Outside a huge housing block in far eastern Berlin, Christian Marotz gets behind the steering wheel of his car and starts her up. The engine sputters to life and Christian gives it a rev or two. It's not exactly the purr of a high-performance engine, ready to unleash its power and race down Germany's speed-limit-free autobahns. But that doesn't matter to Christian. His car holds a very special place in his heart.
Yeah, I love my car, it's like a child to me.
Christian owns a 1986 Trabant, the car that was ubiquitous on East German streets. In fact, it was about the only car on East German street. His is a model 601, the most common type. Even though Christian's blue Trabant is anything but ordinary. He's customized his little darling, given it a spoiler, lowering the chassis, putting in a metal dashboard and emblazoning the car's name on its back window. He's christened it Kampfzwerg. Which might be loosely translated as something like the Mighty Midget. Simply an object of good-natured ridicule? Hardly. Christian is on the board of the Trabant Club Berlin, a group that devotes a good deal of time, and personal financial investment, into all things Trabant, or Trabi for short. While the car might get a few laughs puttering down the street, for Christian and others fans like him, the little vehicle is much more than just four wheels to get you from point A to point B.
A television ad by the Trabant's maker, the Sachsenring Automobile Works in East Germany shows four men in white jump suits and helmets squeezing into a little white Trabant. A lot of room for your luggage, the ads says, ….the Trabant is agile… fast …. … long-lasting and robust … your dependable companion, the new Trabant 601. So, a little history's in order. The first car rolled off the factory floor in 1957, 50 years ago. It was actually never really intended to be a car, and was planned as a three-wheeled motorcycle. And the designers only expected production to last about 10 years. It ended up lasting 34. The name Trabant means "fellow traveler," or satellite, and was inspired by the Russian satellite Sputnik, which went into space that year.
The car wasn't even that advanced when it was launched. Western countries already used cars with cleaner and more efficient engines. The Trabi's own motor was a two-stroke affair with just two cylinders. It delivered all of 25 horsepower, and took a full 21 seconds to get from 0 to 60, or 0 to 100 kilometers per hour. It's top speed: 112 kilometers per hour, or about 70 miles per hour. The Trabi's a little thing. Just under 140 inches long, about 59 inches wide and 57 inches tall. In today's world of Hummers and other Sports Utility Vehicles, it’s a real shrimp. While it had a steel frame, the body was made of something called Duroplast.
That's a form of hardened plastic made of cotton waste from Russia and resins from the East German dye industry. In one respect, the Trabi was environmentally friendly, since its body was made of recycled materials, even though that motor spewed out large amounts of exhaust and generally stank up the place.
It has real nostalgic value and it's a real bad car.
Johannes Drexler is a tour guide for Trabi Safari, a company in Berlin that allows people to see Berlin's sites from the vantage point of this micro car. One group from Holland has just squeezed into a Trabi, camera clicking away, is heading off to see the sights. Maybe you could call the car a forerunner of today's Mini Cooper, although back in its day, there wasn't much trendy about it. 13
It was the average car people would have in East Germany. Everyone tried to afford a Trabant during the E. German times. You had to wait for a very long time. You had to have yourself put on a list and you had to wait for the car between 11 and 15 years, which was, you know, outrageous.
Everbody was happy to have a car at all. I mean they were really keen on having a car. There were no cars and to have a car in East Germany was considered to be pure luxury, not like us here, everybody has a car, no big deal, but in East Germany, everybody was really happy if they had some kind of ability to really move around. So it was a Trabi. They were doing long journey to the Black sea, four people in a trabant and then 5 days journey to the seashore Bulgaria in the black sea.
The Trabi plant in the city of Zwickau churned out around 3.7 million of the cars in 34 years. Some were exported to other communist countries. Today, there are still about 58,000 Trabis in use in Germany. About 85 percent of them in the former East. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Trabi was still actually produced for two more years. But many easterners wanted flashier western cars at the time, so the market dried up. Actually, just after reunification, you could buy a used Trabi for a song. Eicke Serbe also works for Trabi Safari. He was born in East Germany.
Many people were happy that after the fall of the Wall they could get a "real" car finally. But many are still of the opinion that the trabi drives well, gets from point A to point B and you can even do repairs on the car yourself, you never have to take it into a garage. Back in East Germany, just to go to a mechanic, you had to make an appointment and then sometimes wait for one or two years. So people bought their own replacement parts, if they could. And when a new part was needed, they just installed it themselves.
But it isn't easy being a Trabi. The love-hate relationship with the car, even back in East Germany, led to a whole industry of Trabi jokes. They're usually centered around its size, its engine, or the quality of its materials. Here's one: How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill up its gas tank. How about this one… Why does the Trabi have a heated rear window? It keeps your hands warm while you push it.
What kind of thing do you need to measure the acceleration of the car?
I don't know…
Christian Marotz, the Trabi owner and club member, is of two minds about this kind of poking fun.
It depends on the joke. There are nice trabi jokes that even trabi drivers can smile about. And then there are trabi jokes that are just condescending. It sometimes depends on who tells the joke. If I as a trabi driver tell it, it's something totally different than if someone who has no idea about trabis tells it, just to make fun of the cars.
A Trabi meeting is a nice time just to get together and show off you cars and have a party. You meet in a big square, everyone finds a parking place for the cars. Then other people come to have a look. A lot of them remember also having driven the car in the GDR. For them, it's nice to to see that the cars are still around and still being driven, loved and taken care of, by both older and younger people.
And despite being out of production, and scorned by some, the Trabi has found a firm place in popular culture. It even got its own feature film just after reunification, called Go Trabi Go. It is the story of an East German family making its way across Europe after the fall of the Wall. There are lots of jokes about the Trabi's poor performance compared to Western cars, but the film is laced with tenderness for the vehicle. The rock band U2 used Trabants as props during one of their big tours. Some of the cars were suspended from ceilings at concerts. Now they're hanging in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in Cleveland, Ohio in the US…and their socialist designers might be turning in their graves. 23
But what finally might spell the end of the Trabi – at least on the roads – is not ridicule, or a lack of replacement parts. It could be growing concerns about the environment. Trabis are not the "greenest" cars going. They weren't built with pollution-reducing catalytic converters. One study found that they spew about nine times as many hydrocarbons and five times as much carbon monoxide as most other cars in western Europe. In several cities in Germany, restrictions are being put in place that will prohibit cars from entering city centers if they don't meet certain environmental standards. And those standards are getting tougher. Right now, the German government makes an exception for Trabants to be on the road, because they aren't being made anymore. But that could end, especially if EU rules begin to supercede German ones. In the next few months, many vintage car fans are holding protests—they'll claim their cars are cultural artifacts, and should be given a dispensation to stay on the streets and drive in the cities, and not just be relegated to garages or museums. Christian Marotz says his Trabi club will join the fight, but it might be a losing battle.
Well, you have to stay optimistic in order to get your point across, but in reality, it doesn't look so good for us.
So while the Trabi is still on the road and being driven 50 years after it hit the market, it's not certain if it'll make it to its 60th birthday as an everyday car. Johannes Drexler of Trabi Safari says it's inevitable that soon they'll just be curiosities. He says fewer and fewer people will put up with the inconvenience.
Indeed, heating only as air rushes into the car into the interior, along with noxious fumes. No gas tank gauge…to check the gas level you have to use a dip stick. And in accidents…well, that Duroplast exterior doesn't provide too much protection.
Here's another joke: A man stops his Trabant at a garage and says: "Two windscreen wipers for my Trabi". The garage owner thinks for a moment, then replies: "OK, that's a fair deal."
Love it or hate it, the Trabi always gets noticed. Sometimes it causes laughter, sometimes a groan, sometimes a tear of nostalgia…but it almost never causes indifference. And can you say that about many cars today? Happy birthday, Trabi.Listen to the report:
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