A Red Menace That You Can Drive Yourself
OSTENSIBLY, there’s not a whole lot to love about a car that creaks like an out-of-warranty pirate ship and spews more smoke than a Winston Churchill-Fidel Castro summit could have produced. Yet, somehow, the Trabant I drove here recently has a primitive charm — along with an aroma of burning oil and smoldering brakes.
There are several ways to tour Germany’s capital city: by foot, tour bus, taxi, bicycle or the U-Bahn subway system. But, for those who want to steep themselves in cold war history, a Trabant transports you to the 1960s.
While Saabs were “born from jets” and Jaguars were “born to perform,” Trabants were born out of desperation. From 1957 to 1991, as West Germany made BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes, East Germany took the road less traveled.
Because the economy was so bereft, the communist government decided to convert a plant that made motorcycles and tractors into a car factory. Thus was born the Trabant, a symbol for the failings of state-supervised industry. The body was made of plastic and the car plodded along with a 26-horsepower 500-cubic-centimeter 2-stroke 2-cylinder engine.
By East German standards of the time, the price, about $3,000, was not cheap. And although the car cost about a year’s salary, it still was not easy to obtain — after placing the order, an owner could wait 15 years for delivery.
Demand for the Trabant (and for the Wartburg, another woeful East German car) ended once the Berlin Wall came down and East and West were reunified. Easterners were then free to buy Western vehicles, and Trabant sales collapsed.
Today, there are collector rallies and Trabi clubs in Europe and North America, but I did not see any Trabants in the German cities I visited this fall. Which is what makes my driving one through Berlin so special.
The good news is that the Trabant is twice as powerful as a Sears Craftsman two-stage snow blower; the bad news is that it’s twice as loud. It is also not easy to shift.
In fact, not much is easy on a Trabant. The wheel wells could hide pregnant bulldogs. Two knobs the size of Captain Kangaroo’s buttons control the heat and the windshield wipers, which are slower than a stretching class on a senior citizens’ cruise. The tachometer is a series of green and yellow lights with no numbers. The needle on the speedometer (which optimistically goes to 75 m.p.h.) bounces as if it’s auditioning for the Richter scale.
The column-mounted manual shift is a puzzle. It is moved down for first and up for second, then a return to neutral to push in the lever and then down again for third and up for fourth. For reverse, it’s a return-to-neutral-and-push-all-the-way-in-and-down maneuver.
There is no fuel gauge.
The interior of my car had tan and rose-colored vinyl and cloth, and the exterior paint was what Trabant called Frog Green; an appropriate name would have been Gulag Green.
An Audi A8 it isn’t. Which was why the driver of the one behind me was impatient as I accelerated away when the traffic light near the Reichstag turned green and I found myself in third, not first. Not that I was going to burn much rubber when the shift points on this P601 S model were 15 m.p.h. for second and 28 m.p.h. for third. (I never made it to fourth.) The car accelerates from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in about 20 seconds, proving, perhaps, that the “S” in the model name stands not for socialist, but for sluggish.
Thanks to their Duroplast bodies (a weight- and money-saving composite of plastic and cotton-waste fiberglass), a Trabant weighs only 1,355 pounds. Trabants can hold four people and some luggage in a body about the size of a Fiat 124 sedan of the late 1960s.
But people notice this car when it explores Berlin, thanks to a company called Trabi Safari. It has several dozen Trabants and offers guided tours from its location at what sounds like a microfilm drop in a John le Carré novel — the BalloonGarten at the corner of Zimmerstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse.
In the passenger seat was a colleague, Logan Pingree, who appeared slightly amused riding in a vehicle that probably wouldn’t get a call back from the producers of the movie “Cars.” Behind us were two more colleagues, Jessica York and Brian Emerson, in a Trabant. Ahead of us was Simone Matern and Julie Robert of Trabi Safari. Ms. Robert was driving and Ms. Matern was narrating a tour of Berlin via a walkie-talkie — companion units of which were in holders on the dashboards of our vehicles.
An unintended safety feature of a Trabant: you would never even think about using a cellphone while driving. All of your brain’s bandwidth is occupied by shifting to keep the car in the flow of traffic, the concentration to maintain the engine revs high enough that you don’t stall and the concern about whether the brakes will actually work if a truck suddenly blocks your path.
On the tour, as the car passed some iconic structures of the once-divided city — the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Gendarmenmarkt Square — I began to understand how this slow, cheaply made, quirky vehicle became so popular. It represented a glimmer of freedom in a rigidly controlling society. While that era has long passed, some of these diminutive cars still motor on, powered by nostalgia, and, no doubt, a loophole in Germany’s recently enacted smoking ban.