Treasure trove of car history: a peek into the archives of automakers


By AGENCY

Porsche aims to make the company’s history searchable for future generations. — Porsche AG/dpa

At a typical archive of a car manufacturer, you’ll find a mass of photos, sketches, memorabilia, film material and other documents that tell the story of the car brand.

“An archive is a company’s memory and an important part of the administrative process, ” says Ulrike Gutzmann, who is responsible for the Volkswagen Group’s archive.

It safeguards what’s important and it can be looked up when needed. “This ensures the company’s ability to act and make decisions in the future.”

The aim is to preserve and make use of information and documents from the past and present.

Digitising old documents is just one part of the work carried out at the VW archives. — Volkswagen AG/dpaDigitising old documents is just one part of the work carried out at the VW archives. — Volkswagen AG/dpa

The documents are usually entered into the archive in the context in which they were created. This is kept as it helps in assessing a document’s significance and is therefore important information.

The VW Corporate Archives were founded in 1997 and are responsible for documenting the history of the group as well as the brands VW and VW Commercial Vehicles.

Scientists and journalists make use of documents on site almost every day, and there are also up to 4,000 inquiries each year. VW can fall back on 9km of shelving, packed with archival material, while special software contains over 1.3 million entries. The oldest documents are from the 1930s; the newest are publications from the current year.

Porsche already had a loose collection of designer Ferdinand Porsche’s historical documents from 1940 onwards, even before the present-day company was founded. The archive, which documents the company’s important technical, economic and social situations, has been in operation since 1982. So far, 2.5km worth of files have been collected.

“The trick is not to blindly stockpile everything, but to decide what is historically relevant, ” says Frank Jung, head of the Porsche archive.

This is important so that future generations can trace an authentic, unaltered picture of corporate decisions and processes. Not just in three years time, but in 300 years.

Catalogues, strategy papers, design sketches and development documents are systematically recorded and managed in the Porsche archive. — Porsche AG/dpa Catalogues, strategy papers, design sketches and development documents are systematically recorded and managed in the Porsche archive. — Porsche AG/dpa

The oldest document dates from 1887 and is a photograph of the Porsche family. A particularly valuable archive item is the first drawing of the Porsche crest from 1952, which gets around 6,000 inquiries per year.

At BMW, the first reference to a historical archive dates from the early 1940s. In the beginning, it consisted of registries and an archive for technical documents.

In some cases, employees also collected photos and brochures. For the company’s 50th anniversary in 1966, a commemorative publication was created, which was then sorted and filed.

When the BMW museum was built in 1973, it developed into an archive. When the Mobile Tradition division was founded in 1994, various collections were combined and the archive expanded. Today, it comprises around 41,000 printed documents, 2.5km of shelving with files and is maintained by 10 employees.

Collecting and saving everything that’s important for the documentation of the company and its products. This is what Gerhard Heidbrink from the Mercedes Archive sees as his task.

Birth certificate of the automobile: documents on patent specification DRP 37435 can be found in the Mercedes archives, documenting the creation of the first car in 1886. — Daimler AG/dpaBirth certificate of the automobile: documents on patent specification DRP 37435 can be found in the Mercedes archives, documenting the creation of the first car in 1886. — Daimler AG/dpa

As the oldest car manufacturer in the world, Mercedes is of particular importance. In 2011, the documents of the patent granted to Carl Bent were included in the Unesco Memory of the World register. The patent from 1886 is considered the birth certificate of the automobile.

“With our archive, we can document almost every detail of our long history and traditions, and generate new ideas and topics for communication, ” says Heidbrink. The difficulty lies in distinguishing what’s important and what is not, in obtaining it, preserving it for decades and recording it in such a way that it can be found in the future.

The archive, officially founded in 1936, is considered one of the first archives of any automaker.

It includes 16km worth of files, which are handled by around 25 employees. – dpa/Fabian Hoberg

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