Trabants in Berlin
It was about when the Berlin Wall went up that East Germany started producing Trabant cars, the automotive joke of the Cold War. While Saabs were born from jets, and Jaguars were born to perform, Trabants were born out of desperation. Cindy-Lou Dale went to Berlin to find out more about these awesome vehicles.
From 1957 to 1991 as West Germany made BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes, East Germany took the road less travelled in vehicles manufactured of plastic and a 26-horsepowered 2-stroke engine. As fortune had it I found myself folded into the backseat of a Trabant convertible, being propelled along Ebertstrasse with Eicke, my kindly and deferential guide from Trabi-Safaris behind the wheel.
“The life expectancy of a Trabi was around 28 years,” Eicke claimed. “This baby is a modest performing Trabant 601, built around 1967 and is one of the faster models. It takes 21seconds to reach 60 miles per hour and her top speed is about 75,” he announced proudly, whilst lunging unexpectedly down a side-street.
Light and hardy
The features of the Trabant (which was in production without any significant changes for nearly 30 years) that most impressed East Germans was that it had room for four adults, a little luggage and was light and hard-wearing. Additionally it could be delivered within a few short years of placing the order! Its styling was very simple, its interior frugal, and its body was made entirely from Duraplast, a plastic resin containing wool or cotton which East Germany considered sufficient material to build a car. It may not have faired too well in crash tests but actually proved to be superior to some modern-day hatchbacks. Although this two cylinder, two-stroke motor, with only five moving parts, spews out more clouds of CO2 that a jet liner (and sounds as if it belongs in a barn), it’s the first car with a body made entirely of recycled material.
Although this two cylinder, two-stroke motor, with only five moving parts, spews out more clouds of CO2 than a jet liner, it’s the first car with a body made entirely of recycled material.
The Trabant tour
Eicke took me into the eastern part of the formerly divided capital, by driving by the Gendarmenmarkt, Palace Square and Alexander Square. We spluttered along Karl-Marx-Allee to the trendy Friedrichshain, past the East Side Gallery to Red Townhall. From there we continued to Berlin Cathedral and Museum Island, via Ebertstrasse, past the Memorial dedicated to the Murdered Jews of Europe, pressing on to the city’s most famous landmark – the Brandenburg Gate – a monument comprising of Athenian-like stone columns topped by a statue of the goddess Victoria driving a chariot of four horses towards the city center. We parked here for a while watching a free spirited individual prancing between the columns in his fairy costume until we were encouraged by the local constabulary to move along.
We continued through the government district, past the imposing Reichstag and the Federal Chancellery into hip Scheunenviertel with the golden domed New Synagogue on Scheimannstrasse. We valiantly coughed our way along Dirksenstrasse, each mile taking us further away from the internet cafes, designer stores and the usual tourist haunts. Eventually the city gave way to grey apartment blocks and essentially local traffic.
On Heinrich Heinestrasse, Eicke pointed out a dilapidated building about ready for the wrecking ball. He claimed it to be a notorious nighttime haunt frequented by the city’s darker side. I quietly wondered if it had ever been willingly visited by an outsider.
Eicke and I spoke at length about Trabant’s. In 1991 when nearly 4,000,000 Trabant's had been built, production stopped. The factory where they were produced in Zwickau is now a car museum.
We stopped off at the Trabi-Safari office so I could take a few photographs of their fleet. Stepping into the warehouse charged me with an unfocused electric buzz of energy. It felt as if I had uncovered a squadron of Cold War era time machines.
Evidently my admiration was etched on my face as Eicke enquired if I would like to take custody of the steering wheel. He ran through the series of temperamental quirks in getting the world's simplest car going: turn the fuel tap to A, pull out the choke, step on the accelerator, start the engine, depress the clutch, put it into first gear, then slowly release the clutch pedal. It took a moment before the little car gathered the energy required to inch forward. Initially the movement was glacially slow and I found it difficult to find a gear I particularly desired on the column shift. Then a smoky bang from the exhaust thrust us forward ten feet, paused and then with the aid of a fresh explosion took off with a velocity seldom seen outside a Road Runner cartoon. Shrieking hysterically we flew down Oraniestrasse like an Exorcist Missile, creating scenes reminiscent of the streets of Pamploma when the bulls are running. Motorists and pedestrians alike fled in terror before me as I inadvertently chased a flock of purple haired tourists off a zebra crossing.
In an extremely agitated state Eicke urged me to pull over.
“Meine Liebe Gott,” he gasped.
“Well, they were jaywalking,” I observed helpfully.
Eicke shot a final threatening scowl and suggested that perhaps he should drive.
Checking on history
Checkpoint Charlie was our next stop; a former border crossing for the Allies, and icon of the Cold War with its small wooden guardhouse on the West side, a white borderline across the cobblestones, a guard tower and a much photographed sign warning in several languages that ‘You are now leaving the American sector.’ When the Wall went up, Charlie became the main area of international concern when several American tanks rolled onto the Soviet Sector and parked several yards inside East Berlin, facing off Soviet tanks. Kennedy visited Charlie on his famous Berlin trip and Charlie is where Reagan stuck his foot across the borderline, mocking the communists, daring them to shoot. This was also the border point where John Le Carré brought his spy in from the cold. To keep the dark days of the Cold War fresh in our minds, a manned reconstructed guardhouse remains.
Eicke considered the historical urban site before him – gleaming new architecture standing side by side with relics from the past.
“The history of Berlin will determine its future more than in other cities; something new will always follow,” he observed thoughtfully.