A journey isn’t always about simply getting from one point to another. Take the amazing 1,000-mile trip from Germany to North Wales made by Arthur Niesser on his Porsche tractor in June 2014.
German-born psychoanalyst Arthur Niesser, who spent years working as a general practitioner before specializing, has long supported the work done by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). An international, independent medical organization that delivers emergency aid to those affected by armed conflict, epidemics, healthcare exclusion and natural disasters, Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971 by physicians and journalists.
In 2014, Arthur decided to raise both awareness and funds for the charity by driving an antique Porsche tractor from his old family home in southern Germany to his current home in North Wales. During the planning process, he came to realize that 2014 marked the centennial of the start of World War I.
“In 1914, national borders were heavily defended,” he says. “Today (the European migrant crisis notwithstanding), most borders have become invisible and have lost their significance.” He began to see the fact that he would be able to drive his tractor across this part of Europe, a place once so troubled and full of conflict, as a kind of celebration; a measure of how far we have come in terms of peace. It also reminded Arthur of the sad losses and horrors that so many people suffered during both world wars.
I imagine that quite a few physicians own Porsches, but I don’t suppose many of those are Porsche tractors. Arthur is certainly unusual in his choice of vehicle, but he didn’t actually go out and buy a Porsche: He inherited it. Arthur grew up in Schwendi in southern Germany, where his grandparents lived on a smallholding with three cows and a pig.
“For years, cows were used to pull the plough and wagons full of hay, potatoes and manure,” he explains. “Then, increasingly, tractors came into use. Porsche offered a small and cheap tractor, which was aimed at small farms. My Porsche was built early in 1960. I was 7 years old at the time.”
Arthur became hugely fond of the tractor. “I would be the passenger whenever I could,” he recalls. “Later I was allowed to drive it in the fields and make myself useful with it. I always pride myself that I learned to drive on a Porsche! I could distinguish my Porsche from other tractors just by the sound of the engine.”
It had a downside, though. “The tractor almost ruined my academic career,” he says, “in that it was much more attractive than learning Latin vocabularies or mathematical equations, and my performance at grammar school suffered!”
Arthur later moved with his parents to a nearby city. Whilst he never forgot the old Porsche, he concentrated on his medical career and put farm life behind him. Then came the day when the old Porsche’s future fell into question.
“When my grandfather died and later my uncle, who had inherited the smallholding, I pestered my aunt never to sell the Porsche to anyone else,” he says. “This year I finally succeeded in owning it rightfully. The old romance is still alive.”
Arthur’s Porsche Junior is a 14 hp tractor, powered by an air-cooled 822cc single-cylinder diesel engine. It’s capable of a top speed of 19 kilometers per hour (about 12 mph) and it has six gears. It is thought that the manufacturer produced about 13,000 of these tractors between 1952 and 1963. During that time, Porsche also produced the 25 hp Porsche Standard, the 38 hp Super and the Master (a whopping 50 hp).
Arthur’s three-week journey began at his old family home in southern Germany, followed the Rhine to Cologne, then passed into Belgium and France before crossing the English Channel by ferry and entering the U.K. He proceeded north via Canterbury, London and Coventry and finally home to a village near Porthmadog, North Wales.
Before setting off, he asked Klaus and Alfons Hofele, a father-and-son team of mechanics in Schwendi, to check the tractor to make sure it was fit for the journey. The Porsche had never been restored, but it was in good condition. It hadn’t worked hard in decades and had been stored in a barn. However, it was well due for a full service, especially in view of the journey that lay ahead. In addition to ensuring that the tractor was running well, the mechanics also fitted a pair of mirrors on long arms to allow Arthur to see behind him and past the caravan and a cigarette lighter he could use to charge a mobile phone. New seat padding was also fitted; 1,000 miles on a hard steel seat could take its toll!
Arthur had not anticipated the effect that travelling alone by tractor for days on end would have on his thoughts. Spending time in our own company, in quiet appreciation of the world around us, is not something we humans do very often, and Arthur found that the journey soon took on an almost spiritual quality.
At times, he was quite overcome by the kindness of strangers. He came away from the journey feeling that the world, or at least the part of Europe that he travelled through, was indeed a beautiful place. He was also totally overwhelmed by the sight of war graves, as he visited several cemeteries, both German and British, which really brought home to him the tragedy of war.
Slowing down to 12 mph gives a person time to think and look around. You see far more travelling by tractor than by car, and Arthur loved the feeling of being out in the open. However the trip wasn’t a holiday as such, because Arthur had a schedule to stick to, places to reach by specified times and work and family commitments back home. He was constantly aware that he had to be on the move. Most of the time, the he used a GPS to find his way through Europe. “It was impossible to carry detailed maps of every area I passed through,” he explains. He spent nights at campsites off the main route. Wherever he went, his tractor, and the neat little caravan he towed behind, attracted a lot of interest.
Arthur kept a journal of his journey, and posted it as a blog with photos on his website. Excerpts sketch memories of a lifetime:
On the banks of the Rhine: “A spectacular ride along the Rhine River from Lorch to St. Goarshausen. The river was so beautiful in the bright sunshine. I was sad to leave it behind to make my way steep upwards out of the Rhine valley to the Hunsrück heights. It is an area of forests and agriculture, mainly grains. Then the journey took me down to the Moselle valley, just to climb up again on the other side to the Eifel heights. I am now in Maria Laach. My Porsche coped really well with the mountainous landscape.”
In Ypres: “Today I visited two military cemeteries and saw several memorials. It was a deeply moving day and I am still not recovered. There are 12,000 tombstones (at the Tyne Cot cemetery) but many more soldiers are buried here, many from Britain but also other Commonwealth countries. I was shocked how many cemeteries there are just around Ypres. Next to farms or fields, suddenly a cemetery comes into sight. The suffering is just beyond imagination.”
On tractor fanatics: “How often was I approached today by mainly older men, who asked me about my Porsche and with gleaming eyes they told me about their tractors. They recommended journals to me and tried to exchange technical data. On my part, though, what I did not tell them, there is only one tractor that matters for me, and that is mine! I am a tractor monogamist!”
Thinking about speed: “Many motorists are very considerate and cautious. However, a fair number overtake in a breakneck fashion and in the face of oncoming traffic just manage to slip in at a hair’s breath, even though there would be plenty of safe overtaking opportunities just moments later. What will they do with these ‘saved’ seconds? Will they do something useful, fulfilling, nourishing? Or will they slump in front of the television to relax from all the stress of driving?”
Arthur was extremely lucky; the old Porsche didn’t miss a beat and it didn’t let him down once. Initially, he felt he was something of an amateur at tractor driving. “There were quite a few jerky starts!” he recalls. But that was to be expected: He hadn’t driven the tractor since childhood. As he went along, though, he soon perfected his hill starts and smooth gear changes. After a few miles, man and machine were in harmony, and Arthur began to really enjoy the trip.
Using a GPS had its ups and downs. The tractor wasn’t legally allowed to travel on the German equivalent of motorways and expressways. The GPS showed motorways, but it didn’t differentiate between expressways and roads. On one occasion, Arthur found himself on a road he shouldn’t be on and had to be “helped” off the road. However, most of the trip went smoothly, and Arthur plotted his way accurately through beautiful countryside, seeing some amazing views on the way. Many campsite owners even donated their fees to the cause. Small acts of kindness like those made Arthur feel that most folks in this world are good-natured, something the media often allows us to forget.
Since the trip, Arthur has returned the tractor to its home in southern Germany (hauled there by tractor enthusiast George Mueller). Whilst he is very fond of the old Porsche and has no plans to sell it, he feels it belongs in its home village, so he has offered use of it to Klaus and Alfons Hofele, the two mechanics who serviced the tractor for the journey. They will look after it and use it for events in the village and possibly for fundraising. The tractor will always be there, should Arthur or one of his children wish to use it again, but, as he explains, it is probably of more use over in Germany than it is sitting in his garage in North Wales.
Arthur is not after all, your regular tractor enthusiast, but I think, after this remarkable journey, that the bond between man and tractor has certainly grown. His affection for the old family tractor is now cemented, and he can fully appreciate the therapeutic benefits of pottering around on a vintage tractor. And as his wife, Alison, notes, it is amazing how an old tractor brought people together, and raised so much money and awareness. The journey has so far raised over £3,500 (about $5,400), and the figure is still climbing. FC
For more on Arthur Niesser’s tractor drive, or to make a donation to Doctors Without Borders, visit Arthur’s website.