Germany’s polizei put brakes on US car culture
By JENNIFER H. SVAN AND MARCUS KLOECKNER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 10, 2017
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – They roll in on an overcast Sunday morning, lining up one after the other in a long row across a mostly vacant Chili’s parking lot on Ramstein Air Base.
A couple of Porsches, a Trans Am, a BMW135i Twin Turbo, a shiny red Volkswagen Golf GTI, a Mazda Miata, a Nissan 350z, and a Mini, to name a few.
Muscle cars, small speedsters and sleek sports cars.
The drivers belong to the Kaiserslautern American military community’s souped-up car scene, a group of about several hundred members whose hobbies and passion are their cars.
These Americans who love to drive are in “the promised land for car geeks and speed freaks,” as Germany has been described by Road &Track because of the autobahn.
But for car enthusiasts, Germany is also a paradise riddled with potholes.
Servicemembers who modify their cars in Germany bump up against stringent vehicle regulations and local police who are sticklers for the law. The police show little tolerance for add-ons commonly seen in American muscle and custom cars, such as noisy exhausts, low suspension and tinted tail lights.
The police in Kaiserslautern say they plan to establish a “souped-up car unit” of about 10 police officers. Their job will be to target flashy vehicles on local streets, including cars with U.S. Army Europe registration.
German police say it’s a safety issue. The Americans say they are being picked on.
“That’s why we meet here on base,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Kyle Helms, 25, while hanging out with the car group in the Chili’s parking lot. “There’s so many of our German friends that want to come hang out but we’re like, ‘No, this is like our little safe zone.’”
‘We all like to rebel a little’
In American culture, cars often represent freedom and individuality.
In the 1971 Hollywood road movie “Vanishing Point,” actor Barry Newman attempts to drive a Dodge Challenger in less than 15 hours from Colorado to California. His conflict with police is portrayed as an almost heroic act against law enforcement.
A look under the hood of Staff Sgt. Chris Bearss’ Ford Mustang GT reveals how rebellion continues to be a vibrant part of the car culture.
The engine cover depicts the Guy Fawkes mask, which has become a symbol for resistance against authorities.
“We all like to rebel a little,” Bearss said, laughing, when asked about the meaning of the engine cover choice.
And this is where the clash with German police seems almost inevitable. It underscores a difference in culture, cars and regulations.
Bearss, 31, bought his Mustang from a military car sales outlet in 2013 when he was deployed to Afghanistan as an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technician. Since purchasing it for $30,000, he’s sunk in about $25,000, adding full-race suspension, a race clutch and a one-piece drive shaft. The car’s stock 420 horsepower engine now produces 800 tire-burning horsepower.
“It’s fun,” he said, explaining why he invests so much time and money into his car. “My job is pretty stressful, a lot of hours and … I can take this out and just forget it all and have fun.”
Souped-up cars are modified to enhance performance, handling or both. In Germany, opportunities to drive fast abound. The autobahn offers long stretches of unrestricted speeding zones, and the country has numerous amateur racetracks, including the legendary Nurburgring, less than two hours from Kaiserslautern.
“Germany’s like a car heaven for car people,” said one American.
Besides improving performance, car enthusiasts strive to make their cars unique, “to look good just cruising around,” he said.
“If it’s just kind of bone stock and sitting there, it’s kind of boring,” said Jeremy Bisson, 35, a civilian worker at Ramstein.
“It’s the American car culture,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Maynard, who works in the private vehicle inspection station on Kapaun. “If you like cars a little bit, you throw rims on it, you tint the windows, you put a spoiler on.”
But bigger, louder and faster can cause problems in a country where vehicle modifications are tightly regulated.
A clash of culture and regulations
Kaiserslautern police this spring issued a statement warning drivers they would be on the lookout for illegal car modifications, such as cutoff middle exhausts and tinted front side windows.
The statement included a photo of police stopping cars outside a U.S. military installation, but police say they don’t target Americans, who account for about 15 percent of the souped-up car community in Kaiserslautern. But they acknowledge that the Americans and their modified cars can be a thorn in their side.
“The cars often are souped-up in a much more extreme way than the German cars,” said Siegfried Ranzinger, chief of Kaiserslautern’s highway patrol. He cited their big V8 engines, noisy exhaust systems and tinted front windows.
Many of the American drivers are from states where there is little or no regulation on what Germans call “car tuning.” Once they get here, their cars have to pass a base inspection only every two years or, for older cars, every year.
Some states don’t require vehicle inspections, said Maynard, the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of Kapaun’s private vehicle inspection station.
“In Wyoming, you get a tag at Walmart,” he said. “You do what you want. You come here and you have this, and it’s structured and it’s defined, so people are kind of taken by (surprise by) it, I think.”
The on-base inspection for USAREUR-registered cars certifies a car is safe to drive and meets German law. But it doesn’t specify what modifications, if any, were inspected and approved.
The problem, said Mike Pletsch, 569th U.S. Forces Police Squadron liaison officer, is that some Americans will switch out parts before or after an inspection. “They make it from legal to illegal,” he said. “That’s actually what they’re doing.”
Under German law, most modifications to Germany-registered road vehicles must be inspected and certified as safe and legal by the Technical Inspection Association, known in Germany by its acronym, TUeV. Without this proof, German police can revoke a driver’s license.
For German drivers, “your registration is basically a book, where everything is in it — the hood, the spoiler, the tires, the rims,” and other modifications, Pletsch said. “When polizei stops a German, he will get the registration” book, he said, that details every modification down to the serial number that’s been approved. “If we stop (an American), it says ‘unit, license plate, chassis number.’ That’s it.”
The different requirements, for example, mean Americans don’t have go to TUeV every time they switch out a muffler or add new rims, as Germans do. But whether their cars meet German law is often left to the discretion of the German police, who won’t hesitate to fine them or take the keys if they think a modification may be illegal.
Americans interviewed said they’d been cited by German police for loud engines, even without the administration of a proper test to determine if the engine exceeded the maximum 95 decibels allowed under German law.
They can protest that their car passed a base vehicle inspection, but they have no proof it passed with the same exhaust system.
The owner of a Dodge said he’d been stopped three times by German police for vents in the hood. He has to pull up the stock image of the car on his smartphone to avoid a citation, to prove the vents came with the car. His car, he said, “looks different from everything else out there.”
Holger Blug, a host nation legal assistance attorney for the U.S. Army in Kaiserslautern, said the different requirements of the U.S. military and German systems can cause problems.
“I think the (base) vehicle inspection report should say ‘fog lights modified but still within German law,’ or something like that,” he said. “If it just says ‘pass,’ to be honest, it doesn’t really prove anything, in my opinion.”
Some Americans admit taking advantage of the system. One driver said he switches out his loud muffler with the factory one to pass base inspection — and then switches it back out. When driving off base, “I just make sure I’m in high gear so my RPMs are low or I’ll put in the clutch, so it’s really quiet,” he said.
Pletsch said military police are planning to get tougher on Americans who try to beat the system. Typically, if military police pull someone over for an obvious illegal modification to their car, they’ll direct them to vehicle inspection to get it looked at, Pletsch said. In the interim, they change out the part to a legal one, he said, and elude any penalties. “In the future, that is going to change,” Pletsch said. “If you get the guy more than once, twice, for the same offense, it’s going to be on record.”
‘Killing the car culture’
German police in Kaiserslautern said they’re concerned about modified vehicles that become a safety hazard or nuisance and are used for illegal street racing.
Though not all souped-up cars are used in illegal racing, “sometimes, the lines are blurred,” said Ranzinger of Kaiserslautern’s highway patrol.
The issue has vexed police across Germany, where the practice has resulted in several deadly crashes in the past couple of years, including one in Berlin last year.
The case gained national attention when a regional court in February sentenced two men, ages 25 and 27, to life in prison for killing a 69-year-old male driver while they were racing at speeds upward of 100 miles per hour through the city. It was the first time a German court linked extreme speeding to murder and ruled both racers were at fault, not just the driver whose car struck the man.
Most Americans interviewed, however, said they draw the line at illegal racing.
“When you can just hit the highway and you have the freedom, you don’t need to race in the city,” said Bearss of the German autobahn. “It’s not worth the risk.”
Rene Schaerer, who is the chief of Kaiserslautern’s new souped-up car unit, said the group’s intent isn’t just to write tickets but to talk to drivers about “what is legal and what is not.”
But military personnel and civilians with the American souped-up car community say they already feel unfairly harassed by the police, citing the first “meet the street” of the annual car tuning season.
That event, held in early April near the former Coke factory in Einsiedlerhof, was open to both German and American car enthusiasts, a chance to broaden their circles and check out one another’s rides.
The season opener was advertised on social media, with about 1,000 people indicating they were going to attend.
The Americans “roll out there” to find about half a dozen German police and several U.S. military police vehicles on scene, Bisson said.
Police blocked the entrance to the parking lot and issued citations for any vehicle modifications they deemed illegal, Bisson said.
Bisson had to sand and scratch off the spray-paint tint on his tail lights in order to drive the car home. He also had to pay an 80-euro fine.
Helms said he was hit with a 105-euro fine for yellow fog lights on his Volkswagen Golf GTI.
German police said they issued 60 citations at the event, but only 15 percent were given to Americans.
“It used to be like, ‘OK, cool, they’re checking it out, because we look different than most other cars,’” Helms said. “But then it just gets to the point where they’re trying to nitpick literally everything.”
“They’re killing the car culture,” another American said, declining to be named for fear of being targeted by the police.
An Audi A5 at Kleber Kaserne, Germany, April 11, 2017, with back tinted windows and other modifications looks primed for the race track. Americans with souped-up cars can drive fast on the German autobahn or on one of the country's amateur race tracks, such as the legendary Nurburgring in the Eifel region.
MICHAEL B. KELLER/STARS AND STRIPES