The Little Car That Communism Loved

Affectionately known today as a Trabi, the East-German built Trabant was the car that gave Communism a bad name. Powered by a two-stroke engine that always smoked and maxed out at a mere 18hp, this car was about as powerful as a riding lawnmower. The dinky little cars were also made of Duroplast resin, with added cotton waste fibres for reinforcement. Basically, when driving one of these, you did not want crash into (or so much as touch) anything.

A Trabi painted on the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining part of the Berlin Wall still standing.

A Trabi painted on the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining part of the Berlin Wall still standing.

The Trabi was not state of the art engineering even during its own time. Built without turn signals nor brake lights, this was about as basic a car could get. There was no fuel gauge – a dipstick told you how much was left – and no oil injection system meant the gas had to have oil manually mixed in. The design was far from genius as well – because the car lacked a fuel pump, someone decided it would be a good idea to put the gas tank overtop of the engine. Obviously, this was a little bit of a fire hazard. The Trabi’s top speed clocked in at just over 60 mph. Over the course of its production, you also had an exciting array of exactly seven colours:

 
Left to right: Glacier Blue (Gletscherblau), Papyrus White (Papyrusweis), Dolphin Gray (Delphingrau), Reed Green (Schilfgrun), Bali Yellow (Baligelb), Capri Green (Caprigrun), Champagne Beige (Champagner-beige)

Yes, “Reed Green” is actually yellow and “Bali Yellow” is actually green (apparently someone wasn’t very good at naming colours). The first three were the most popular colours, leaving the streets looking rather dull and gray. The bright Capri Green shade was a later attempt to give the owners some more livelier colour options.

The more traditional paint job, in Reed Green.

The more traditional paint job, in Reed Green.

What was supposed to be East Germany’s response to West Germany’s Volkswagen, the Trabi fell a few notches short of being “the people’s car”. This didn’t stop East Germans from loving these little matchboxes though – as one of the only cars available for purchase in the East, and a limited stock produced each year, the waiting list for one of these bad boys was about 10 years. Sometimes when the demand was high, waiting over 15 years was not unheard of. These circumstances created probably the only instance in auto history where the car increased in value after you drove it off the lot. A brand new Trabi cost an East Berliner about 8500-11500 East German Marks – just over one full year’s salary. A used Trabi cost up to 16000 East German Marks. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Berliners watched as herds of Trabis came hurdling over the border. By 1990, that same Trabi was worth the equivalent of US $0.50.

Most Trabis in Berlin today have been updated with artistic paint jobs.

Most Trabis in Berlin today have been updated with artistic paint jobs.

When I was in Berlin visiting “the East” last December, I was told a funny little anecdote that perfectly illustrates the effectiveness that was the Communist Trabant. An elderly woman living in Romania cherished her little Trabi, as all ex-Soviet citizens did, since they were so expensive and long awaited during the Communist regime. So after Romania was liberated, this little old woman kept driving her Trabi everywhere. One day, she was driving in the countryside, when she hit a pothole. Now the clearance between the ground and the fender was less than the depth of pothole, leaving this old woman with the nose of her car stuck in the dirt and her wheels suspended in the air. The Trabi is a front wheel drive car, so she wasn’t moving anywhere. Thankfully the old woman managed to get in touch with her sons, who came to get her out of her (literal) rut. These two young men had brought two others with them and they all positioned themselves around the car. The Trabis are so light, the men grabbed the fender, lifted the vehicle, walked it a couple yards, then put it back down again. Problem solved.

Inside a Trabi decked out for espionage at the Spy Museum.

Inside a Trabi decked out for espionage at the Spy Museum.

The Trabi was the subject of many West Berliner jokes that have survived from the time of the Berlin Wall to today. Some of the best are:

  • How do you double the value of a Trabi? Fill the tank.
  • A man pulls up to a garage. He says “I’ll take two wiper blades for a Trabant, please.” There is a long pause and then the mechanic says “Okay, it’s a deal.”
  • What do you call three Trabis in a car accident? A Tupperware party.

Today’s surviving Trabis have a loyal fan base who boast about the cheap insurance (no one ever steals them) and their endearing size. I think I’ll go for a Mini instead.

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