The Hamelin Automobile History Museum (Museum der Hamelner Automobilgeschichte) may be small but it gives a fascinating insight into the history and development of the German automobile industry in the early 20th century, and in particular into local car makers who developed two important and popular brands that are now hardly remembered.
The History of the Hamelin Automobile Industry
It all began with a small start-up in 1907 when local auto-engineering enthusiasts set up the Norddeutsche Automobil Werke GmbH (NAW) in Hamelin. In those early days car manufacturers built the chassis, transmission, gearbox and engine, but they didn’t build the body work. That was left to specialist coachbuilders who were now transitioning from horse-drawn carriages to the new and exciting industry of the future… automobiles.
In 1908 NAW started producing their 3.5 HP ‘Colibri’ (French for ‘Humming Bird’) model, using coachwork from a company in Berlin, but a year later a new coachworks, Burkart & Günther GmbH, was set up in Hamelin and started building the body work. Within a year, the business had expanded and Burkart & Günther moved into a new factory space where the current museum is located.
The Colibri quickly built a reputation for reliability. Four models were developed and over 1,000 cars sold.
In 1911 NAW developed a new additional range, the ‘Sperber’ (Sparrowhawk), again the bodies were built by Burkart & Günther. The demand for both the Sperber & Colibri ranges means that by 1914 both companies, NAW & B&G, are employing between 500-600 each and churning out 800 vehicles a year which were sold all over the world; to Norway, Sweden, Russia, the Baltic States, Austria, England, and New Zealand.
But then, in 1914, comes the First World War. Production was brought to a near stop, with only a truck variant of the Sperber being sold to the army. Before long, both companies become part of the armaments industry.
At this point, Hans Hartmann the NAW founder, who was reportedly a pacifist and uncomfortable with the new direction, sold NAW in 1917 to Gustav Selve an engine manufacturer. When WW1 ended, Selve set about restructuring NAW. He ended production of the Colibri range, and, seeing what Henry Ford was up to in the USA, started rationalising the manufacturing process with an assembly line. The NAW brand name was also dropped and the company became Selve Automobilwerke AG. First on the agenda was a new radiator and some restyling for the Sperber E4 5 cylinder/15 HP and F4 6 cylinder/20 HP models which had been in production as trucks.
In 1920 Selve started developing the range with the Selve 6/24 hp, Selve 8/30 hp and then later an 8/32 hp tourer and 8/40 hp sports car, using a new invention – aluminium pistons. Hitler’s first car was a green 1920 Selve 6, paid for by the party and driven by his adjutant Julius Schaub.¹
In 1926 came the first Selve 6-cylinder, the 11/45 with a 2.8 litre engine producing 45 hp, and the following year, the first large Selve, the type 12/50. The launch of the 6-cylinder Selve Selecta in 1928, the first vehicle with a low chassis, dubbed “the Hamelin Rolls Royce” was a game-changer and production of all previous models was stopped in order to concentrate resources on the Selecta.
It turned out the Selecta was a short-lived game-changer. In the economic crash of 1929, the company closed production and Selve cars came to the end of the road.
The Hamelin Automobile History Museum
The one room museum is, appropriately, in the HefeHof building complex which was at various times the main factory for Burkart & Günther GmbH. It is also appropriate that its enthusiastic director, Reinhard Burkart, is the grandson of the coachbuilder Jakob Burkart.
Herr. Burkart plays a key role in the preservation of Hamelin’s automobile history; as chairman of the Förderverein der Fahrzeuggeschichte Hameln eV (Association for the promotion of vehicle history in Hamelin) and as Honorary Chairman of the Motor Veteranen Club Hameln (MVCH), who organise events and rallies for vintage car owners.
The museum itself is quite small. A single hall hosts just half a dozen vehicles – all very rare. Reinhard says he is aware of only 34 Colibris in the world, many in private collections, some in museums. The only one we know in the UK is on display in a diorama at York Castle Museum in the UK. If you know of others tell me in the comments.
The cars are displayed roughly in chronological order. Most belong to the museum but a couple were on loan when I visited, and so the display is liable to change from time to time.
The walk-around tour starts with a simple 2-cylinder Colibri chassis, with engine, gearbox, transmission and differential rear axle, pretty much as it would have been supplied by Norddeutsche Automobil Werke before Burkart & Günther put a body on it… except that this one is a cutaway demo.
Then there is an early model 2-cylinder Colibri 8 that has been restored and run in a number of rallies and similar events. Reinhard himself has driven it (from Paris to St. Petersburg, I think he said), and a magnificent pair of post-1911 4-cylinder Colibri 6/15 tourers, one of which is on loan.
Next is an NAW Sperber.
This particular Sperber was built in 1911 or 1912 in the NAW factory nearby on Werftstraße and the body was made & fitted by Burkart & Günther here on this site. The engine is a side-valve, water-cooled four-cylinder four-stroke engine producing 18 hp and a maximum speed of 80 km/h.
In 1919 the car was exported to Sweden and was used as a taxi in Gothenburg for many years. In 1956 it was discovered in a barn and restored for the first time. Thanks to many donors and helpers, the Friends of Vehicle History Hameln e.V. was able to buy the car back from Sweden in 1984. Between 1989 – 1991, it underwent a second restoration at the hands of the club members bringing it to its current, fully roadworthy condition, and Reinhard Burkart has driven it on a Motor Veteranen Club Hameln rally from Brussels to Vilnius.
The first Selve in the museum is an unusual one – the 32 hp Selve fire engine could rattle along at 50 km/h.
Sadly, there isn’t a Selecta in the museum, but there is a very glamorous Selve 6-24 sports tourer built around 1921.
These days the only piece of history that people associate with Hamelin is the tale of the pied piper, but for a while the cutting edge of German auto engineering flourished and then died out in this city, and the only place you can learn about that history is here in the Hamelin Automobile History Museum.
¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selve , https://www.tracesofwar.com/articles/5625/Hitlers-cars.htm
Declaration: I was visiting on a press trip with Lower Saxony Tourism (aka 9cities). Entry to the museum was complementary (but I did leave a large banknote, unseen, in their collection box!).
Museum der Hamelner Automobilgeschichte (in German only. You’ll need to run Google translate or some such over it.)
Entry price (2023):
|Child (under 14)||€ 2.50|
Opening hours (2023):
Fridays 3pm – 6pm
Saturday 11am – 4pm