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!!
The world is chock full right now of topics that simply can’t be touched. Fear reigns, as people know now that the slightest ill-judged opinion or Freudian slip can cause an internet frenzy and runs into the possibility of igniting a comments war. The majority of the car world gets along peacefully, arm in arm merrily discussing our general love of cars and speed in a way the UN and NATO could only imagine Kim Jung, Vladimir or Donald doing. We, as car people, tend to recognise different styles, respect those involved and generally try and attempt to understand the appeal. But then, lurking in the shadows, lies our very own bone of contention, the VAG scene!!
To anyone looking in with preconceived notions, the following may just appear as a celebration of all things Diesel, silly wheels, un-driveability and showing off, but to dismiss Dubshed as merely a large collection of said features means you are seriously missing out on one of the largest celebrations of Modified Cars on this Island. Borne from the GTINI, Dubshed has grown year on year at a rate surely not to be expected, as the shows original location in the Kings Hall was soon outgrown. Things were about to get bigger and better, and a space suitable for one of Irelands most divisive car shows was found hiding on the outskirts of Lisburn.
To have a cool location must surely rank alongside facilities and space when organisers begin planning their next big event, but the Eikon Centre and Dubshed seems a dream combination. A cutting edge brand new exhibition hall, coupled with countless acres of free space, has helped the show to breathe. Long gone are the cramped environs of the Kings Hall, now replaced with sprawling lines of cars, marquees, outside attractions and whatever else you could imagine at a car show. That the site itself is the former home to the Maze Prison gives an historic appreciation of the area, but like the shining new Eikon hall, Dubshed is a show that looks to a new future, unshaped by history and tradition.
Moving to a new location in 2016 meant the obvious necessity of finding enough decent cars to fill the space, but this also gave rise to one of the most talked about moves in the VAG show scene for quite some time. Opening a hall specifically for non-German vehicles was a very brave move, but one that paid off massively. Gaining countess plaudits for their bravery, the boat was pushed out further this year as the outsider invasion made it into the main hall. Against a sea of Deutschland’s finest, the I Love Bass area became home to among other things a VIP Aristo, track-spec Altezza, go anywhere Land Rovers, boxy Volvo’s and ‘The Infamous’, a nutty Rocket Bunny S12 Impreza WRX.
I cannot, for even a split second, attempt to lie about being a VAG guy. I appreciate the styling, I get the dedication to the build and I enjoy the out there nature, but it’s not an area I’ve been tempted into in an ownership sense. To me, I enjoy the whole thing for the attention to detail alone. On the surface, each Golf on BBS wheels may seem the same, but it’s taking a second or even third look that you notice the use of stupidly rare and expensive parts, ingenious solution’s and artistic flourishes that truly set one car apart from another. Talk to any owner and expect a story of true dedication and intensive thought that’s manifested itself in the vehicle in front of your eyes. Spending time looking for and noticing fine details is something I picked up a few years back in Worthersee, and while the sheer levels of automotive madness may not be seen here at home, the build quality is certainly right up there.
Naturally, for a VAG scene show, the proliferation of well-built Golf’s was to be expected, but to cast the majority off as useless tat would be well wide of the mark. Engine swaps of all manner of shapes and sizes gave away that fast driving is still very much a key box to tick with many builds, and added to that the availability of countless Air Suspension set-ups that provide the ultimate balance of decked show car and drive-able daily at the flick of a switch. Race seats and harnesses are plentiful, although many look too good to have seen much hard driving. Many purists now deride the influx of often brand new or late model builds as purely chequebook builds, but its images of lowered and stanced modern GTI’s and Golf R’s that will inspire the next generation when these cars become more affordable.
At the other end of the Golf spectrum, the MK1 is still the undisputed king which, even heading for 40 years in production, remains a base for all manner of modification and styling. Ronan’s MK1 has evolved massively over time, from a classic BBS wearer right through to its current Supercharged, race-car spec state complete with parts that would make any track driver go weak at the knees. It’s still a road car, but with it’s recently completed livery, an homage to the GTI Engineering car of the late 70’s, it certainly sticks out in traffic.
As I said earlier, engine swaps rule supreme right now, with countless generations of VW venerable VR6 finding its way under the bonnet of all manner of Golf models and others. Emerging in the early 90’s, the uniquely designed power plant still holds a cult following among VAG enthusiasts thanks to a stunning mix of power and refinement.
While the number of engine swaps runs high, the most popular modification among the show car corral continues to remain the Air Bagged Suspension. Delivering the perfect mix of both hard parking and driveability, bags have become a de-facto move for those not keen on going down the static route of lowering cars. Paddy McGrath and his epicly cool MK6 GTi has been built as a car to tick every box, be it show, track or day to day driving. The build thread is a definite read, as it’s a true sense of an enthusiast designing a car to their own needs and desire, irrespective of opinion or internet experts!!
Outside of the VW fare, other German brands certainly had their own strong showing. BMW Northern Ireland had a large number of Bavaria’s finest on display, but park a FINA liveried E30 M3 anywhere and it’s gonna draw in every bit of my attention. Still the most successful race car of all time, the E30 still has an incredible aura nearly 30 years after its release. Box arches, kidney grills, side exhausts and a big wing just add to the drool factor. This example, a clubman spec Rally car, is recently restored to original Prodrive spec.
Another E30 that truly caught my eye was this olive-green example, complete with winning combo of BBS and Air. Its seeing cars done in this way that reminds us all how well designed some cars are right out of the box, where only a bit of stance can turn it into a showstopper.
As another reminder of how subtly can win, many people would have this Porsche 944S as their car of the show. Once an overlooked shape that fell out of style very quickly, the boxy nature has aged fantastically, and when accompanied with plenty of motorsport touches such as race seats, a cage and staggered Speedline wheels, it screams one hell of a fun driver’s car.
As for team Ingolstadt, it was large Avant models that are really on trend right now among Audi modders, with countless large A4 and A6’s of S, R and RS variety on display. Yet again, I tend to be attracted to slightly older cars, so the blue early RS4 certainly caught my eye.
While looking around a hall full of cars can be enjoyable, it’s in talking and learning back stories that truly brings builds to life. While a turquoise blue VW Lupo will draw attention, learning that all the work, including the flawless paintwork, was the work of 16-year-old Adam Mannix was mind blowing. I’d have struggled to use a rattle can or mod my car with dodgy LED’s at that age, not build a Dubshed worthy show car. The future of the scene is certainly bright!!
The outdoor area was a more standard show & shine, with gates open to all comers. The nature of a rigorous judging standard to make it inside, it was only natural that the quality would extend to the day tripping masses. VW’s smallest offering, the UP!, has followed the Lupo’s segment as a well built, small city car yet that’s not to say that people are going to use the shlam stick to make us realise how cool these wee cars can be.
Elsewhere, I fell head over heels in love with this tatty VW Derby. Available in the 80’s as a booted Polo, the Derby never really took off, making any sightings a rare sight. This particular one, looking decidedly downbeat with a patina showing years of surviving harsh Irish winters, exudes an aura of cool chic. I understand this car, and it’s a product almost unique in these parts to the VAG scene, where hardship and wear can appear epicly cool among a sea of polished metal.
Pushing the envelope in terms if downbeat cool is the William’s Brothers Beetle, although the envelope has been well and truly shoved off the desk with this one. Pulled out of a ditch, the iconic VW shape is nothing more than a bucket of rust and holes, but that is the great illusion here. Glance past the battered shell and you’ll notice the chrome plated Porsche engine hanging out the back, super rare Fuchs wheels, a hand-crafted interior and an all new chassis showing the huge standards of workmanship of the brothers.
Back outside, countless attractions catered for everyone, with Auto testing and a live Drag Strip drawing my attention. It’s not often we get to see drag racing that isn’t happening on the public road, so getting up close with properly built race cars was fascinating experience. Although the numbers were low, feeling a fully blown drag Beetle roar past at full tilt was an interesting experience.
What Dubshed, and GTINI who run the show, has done over the past two years is take the ideas of both VAG and modified shows, and blend them together into what is quickly establishing itself as the country’s best and largest shows. The idea to merge was sure to cause upset, but it’s paid off, and any naysayer need only see the crowds streaming through the gates all day to know that we now have a show on this island to rival any others around the world. Naturally, you’re always going to have a favourite, and my love affair with the MK3 golf shape had me drooling over this yellow beauty. Few things have a permanent spot in my calendar, but Dubshed certainly has won such a distinction.