German engineering has produced some great cars. The Trabant certainly wasn’t one of them.
Yet, 26 years after the last East German people’s car was made, history has indeed been kind to the Trabi.
Despite being regarded as a symbol of the defunct East Germany and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in general, the Trabi ironically, has been resurrected as a tourist attraction.
During our last visit to Berlin, we found a parking lot full of the small, two-door vehicles just a few blocks from our hotel at Checkpoint Charlie.
It was ‘Trabi World’, one of several such businesses where you can pay to drive your own Trabant around the vibrant German capital.
We weren’t tempted to get behind the wheel, but we still wandered in to take a close look at what Time Magazine once described as “the car that gave Communism a bad name”.
We’d heard how the Trabant was made of duroplast, a fibreglass-like material similar to Bakelite; lacked brake lights and turn signals; was slow, noisy and uncomfortable; and belched black smoke from its two-cylinder, 26-horse power engine.
Like your average lawn mower, the Trabi engine needed a mixture of oil and petrol to run, requiring service stations to sell already-mixed fuel.
And what is duroplast anyway?
Duroplast was made from recycled cotton waste from the Soviet Union and phenol resins from the East German dye industry.
And, although the less-than-affectionate nickname of ‘spark plug with a roof’ seemed to be fairly accurate, when we visited Trabi World, there was still quite a line-up of people keen to experience a drive in the vehicle.
A Berliner later told us that the popularity of the Trabi safaris seemed, in part, to reflect “Ostalgie” or nostalgia for elements of the old East German society and culture.
Although the Trabi was an object of ridicule for many in today’s Germany, curiosity and nostalgia had resulted in it achieving a measure of cult status.
As we watched Trabi safaris splutter by over the next few days, our walking guide reminded us that, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the car was the height of luxury for East Germans.
Worth the wait?
A Trabi cost up to one year’s salary and there was a waiting period of 12 months after you ordered and paid for it.
There’s a story in Berlin about one East German man who ordered his Trabi and was given a delivery date exactly one year later.
He stunned the manufacturers by asking whether his car would be delivered in the morning or afternoon.
“It’s important” he said “because the plumber is coming that morning”.
Apparently, that was life in East Germany.
Main photo courtesy Wikimedia and Hadanos