Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Driving the Trabant, East Germany's terrible car that will never die
Just a few blocks from storied Checkpoint Charlie, where the Allied powers controlled entry and egress into East Berlin, sits a parking lot stuffed with small two-door, four-seat vehicles painted in an puzzling variety of colors. Shocking pink and matte black. Leopard spots and candy cane stripes. This is Trabi World, where for between $50 and $110 you get to pilot your own Trabant around this sprawling and vibrant European city.
As a car guy, driving any vehicle has an inherent appeal, doubly so when it helps you experience a foreign place with the familiarity of a local motorist. How bad could this be?
I begin to have my suspicions when members of our “safari” — a half-dozen cars that would be following our Trabi World leader around town — began to circulate rumors-as-fact ranging from “I heard it’s actually made out of hard cardboard” and “The gas tanks sits over the two-stroke engine.” The first is false. The second is frighteningly true.
It becomes quickly apparent that a sense of humor and patience are as important to this two-hour cruise as having a license. Our guide displays both: “Your cars each have a radio where I can talk to you, but you can’t talk to me, very East German style.” And within minutes of heading out into traffic single file, the end of our Trabi conga line gets blocked in traffic and we all just pull over to wait for them to catch up.
I’ve driven any number of classic old cars that require skill and sensitivity to motivate. But nothing quite prepared me for life with Trabi. Hop in a humble Mini Cooper after a Trabant and you feel like you’ve stepped into a Rolls-Royce Wraith.
First off, while it isn’t made of cardboard, it is made out of resin mixed with cotton. You don’t want to get into an accident. Second, the gauges and limited toy-like switchgear on the car (our guide had reached into my car and flipped the defroster rocker and said, “Turbo!” and then laughed like a maniac) are either inadequate or don’t work. Third, and most annoyingly throughout the drive, its blinker stalk isn’t designed to return to center after each turn. I get a number of annoyed looks from other drivers miming the turn signal flick.
And the more gnawing for last. To say that pick-up from its two-cylinder, 26-hp engine is nil is truly an understatement. Picture sitting on a riding mower and hitting the gas as you head into a head-high field of wheat. Never in her life has my wife actually said to me, “Please speed up,” but thanks to Trabi I actually heard that rare plea a number of times.
But, you cry, this is an ancient machine, cut it some slack. Wrong. Trabants were made between 1964 and 1990. (Yes, 1990, or until just after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989). And my particular model, the comically and deceivingly named 601 S Deluxe, was one of the last produced.
To be fair, for the beleaguered East Germans, the machine did constitute the height of luxury. Our guide explains that it cost up to one year’s salary, and the waiting list was a dozen or more years, which ironically made used Trabants three times more valuable than new ones.
Beyond the dead steering, lackluster brakes and Flintstone-rivaling speed, the Trabi World tour also recreates the everday oppression of the Iron Curtain; as you breathe the noxious fumes of the Trabi around you, you must concentrate so hard on piloting this crate that you miss the staggering and often sobering sights.
There’s the Siegessaule, a towering column that during the last days of World War II was used by air traffic controllers to land planes on Berlin’s Tiergarten streets. And the still-present wall, where today we pose for pictures but a few decades back standing in this same spot would get you shot.
But the biggest impression is made when we putter along the Karl Marx Allee, a wide boulevard in East Berlin that was meant to showcase that regime’s power. Driving this stretch of road in a Trabant was like stepping into a time machine, recalling an era you instantly felt lucky to have missed by happy accident of birth and geography.
Back at Trabi World, we all disembark with the same look on our faces, begging for fresh oxygen and directions to the nearest chiropractor. And then I see it, gleaming in blue — a Ford Mustang, circa 1966. My head swivels and I see there are half a dozen more pony cars parked behind the garish Trabi fleet of clown cars.
“Yes, this is our new Mustang safari tour of Berlin,” our guide says matter-of-factly.
Now — cough, cough — he tells me.