasted knitted covers on the rear speakers. The only noticeable visual clue was a large, neon green sticker of a donkey on the side. Oh and it was pushing nearly 850BHP to the four wheels. Ya get the attraction I suppose. This was the epitome of sleeper, yet every time I was in its presence you would have to battle the masses to take a look. Everyone knew the DonkeyTech crew were coming though, as anything less than 4 of their cars banging anti-lag in traffic was highly uncommon. But that’s the beauty of Worthersee, that form and function exist soo happily side by side.
But there was one last spot worth getting to. While Mischkulnig and Velden are the marquee locations, out at Faak-am-See is the core of the madness. It’s probably known better as its alter-ego, TurboKurve. A small family-run entertainment venue not unlike Funtasia or Trabolgan, the site is your standard holiday park. During the high season, tourist flock, but during Worthersee, the huge car park is pushed to its max. Cars are parked for miles either side along the road, while during its height the traffic is backed up for 5KM!! This is a special place. A large sweep in the road is black with people, 5 or 6 deep in places. That car park I mentioned, well it just happens to hold 800 cars, and it’s full. Limiters are banging everywhere, tyre smoke fills your nostrils, everyone’s drinking, the sun is shining and it feels like heaven. The fact this is all happening on a public road in the middle of the day makes no difference in the slightest. The police look on, but are there to facilitate rather than disrupt the goings on.
So that’s just a glimpse of my Worthersee experience. Nothing has ever come near touching that madness, as there are just very few places in the world that would take the swarm of 3/4000 modified cars over a few weeks, and make them feel welcome. This isn’t an organized show, more so a chance for car guys to go and chill together. If you don’t get it, its perfectly understandable, but Worthersee is something much bigger than anything we may ever see on our isles, so should be a bucket list item to go and experience at some point. Anyone looking to go, google the date of the GTi Treffen, and work back 2 weeks!!
Obviously, the dream is to drive over. It will take you minimum 2.5 days each way, and be aware that you must purchase a valid toll tag to drive on Austrian roads. Also note the police can be strict on certain vehicle modifications. To fly, Vienna is a direct hop from Dublin and is a 2 odd hour drive, whereas a much better option is to connecting flights to Ljubljana. About an hour’s drive across an Alpine pass is a great way to start any trip. Don’t want to drive, then public transport will get you round the spots, with regular trains and buses running. Prices are similar to Ireland, although Beer is about 80c a can in the shops so can’t go wrong!!