Longtime MBCA member Wolfgang Bors has made western Michigan his home for the past quarter of a century. He was born and raised in Germany where he apprenticed as an auto mechanic. Later he chose to return to school and become an automotive engineer, a field in which he works today.
As a youth, Wolfgang developed an interest in all things automotive. So, he did an apprenticeship as an auto mechanic. German apprentice-ship programs are highly structured, rigorous, and available in hundreds of occupations. Consequently, the rate of youth unemployment in Germany is one of the lowest in the EU (whereas neighboring France has one of the highest). Wolfgang’s program was three years long and resulted in a baccalaureate (unlike the US undergraduate degree). Such an apprenticeship is a dual system of classroom time and hands-on experience at a company. Students are paid for their work and the German state picks up the cost of the classroom training. German companies pay a lot of money for employee training. Apprentices receive the most up-to-date information in the classroom and then immediately apply what they learn in the real world, under the watchful eye of supervisors and full-time employees. A rookie mistake on the assembly line could easily cost a company a million Euros, and even more importantly, a blunder during a crucial automotive repair could endanger lives. Apprentices learn slowly and methodically, from the basics to advanced concepts, until they are fully capable of joining the workforce. It has been suggested that American companies adopt system of training, but it is unlikely to get very far because US companies focus on short-term (quarterly) profitability, and today’s American youth are, from an early age, marinated in the notion—most often urged by parents and teachers—that everyone has to go to college. As a result, the US has developed a host of critical shortages in well-compensated fields such as heavy construction, welding, and advanced automotive repair.
Wolfgang served a three-year apprenticeship at a Renault dealership in the late 1970s. He then attended a prep school for a couple of years and, in the mid-80s entered automotive engineering school. All automotive engineering students attended classes together, during which time they decided what concentration they wanted to focus on. The engineering program in Germany then was divided into three fields: 1. body & sheet metal, involving hand drawing (CAD—computer-aided design was just entering the field); 2. powertrain & suspension, and 3. trucks & utility vehicles (including buses. Wolfgang chose the second option.
As with the apprenticeship programs, engineering students had to work during a praxis semester for an automotive company. Wolfgang went to Audi for six months. Later he returned to the same firm to work on his thesis, when he was given a test car that had a technical problem (measuring temperatures of CV-joints (constant velocity) under high speeds). This entailed far more than just looking beneath the car, and involved extensive driving on VW’s famous test track in Bavaria, which runs approximately 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in one direction into a banked turn and 10 kms in the opposite direction. He and others had to run many high speed laps at a time. At best, he could only get in four or five laps before the test car’s fuel tank was empty.
He describes this type of work as a lot of fun, and he and two other engineering students expected job offers from Audi. No job offer was made to any of them, because of a sudden financial crisis at parent company VW involving senior management losing 600 million Deutsche marks on risky stocks in the market.
Wolfgang looked at BMW and Ford. Mercedes, at the time, offered: W201 (190s); W 124 (e.g., E Class); W126 (e.g., the SELs) and the R107 (SLs). He notes, “As a young engineer you want to work on something dynamic and fast. Mercedes didn’t have that image at the time. [Despite that] I talked with Mercedes for a day and decided that it was absolutely the best choice.” He took a position as Development Engineer for Mercedes-Benz AG (today part of Daimler AG).
“At the time,” he says, “Mercedes-Benz had an image of cars for older men—similar to Cadillac, an image that Cadillac hasn’t really been able to change. Mercedes has changed by offering smaller cars, such as the CLA (AMG being very expensive for younger buyers). I always say that if you start driving a Mercedes-Benz, you have a hard time driving something else, because you get used to the features and comfort.”
Wolfgang’s first Mercedes was a gas-powered 190E (W201) that he owned in Germany. “I was surprised,” he says, “that there was nothing wrong with the car; typically when I bought a car there were issues with it that I had to fix.” Since he is as big as an NFL lineman, he was asked if the Baby Benz fit him properly. “Yes, most European cars have more seat travel to fit taller drivers [whereas] most Japanese cars I don’t fit into.”
One of the benefits of working for Mercedes-Benz at the time was the deep discount (21.5%) that the company offered its employees. An additional benefit was that company buyers could often obtain a new Mercedes sooner that the outside customer could. (The general public in Germany who desired to purchase a new Mercedes went to the dealer and was placed on a waiting list that sometimes entailed a five-year wait.) MB employees went to the head of the line, so to speak. Wolfgang says that at that time many employees kept their Benz for a year and sold it for more than they paid for it. The way that much of the German public got a late model Benz was from a company employee. The German government has since adjusted its laws to tax that financial benefit of old.
Wolfgang says that during his tenure with Mercedes-Benz there was a saying: “Daimler Benz AG was a big bank with a small car production. DB had so much money that it didn’t really need to build cars, since the company was paying more than the sticker price just to get a Mercedes.”
When the W124 was developed, he says that the thinking at Mercedes then was that they build the best cars in the world. When the successor W210 (E-class) came out, senior management began asking, “What is the cost of the development?” He contends that the W140 (S-class, launched in 1991) was still developed with the best quality in mind, whereas the W210 was made with the build cost becoming an a real priority. “That was when Mercedes-Benz really became similar to other car manufacturers. Today M-B still builds nice cars, but so do other companies. It’s not that outstanding anymore,” he firmly states.
Government regulation plays a major role in automotive design today. Take, for instance, requirements concerning pedestrian safety. Bumper heights, fixed hood ornaments, and side mirrors all must conform to laws that lessen the severity of injury to pedestrians. Most bumpers must be of a height that would strike an adult’s hip versus a leg —a victim struck in the legs might be thrown into the windshield. A hood ornament, where it exists, must be flexible and not stab a pedestrian. Side mirrors must give way upon frontal impact. Wolfgang notes that auto companies come up with engineering solutions rather than design solutions, therefore everyone comes up with the same solution. Consequently, that’s why most vehicles look the same at the front. And if the government were to ever outlaw emblems on grills, nobody would ever be able to find their (usually white, black, or gray) car in a large parking lot, except by license plate! The more rules government (not just the USA) puts in place, the less freedom a car company has in the design of its products. Wolfgang mentions as an analogy Formula 1 racing, where the complex and ever-changing rules involving crash-worthiness , wing angles, powertrain limits, and much more stifle innovation by any team.
From Deutschland to Dutchland (West Michigan)
Changes both at Mercedes-Benz and in his personal life prompted Wolfgang to come to the US in 1994. He accepted a handsome buyout from Mercedes, which along with his vacation pay, allowed him to move himself, American bride Lori, and their son and newborn daughter, to the US and put a down payment on a house. The 190E didn’t make the trip from Germany, since the necessary baby carriage filled the Baby Benz’s trunk, and Wolfgang had already exchanged the car for a VW Passat. Stateside, Lori got the ubiquitous family vehicle (Dodge minivan) while Wolfgang purchased his first V8, a Mustang GT.
It wasn’t until 2002 that Wolfgang rejoined the Mercedes family, by acquiring a C230 Sport Coupe (C203), which he drove for eight years. Lori’s minivan made way, after a decade, for a Mazda CX7. Wolfgang upgraded from the C-class to the E350 4matic (W211). He describes the E350 as the best Mercedes he ever owned. The comfort, reliability, and features were exactly what he had hoped for. The big AMG brakes on that car had incredible stopping power and he put 80,000 miles on the car before he had to change the pads.
Other cars in the Bors family stable include Lori’s daily driver, C300 4matic (W204), an M-class ML320 CDI (W164), SL500, and a CL600 (whose 12 cylinder engine requires a full day just to change the spark plugs).
Today Wolfgang is Principal Engineer for Hutchinson Aerospace & Industry, which is a parts supplier for auto manufacturers worldwide. Stateside customers include Ford, GM, Chrysler, BMW, & Mercedes. The company produces AVS (Anti-Vibration-Systems) parts that make your car run smoother and quieter. Automotive engineers look to mitigate Noise, Vibration, and Harshness (known as NVH). If you have
a classic Mercedes that rattles and clunks, despite the fact that you may have changed the shock absorbers, there’s a good likelihood that some of the components of the type that Hutchinson produces may need replacing. Such crucial parts as engine mounts and transmission mounts may have collapsed and/or hardened with time. The same goes for subframe mounts torsion bar bushings. Such AVS parts have limited lifespans and are often overlooked, even by many experienced mechanics.
Wolfgang doesn’t spend any time in the waiting room at his local dealer, Betten Imports, while his car is being serviced. Instead, he services all of his vehicles at his home north of Grand Rapids. He has a professional vehicle hoist (which Lori says has already paid for itself) and there is very little that he can’t perform in his own garage. The cost of Mercedes parts is expensive enough, and when an owner such as Wolfgang performs his own vehicle service, that can make the decision to keep an aging Mercedes easier and far cheaper.
He is quite direct in his opinion about Americans driving AMGs with the speed limits here. In his native Germany, with its fabulous Autobahn, such cars make sense in traversing the distances between far-flung cities. “There’s no reason to drive an AMG here in the US—unless you drive it on the track. I ask myself about a driver of, say, a GT3 Porsche 911, “What do you do with that here?” He adds, “Unless I took it to Gingerman everyday, I wouldn’t own one. I always say that whether you take a race car, normal passenger car, or SUV, the vehicle can do 80-100% more than what the typical driver can do with it. For example, the M or G-class can climb very steep grades off-road, but people almost never use it that way.”
Wolfgang joined the MBCA in 2002 when he bought the C-class. There was a club notice in the glovebox. And somewhere he saw The Star magazine at that time and he really liked it. He and Lori attended just a few section events at the time, because their children were young. He remembers taking his son Kevin to an Autocross event in Kalamazoo, when Jim Luikens was the section president. Because he drove more aggressively than the other participants, he came home with first place. There was also a quiz that both father and son took separately from each other. Kevin edged out his dad by one answer!
He contends that there were more people involved in the Western MI section 15 years ago and that he hasn’t seen any young blood coming in. Wolfgang believes that the club needs people with experience in advertising, and Lori says that reaching young people through social media is crucial, adding, “I know that we have a Facebook page, but that’s not how you reach young people.”
“The dealer needs to take 30 seconds upon the completion of the car sale to describe the MBCA, not just stick an application in the glovebox. We bought an M-class in 2007; the MBCA membership form is still in the glovebox,” he says.