MUCH attention has been devoted to the development of the autobahns; a scheme enthusiastically supported by Hitler, and even though only a tiny number of Germans ever used them, interest in the project was considerable.
British motoring enthusiasts were dazzled by highways free of crossroads and level crossings and marvelled at the two carriageway concept, which one observer described as ‘direction segregation of the traffic’.
Indeed, at the time, it was a revolutionary idea.
The British media had long complained about the antiquated road system in England, pointing to Germany as the best example of how things should be.
In turn, the Propaganda Ministry in Berlin used the international interest to report every detail of the autobahn project on radio and in the press.
For example, the public were informed that each autobahn lane was 7.50 metres wide, separated by grass of between 3.50 or 5.0 metres, white traffic lines clearly divide ordinary traffic and overtaking traffic and thick blocks of concrete was used for most of the surfacing.
By 1936, over 100,000 workers were toiling on its construction – an additional 270,000 people worked in the supply chain producing steel, concrete, signage and equipment.
The new roads helped bring down unemployment – by absorbing labour directly and indirectly – and by stimulating the entire motor industry and traffic.
It is reckoned that thirty-five per cent, of the building costs would have otherwise paid for unemployment relief. One observer described how ‘wireless and music, beer and cigarettes’ kept the labourers happy during their spare time.
When the first phase was finished in 1935, the autobahns formed the first high-speed road network in the world.
A correspondent of the Bury Free Press reported autobahn safety was ‘strikingly brought home’ when he found himself on one during a violent thunderstorm, at night.
‘In England, it would have been impossible to continue, for the dazzling headlights of approaching cars,’ he wrote. ‘The autobahn, on the other hand, the driver need only look out for rear lights ahead of him.’
Another report poo-poo’d the wide-held belief that motorways were a blot on the landscape.
‘On the contrary, these motor roads follow the configuration of the country, skirt the sides of hills, cross rivers by graceful bridges, and generally marry into the scenery. The German Government has taken a great deal of trouble and care to achieve this object.’
Among the praise, the odd dissenting voice was heard. The German roads are ‘monotonous and unlovely’, wrote Joseph Upton, a reader of the Sheffield Independent in 1938, adding, ‘there is good deal of adulation of German roads compared ours. Having had experience of road travel in both countries I unhesitatingly award the palm to ours.’
Mr. Upton wrapped up with the flowing line: ‘Give me the picturesque winding lanes of East Anglia with their delightful cambering. Who wants autobahns, anyway!’
By 1937, 1,500 miles of autobahn had been completed, and Hitler’s scheme provided for the creation of a further 650 miles a year, up till 1944.
And, there was no shortage of cars to put on the roads, despite German attempts to flood foreign markets with their automobiles – in exchange for hard currency.
For example, in 1934 only 82 German vehicles were exported to South Africa, but by 1937 this figure had risen to 2,680.
British India, which received only 123 German cars in 1934, took 2,312 in 1937 and German car exports to Sweden had risen from 767 in 1934 to 7,545 in 1937.
The wide-availability of German cars in the UK was described as a “Grave Menace” in 1938, as the ‘dumping’ of several thousands of low-priced German cars caused alarm in the motor trade.
Germany, said the Daily Sketch, had established a company to flood the British- market with cheaply produced heavily subsidised goods.
At the annual meeting the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham, Lord Perry said ‘certain Continental countries were ‘entirely closed us’ but the products of those countries were dumped into Britain, subject only to the usual import duties.’
He added: ‘More cars were Imported from Germany than from all other countries combined, and this was due the fact that the German home Industry was taxed for the specific purpose of exports.’
The situation was so bad that German cars arriving at Southampton were ‘filling all available garage and storage accommodation’ and were reportedly overflowing on to the wharves and railway sidings.
A month later, politician R. Fletcher asked in the Commons whether the President of the Board Trade had received any evidence as to German motor-cars being sold this country at abnormally low prices, and what action he proposed to take to prevent unemployment being caused here in order that Germany might obtain English currency to assist in financing her rearmament programme.
The Prohibitive tariffs and the ‘discouraging attitude of the Nazi Government’ towards any attempt buy anything but German goods made it almost impossible to sell British cars in Germany and gradually saw a huge slump in cars sales from Germany.
By April 1939, figured showed that although no special addition had been made on the duties levied on imported German cars, ‘the motorist and motor car agents generally have decided to ignore cars of German manufacture for the time being.’
Imports of German cars dropped heavily after the September crisis.
Sluggish sales in 1939, and the knowledge that the news German economic model allowed ‘bartering’ prompted a novel proposal that Scottish herring should be traded for German cars.
“Our main market is still, and must be, Germany Whether we like it or not, Germany has set up system of barter,” Provost Thomas Anderson of Wick told the annual gathering of the Glasgow Caithness Benevolent Association.
“Why should we not barter Scottish herring for German motor cars let in duty free. The Government has done less than nothing for the industry, so that it might do this simple thing. ” There is no motor industry in Scotland. Therefore imports of motor cars from Germany will not compete with any Scottish product or throw one Scot out of work.”
But interest in anything German had almost evaporated by that summer. A month after the declaration of war, a correspondent to the Newcastle Journal berated the paper.
Sir,—l and many others read with no little surprise the amazing article written by William Poulton dealing with German cars. He writes with amazement that certain garages refused petrol to owners of German cars. Does Mr. Poulton realise that every Briton who bought a German (Statesubsidised) car prior to the war helped very materially to assist Germany to arm up to the hilt?