A family affair for 113 years: Olaf and Alexandra Dobberkau are the fourth generation to run the driving school. The first learner drivers learned to drive an Opel Doppel-Phaeton 12/14 PS, today the Mokka Electric is used.

Germany’s Oldest
Driving School Drives Opels

When automobility was still in its infancy, there were hardly any traffic rules. Except for one: „Larger vehicles have the right of way.“ That’s what was written the drivers’ handbook. „Maybe that’s why my great-grandfather chose this Opel model,“ speculated Olaf Dobberkau, looking at the imposing Doppel- Phaeton from the Opel Classic collection. Lots of sheet metal, lavish brass, plenty of space on two rows of seats – the sweeping model 6/16 is not called the „big brother of the doctor’s car“ for nothing, which the mostly smaller models had to give way to according to the rules.

And it all started 113 years ago with a very similar Opel model: Olaf Dobberkau’s great-grandfather Fritz Mann founded a driving school in Suhl in 1910, the first driving school car was an Opel 12/14 PS – very similar to the one from the Classic Collection. Olaf Dobberkau himself represents the fourth generation that helps people to get their driving licences: the Fahrschule Gebr. Dobberkau e.K. – the oldest still existing driving school in Germany. The company has also remained true to the brand from Rüsselsheim: Olaf Dobberkau and his wife Alexandra have come to the headquarters with the latest model in the driving school’s fleet, an Opel Mokka Electric.

Photo from 1910 from the family archive: It shows Fritz Mann with one of his first learner drivers in an Opel 12/14 PS – he himself sits in the second row, the learner driver at the wheel. The first students who learned to drive the stately vehicle were locksmiths and mechanics. The exam prepared the prospective drivers for their job.
In the years before the First World War, there were several very similar models in the Opel range. The 6/16 PS from the Rüsselsheim Classic Collection comes very close to Fritz Mann’s first driving school car. Like his great-grandfather, Olaf Dobberkau sits in the back seat, while Classic employee Werner Bachmann plays a learner driver.

Whoever wanted to pass the driving test in 1910 had to be able to do one thing above all: repair.

“My great-grandfather obviously had a keen sense that driver training could be a permanent business model,” says Olaf Dobberkau during his visit to Rüsselsheim. Fritz Mann was already running a haulage business – with Opel models, of course – and a workshop when he founded the driving school in 1910, immediately after the driving test became compulsory in Germany for the first time. And if you wanted to pass the exam 113 years ago, you had to be able to do one thing above all: repair.

When breakdowns
were part of everyday life

“The roads were bad, pneumatic tires and spoked wheels were sensitive. Breakdowns are part of driving. The question of how to get the car moving again was therefore given far more importance than any right-of-way rules,” explains Olaf Dobberkau. The requirements for driving skills were also low: “The test subjects only had to do a few accident-free laps in the yard.”

“Electric cars are also booming in driving education”

Mr. Dobberkau, learner drivers can not only complete driving lessons with you in the Mokka, but also purely battery-electric with the Opel Mokka Electric – why?
Electric cars are also booming in driving education: around half of our learner drivers would already like to take the driving test in an electric car – and the trend is rising. The legislature has also reacted to this or contributed to it.

In what way?
Since April 1, 2021, it has been possible to take the practical part of the driver’s license test in a vehicle with an automatic transmission, i.e. also an electric car – without there being any restrictions on driving a car with a manual transmission. The only requirement: the learner driver must complete at least ten driving lessons with a gearshift vehicle, and he must also prove in a test drive that he can shift gears. For the actual practical test, he can then climb into an electric car with automatic transmission.

So the future of driving education will soon be largely electric?
Definitely. That’s why we rely on the battery-electric Mokka Electric for training. Thinking about the future is already firmly anchored in our company: „If you don’t improve, you’ve stopped being good!“ is our motto. It is the recipe for success that has led the company through what have been 113 years, some of which have been very turbulent. We do not just have electric cars in our fleet. We are also future-proof when it comes to energy supply: We heat via heat pumps, combined with photovoltaics and energy storage. The system also supplies the electricity for charging our electric cars.

Olaf Dobberkau is the owner of Germany’s oldest driving school still in existence.

The traffic regulations have repeatedly been adapted to reflect technical and social progress over the decades: the maximum speed of 15 km/h for motor vehicles was abolished, as was the regulation that was valid until 1958 that women needed their husbands’ permission to obtain a driver’s license. „Today it is electromobility that has a major influence on the content of the training,“ says Olaf Dobberkau (see also interview), who has been helping learner drivers to get their driver’s license for almost 40 years. In the Mokka Electric, for example, they learn how energy can be recovered when braking through recuperation in order to increase the range. The individual steps of the charging process are also practiced.

“Electromobility has a major influence on the content of the training.”

In addition, learner drivers have to prove they can operate assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control as part of the test. The company owner is in his element as he delves into the intricacies of the driving test, the details that are both company and family history. „Whether it’s world wars, economic crises or, most recently, the pandemic – it’s amazing how we’ve managed to keep the driving school in family ownership for 113 years,“ he says. The company that started in 1910 with an Opel 12/14 PS. The first students who learned to drive with Fritz Mann were locksmiths and mechanics, and the exam was intended to prepare the prospective drivers for their profession.

Testing the Doppel-Phaeton: Olaf Dobberkau follows in the footsteps of his great-grandfather Fritz Mann.
Happy reunion: This Opel Kapitän from the Opel Classic collection was Alexandra and Olaf Dobberkau’s wedding car.

In the 1920s, more and more people were able to afford their own car and learned to drive, but the global economic crisis at the end of the decade caused problems for the young company. Fritz Mann overcame the crisis and handed over his life’s work to daughter Irma and her husband Friedrich Dobberkau. The next generation sat behind the wheel – an Opel Olympia – and ended up in Schleusingen with a driving school, petrol station, workshop, car and motorcycle dealership.

Opel again and again

After the Second World War, Friedrich’s sons Karlheinz, Arno and Günter took over. The learner drivers took a seat behind the wheel of an Opel Olympia or an Opel Kadett, while the candidates for the truck driver’s license learned how to manoeuvre in an Opel Blitz. The family business survived even in the GDR era: „My father Arno somehow navigated this era with two driving school cars, two taxis and great skill,“ says Olaf Dobberkau, not without admiration.

Fritz Mann founded the driving school in 1910 – 11 years after Opel entered the automotive industry. The first model: an Opel 12/14 PS.
In the 1950s, Friedrich’s sons Karlheinz, Arno (left) and Günter took over the family business. (On the photo Arno with 2 employees).
In the 1930s, Fritz Mann passed the company on to his daughter Irma and her husband Friedrich Dobberkau (left). The company moved to Schleusingen, and the Opel Olympia served as the driving school car. (on the photo Friedrich with learner drivers).
Olaf Dobberkau’s father Arno taught leaner drivers in an Opel Olympia.
Karlheinz Dobberkau (photo) also worked as a driving instructor.
Olaf Dobberkau (right) joined the family business in the 1980s. After reunification, the family business invested in new driving school cars: the Opel Frontera was part of the fleet.
Starting in 1992, learner drivers also learned to drive in the Opel Astra.
In 1997, Olaf Dobberkau drove an Astra at the World Rally Championship in England.

Since it was founded, the company has helped around 13,000 learner drivers pass their test.

In the 1980s he joined the family business himself as a driving instructor and taxi driver. And soon reunification marked another new beginning for the family business. The signs pointed to investment: When the first new driving school cars were delivered in 1992, they had the ‘Blitz’ emblem. The learner drivers in the new federal states learned to drive in the Astra compact class model and the Frontera off-road vehicle. At the end of the decade, the seven-seater Zafira followed, and the mid-range Omega model was available for customers to rent.

From Astra to Zafira

It didn’t take long for the family-owned driving school, taxi and forwarding company to find calmer waters again. Today the company has 33 employees – “a healthy size”, says Olaf Dobberkau. The 58-year-old has been continuing the family history for over 30 years and has also survived the dry spell of the pandemic, no employee had to leave. Instead, he invested in the company, including new driving school cars, the Mokka and Mokka Electric. “The Mokka convinced us straight away,” says Olaf Dobberkau, “the modern drives ensure agility on the road.” And his wife Alexandra adds: “The design is great, it stands out from the crowd.”

Located in southern Thuringia

In 2011, the family business moved into a new building in Schleusingen in the south of the Thuringian Forest. Today, the company Gebr. Dobberkau includes not only the driving school, but also a taxi company and a forwarding agency. In addition to Mokka and Mokka Electric, the fleet also includes motorcycles, mopeds, trucks and a quad. Olaf Dobberkau has calculated that the family business has helped around 13,000 learner drivers pass their test since it was founded.

The fact that the driver training in the Dobberkau family business is heading towards electromobility is closely linked to the forward thinking that has always been firmly anchored within the company. “That’s the only way you can survive for such a long time,” says Olaf Dobberkau. He and his wife have a lot of petrol in their veins: together they won the 2010 German Rally Series. Overall, Olaf Dobberkau was involved in rallying for 35 years. With the Astra, for example, he achieved several class victories in the German Rally Championship in 1999/2000 and was 2nd in his class in the 1997 World Championship race in England.

Securely positioned for the future

This enthusiasm for motorsport is also a family legacy. “Even my grandfather Friedrich stood on the podium of the Schleizer-Dreieck motorcycle race in 1928,” says Olaf Dobberkau. In the Dobberkau house, engines were always worked on, even if it was model aircraft: “My father Arno, together with his brother Karlheinz, was a multiple GDR model aircraft master,” says the company owner. It remains to be seen whether the six-year-old daughter also has “petrol in her blood” so that the family legacy will continue in the fifth generation.

April 2023

Photos: Opel/Rudolf Mehlhaff, private