GARCHING, Germany — The camouflaged prototypes that our spies chase all around the world have a difficult life. They’re usually pre-production cars, so they can’t be sold to the public and they need to be destroyed after engineers put them through their paces. How do you get rid of a test mule? Not by sending it to Pick-n-Pull. I visited a BMW facility near Munich, Germany, to learn what happens to a prototype when it’s no longer needed.
Located in Garching, about 15 minutes north of BMW’s headquarters, the recycling facility resembles a run-of-the-mill European junkyard when viewed from the outside. It takes only a quick peek over the gate to realize its importance: the 15-year-old hatchbacks and station wagons you find in most European junkyards are nowhere to be seen, and the lot is full recent BMW, Mini, and even Rolls-Royce models.
Cars get shipped to Garching from the numerous testing facilities that BMW operates globally, including one that recently opened in the Czech Republic. Many are camouflaged, but some look like what you’d find sitting in front of your local BMW dealership. The condition that they arrive in depends on how they were used. Many are intact, but a handful are wrecked because they were used to test safety systems.
Think of the lot as your local DMV’s waiting room. Cars get unloaded and parked (or sometimes stacked on a giant shelf using a forklift) while they wait for their number to be called. Not a lot initially catches my eyes as I look around: There are quite a few 7 Series test mules, over a dozen crossovers and SUVs, a couple of M3s, and even a handful of motorcycles. But then, I spot an odd shape near the fence: an ActiveE prototype! Based on the E82-generation 1 Series, the coupe was built for a pilot program launched to test electric systems in 2011.
How it ended up there isn’t the question; this facility’s sole purpose is to recycle prototypes. I’m more curious as to why it’s there in 2023, over a decade after it was built and presumably long after the end of its useful life. If cars could talk, this one would tell a fascinating tale.
Step inside the facility, and you walk into a clean, well-lit room where technicians meticulously remove the battery pack from electric cars. European Union bureaucrats love regulations, and I’m not surprised to learn that they’ve asked carmakers to recycle about 95% of a car (as measured by weight). Batteries are very heavy, so this step is crucial. The battery pack is tested, saved if it’s good, and taken fully apart so that the individual parts can be recycled if it’s not. Gasoline- and diesel-burning models skip this station and go straight to the next room.
There, a separate team assesses the vehicle’s condition to get a better idea of what can and can’t be salvaged. Some parts get scrapped, either because they’re too worn (thousands of merciless miles in, say, Death Valley does that to a prototype) or because they’re not certified for resale. Some parts are saved; anything from a passenger-side front seat to a full drivetrain gets set aside if it’s deemed usable. These components sometimes find their way into other prototypes, while mechanical bits sometimes get sold to dealers as certified used parts.
After blowing up the airbags using a remote control (it’s as loud as you imagine!) and draining the fluids, technicians send the car to another waiting room. This time, the end is near. One by one, the prototypes enter a big, closed-off room and face an electric excavator. It looks like beginning of a rigged boxing match: everyone already knows who is going to win. The manned machine tears into the car with near-surgical precision. It claws open the roof to remove the seats, the dashboard, and the miles of wiring you sit over when traveling in a modern car.
The car is helpless. It’s crushed, dented, picked up, dropped, and treated in ways that would make even the most lackadaisical enthusiast cringe. The bits ripped out get thrown into a giant dumpster, and the excavator dumps the carcass into a machine that crumples it like you’d crush a soda can. The end result is a cube, shown in our gallery with your author (5’11”) crouched next to it to give you an idea of its size.
What’s next depends on where the metal gets recycled. It could be end up as sheetmetal used to build your next car.