Erlkönig (car)

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Erlkönig as an eye-catcher for an exhibition about Automotive Testing Papenburg (2011)
Erlkönig of a Mercedes-Benz GLB in January 2019 in Stuttgart

A Erlkönig is a camouflaged prototype of a car . While the manufacturers try to keep the exact appearance of these vehicles a secret, photojournalists , so-called Erlkönig hunters, want to sell their photos to specialist magazines or the tabloid press.


The name goes back to Goethe's ballad Erlkönig , which begins with the verse “Who rides so late through night and wind? It is the father with his child ”begins. In the early 1950s, the work appeared in a different context: the term was first used by the two motor journalists Heinz-Ulrich Wieselmann , editor-in-chief of the automobile magazine auto motor und sport, and Werner Oswald , who was the second man in the editorial team from the beginning of 1950 to the end of 1957 . From issue 15 (July 19, 1952), the more or less clear photo of an automobile prototype appeared in every issue for a while.

“These little pictures, ridiculously harmless by today's standards, were considered an unprecedented provocation of the automotive industry. That is why we had thought for weeks, maybe even months, whether and in what form we could allow ourselves to print these amateur photos. Editor-in-chief Wieselmann finally came up with the idea of ​​sweetening the bitter pill a little for the industrial companies concerned with amiable accompanying texts. With this in mind, one fine Sunday he rhymed a small eight-line poem in the style of the Erlkönig poem for the first few pictures. He put it on the table for me on Monday morning with the order to prepare a series from this for the next issues and to give it a constant heading. After a brief thought, I said: »Let's just write› Erlkönig ‹over it!« [...] From then on I consistently referred to every prototype, regardless of origin, as Erlkönig in auto motor und sport, and so the word became known and soon became a common one Expression."

- Werner Oswald : Mercedes-Benz passenger cars 1886–1986

Erlkönig number one was the prototype of the then eagerly awaited Mercedes-Benz 180 . The caption read as follows:

1st episode

Who drives so quickly through rain and wind?

Is it a road cruiser from over there that is
only lagging behind in scope

or even Daimler's youngest child?

The silent observer would not be surprised

when that radically new model,
which even the photographer

would be nothing more than the son of the " three hundred ".

Reasons of secrecy

The product life cycle of a vehicle is usually a few years. After this time, automobile manufacturers bring successors with newer technology onto the market. In the context of the Erlkönig, however, the design ( exterior and interior ) of the new model plays a decisive role. The sales of the previous model usually decrease at the end of the product life cycle as buyers wait for the new models. These sales figures would be further reduced if pictures of the undisguised successor model appeared in the media before the end of the product life cycle of the previous model. In addition, camouflage measures should conceal technical and design details from the competition.

In order to counteract the early release of the secrets, the vehicles are often optically changed during the test drives, whereby this usually takes place in several stages. The first prototypes with new technology often run in adapted bodies of their predecessors or other models from the manufacturer. Erlkönig of this level are often referred to as muletto , alluding to the mixture of new technology and foreign or old shell. Once the new design has been determined, the camouflage of the body first moves in the direction of full cladding and then decreases more and more as the presentation approaches. For this purpose, covers and panels are attached to distinctive contours, which are intended to disguise the actual appearance .

The interior is also often covered with plastic parts to mask the appearance of the dashboard and the shelves.

The automobile companies handle their prototypes differently. The measures range from allowing prototypes to drive and park in the public traffic area at the earliest test stage (e.g. Fiat ) and their driving ban until the model is officially presented ( e.g. from VW ). BMW counteracts the camouflage and publishes photos itself.

Picture gallery with various examples

The camouflage methods used differ according to manufacturer and level of development. As series production progresses, the camouflage is continuously reduced until individual components and the brand emblem remain hidden.

Test areas

In order to test the new components and vehicles under extreme weather conditions, most of the cold tests take place in Arjeplog, Sweden, and the heat and dust tests in the Mojave Desert (especially in Death Valley ) of Nevada , an hour northeast of Las Vegas .


Web links

Commons : Erlkönige  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Erlkönig  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Werner Oswald : Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. 1886-1986. 5th edition. Motorbuch-Verlag, Stuttgart 1991, ISBN 3-613-01133-6 , p. 488 f.
  2. Facebook , accessed April 30, 2020.
  3. SPIEGEL online: ERLKÖNIGE - C-Class under the Polarstern (February 8, 2000) , accessed on January 2, 2009.
  4. Die Zeit: On the hunt for the camouflaged cars (October 26, 2014) , accessed on June 5, 2020.