Batch at the Mazda Classic Automobile Museum Frey. Pic by Dave SmithBatch at the Mazda Classic Automobile Museum Frey. Pic by Dave Smith

Features

How a car dealer family’s passion for Mazdas led to a collection beyond compare

Associate editor James Batchelor travelled to Augsburg to lap up a museum that’s like a cathedral to the Japanese marque

Time 7:39 am, October 1, 2023

A piece of paper is waved in front of me. It’s a grainy printout of a car advertised for sale by a classic car dealer in the UK.

Then I’m asked if the asking price is ‘reasonable’ and do I know anyone who can look at the car on their behalf?

It’s frantic conversations such as this one that have led to me being surrounded by some 50 Mazdas from all around the world.


For some dealers, cars are simply lumps of metal. Each sale is an entry on the company’s balance sheet; figures on the year-end report; profit for the shareholders.

But then there’s the Frey family…

To say the Freys are mad about Mazdas is the biggest understatement you could ever make. It’s an addiction that’s lasted for more than 40 years – and it isn’t about to end anytime soon.


Mazda has been headquartered in Hiroshima for over 100 years.

But if you want to discover the history of the carmaker, marvel at its rotary engines and ogle some of its most famous (and forgotten) models Mazda has ever made, you needn’t take a flight to the other side of the world but to a medieval city in Germany.

The Freys – Walter and his sons Markus and Joachim – have three successful and highly regarded Mazda dealerships as well as a Peugeot showroom in the area surrounding the city of Augsburg in Bavaria.

But their fascination with the Japanese carmaker lies in an old tram depot.

Walter Frey. Pic by Dave Smith

German car dealer Walter Frey established the Mazda museum in Augsburg in 2017

Take the pretty unassuming Wertachstraße near the centre of the city, cross the Senkelbach river then immediately turn down a small road and you’ll find the magnificent former tram building dating back to 1897.

With large arched windows set in yellow brick walls covered by a vaulted ceiling, it’s like a cathedral to Mazda. And, more specifically, the Freys’ classic Mazda collection.

It’s Markus who found the advert and the discussion over the now-crumpled piece of paper concerns a Mazda MX-5 Le Mans Edition.

Only 24 were made to celebrate Mazda’s win at the gruelling 24-hour endurance race in 1991 and, amazingly, the Freys don’t have one.

Oh, they’ve stashed away MX-5 racers, special editions, anniversary models and even a Mk2 MX-5 Coupe, but not a Le Mans Edition finished in the same lurid livery of the 1991 Mazda 787b race winner.


That, though, is about to change.

But why is this former depot owned by the Freys and stuffed full with Mazdas? Well, to put it simply, because Walter Frey’s collection got too large and he wanted somewhere to store it.

Batch looks at a Mazda that isn't currently on public display at the museum. Pic by Dave Smith

Batch looks at a Mazda that isn’t currently on public display at the museum

It all started in the early 1970s when Walter wanted to set up shop as a car dealer.

He began trading in Ladas and had ambitions of becoming an Opel dealer but was rebuffed by the German carmaker for being too small an outfit.

Fascinated by the Wankel rotary engine concept, the solution was to develop his business and start selling NSUs, in particular the Ro80, but by this time the carmaker had been absorbed with Audi and into the Volkswagen Group.

So he turned to Mazda, and in so doing became one of Germany’s first dealers for the manufacturer.

The collection began humbly enough. Arguably the most mythical Mazda of all, the 110S Cosmo Sport, was sourced from New Jersey in 1980.

But while owning one of these glamorous super-coupes would be enough for even the most ardent fan of the rotary engine, it was just the beginning for Walter.

It’s a quiet Friday morning in mid-August and there are just a couple of visitors ambling around the museum.

Walter stops and chats with them then leads me around the collection, pausing in front of every exhibit to explain the story of how he and his sons acquired them.

Batch and Walter Frey at the Mazda museum. Pic by Dave Smith

‘Exhibit’ is the wrong word as every car here is driven routinely for events, for weddings, and just for the sheer hell of it. Moreover, Walter winces at the word ‘museum’, too.

‘I didn’t want to start a museum, I just wanted somewhere to store the cars because they were all over the place!’ he chuckles.

But a museum it’s become, essentially because of how large the collection is, with space for around 50 cars on display and room for storage underground.

The collection numbers around 150 vehicles in total and covers everything from three-wheelers, typical Japanese kei cars, rotary-engined limousines, pick-ups and even a Mazda rotary coach.

‘We spoke to Mazda in Japan and asked if we could open this as a sort of a museum – they said yes.

‘They approached Mazda Germany who weren’t that keen initially, but they were not strong enough to say no!’

Open it did in 2017, and the place has since become a mecca for Mazda fans from all around the world.

As we’re chatting, Walter’s face lights up as an NSU Ro80 pulls up in the car park, the owner remarking that he’s on a road trip from Berlin to Switzerland and wanted to call in.

Autozam AZ-1 at the Mazda museum. Pic by Dave Smith

One of Batch’s favourite cars at the museum – an Autozam AZ-1. This wild take on the kei class of car was powered by a 657cc turbo

The Freys source cars from all over the world, and if any car needs restoration it’s meticulously revived by their team of mechanics.

The wild Autozam AZ-1 with a MazdaSpeed bodykit arrived in boxes and had to be constructed, and as we pause in front of the achingly adorable R360 Coupe, Walter reminisces how that car was sourced from Australia.

The story, hilariously, isn’t repeatable as the car required far more restoration than he was initially led to believe (with a few choice English swear words uttered), but watching him looking at the car and smiling, such escapades to find the world’s rarest Mazdas are clearly worth it.

Time is ticking though, and Walter, Markus – who’s been asking even more questions about the MX-5 Le Mans – and I have a date at one of the family’s Mazda showrooms.

As we leave, we walk past a group of Dutch petrolheads who’ve just arrived in their fleet of immaculate MX-5s – they’re here for a guided tour, having heard about this shrine to Mazdas deep in Bavaria and simply had to visit.

It’s a short drive to Auto Frey Mazda in Gersthofen, a small district in Augsburg. The dealership sits at the side of a busy crossroads and adjacent to the even-more-bustling Bundesstraße 2 – Germany’s longest federal highway, which runs to and from the borders with Austria and Poland.

The dealership is much like you’d find anywhere in the UK.

It’s a two-storey affair, but while the downstairs showroom is full with Mazda’s current line-up, upstairs is empty – a symbol that the dearth of new and used cars is just as prevalent in Germany as it is in the UK.

Parkway Rotary at the Mazda museum. Pic by Dave Smith

This Parkway Rotary was another of Batch’s favourite exhibits – Yes, Mazda made buses as well!

With Joachim joining us, it’s a chance to discuss the future of the family firm and selling Mazdas in Germany.

It’s clear that it’s not just the shortage of metal that Germany shares with the UK but problems with selling electric cars, too.

‘We have started the year well, but now we are finding that people are not sure on what to buy,’ remarks Joachim. ‘Petrol, hybrid or electric? They really don’t know what they should be going for.’

‘This is because of Volkswagen,’ says Marcus. ‘They killed the diesel market, and now people are confused about what to buy next.

‘Two years ago, if you bought an EV you got a lot of money off the price from the government. But every year they have cut and cut [the subsidies] back – it’s now not enough.’

We chat about high targets to sell new cars, the arrival of online car sales and younger buyers’ expectations to transact digitally, and problems finding and retaining technicians.

Some of these hurdles would have been unthinkable in the Seventies when Auto Frey opened for business, while others are themes that have energised and frustrated car dealers for decades, no matter which market they operate in.

But there is one theme that we keep returning to – the Freys’ passion for Mazdas and their customers’ love of buying cars from the family.

Batch in conversation with Walter Frey and his sons Markus, left, and Joachim. Pic by Dave Smith

Batch in conversation with Walter Frey and his sons Markus, left, and Joachim

They have numerous customers on their books that buy Mazda after Mazda because they like doing business with the trio. In some ways, the Freys are instilling their love for the brand with countless others.

But what of the future? Will the Frey business carry on to the next generation?

‘Hmmm, I think not,’ replies Markus.

‘My daughter? No,’ says Joachim. ‘My son is 12 – Maybe there is a chance that he will do it, but it is too early to say. If not, we can sell or we can get a manager. We are not worried.’

Whatever lies in the future, one thing’s for sure: if you buy a Mazda from the Freys, you don’t just get a bunch of flowers as a thank you but also lifetime free admission to Mazda Classic Automobile Museum Frey. And that will never change.

As for the MX-5 Le Mans Edition, it was indeed snapped up by the Freys and will soon be heading to Bavaria to go on display in the museum. They’re gonna need a bigger building soon…

PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVE SMITH

This is part of a longer feature that appears in the current edition of Car Dealer – issue 187 – along with news, views, reviews and much more! Click here to read and download it for FREE!

James Batchelor's avatar

James – or Batch as he’s known – started at Car Dealer in 2010, first as the work experience boy, eventually becoming editor in 2013. He worked for Auto Express as editor-at-large and was the face of Carbuyer’s YouTube reviews. In 2020, he went freelance and now writes for a number of national titles and contributes regularly to Car Dealer. In October 2021 he became Car Dealer's associate editor.



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