Trabants, or Trabies as they are affectionately known: surely they embody the ‘failure’ of communism in Eastern Europe. Were they not smoke-belching, under-powered, papier-mâché cars that signalled the sheer inefficiency of a communist command economy? People would wait years for one, or so the story goes, and then find that they barely lasted a few months before falling to pieces. And did not people happily dump their Trabies on the infamous ‘Traby route’ into the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Imagine my surprise when I encountered my first Traby in Eastern Europe, especially with these remnants of Cold War propaganda running through my mind. On a rather fresh – well, actually, it was seriously icy – morning I was walking through the village of Rennersdorf in the far eastern parts of Germany (the old DDR). I turned a corner and there was a small pale blue car parked by the side of the road.
Surely not! Is that a Traby? A closer look revealed it to be so. Thinking it was a collector’s item, carefully restored and kept running by an enthusiast, I peered closer. Again, I was mistaken. This one had not been altered since first constructed, somewhere between 1963 and 1991 – at least 22 years old, if not much more. A tiny bit of rust around the key holes, the paint a little faded, but otherwise perfectly fine. Obviously, papier-mâché lasts longer than one would expect.
A tap on the bonnet ascertained that that too was a myth, for it made a solid metallic sound. Some mechanic in these parts knew well how to keep these simple, functional machines running, but it gave the distinct impression that it didn’t need much maintenance.
That one turned out to be the popular 601S (Standard) model. Soon enough I was to experience one in action. Pedalling on my bicycle out of the town of Bernstadt, puffing as I crested the steep hill onto the ridge, I heard the high-pitched purr of a two-stroke engine. A motorcycle, I thought to myself. No, soon enough a Traby sped past me, pulling up the hill with ease. With a deft swerve, it overtook the sleek new car in front of it and sped away over the horizon – so much for the myth of its under-powered engine. This one was a grey station wagon, and I was to come across it again two villages down, parked by the side of the road.
Intrigued, I dismounted and inspected it closely. It was a station wagon, of the same model as the pale blue one I had seen earlier. Once again, it showed no signs of being restored, for it had all of its original fittings.
More would soon appear. In Herrnhut, I was sauntering along a lane to a local shop and there before me was an older model, from the late 1950s. It had a rounded nose and tail, with older style windows in a smaller cabin, higher off the road.
This one was a two-tone affair, maroon and grey, with more elaborate chrome fittings. I peered closer and noted once again the tell-tale ‘Trabant’ label on it. Surely this version was a collector’s item, for it was more than 50 years old. Again, it turned out to be an original. It may have had a small ding or two in it, but it obviously had plenty of kilometres left in it, for the occupants fired it up and puttered off. Perhaps these cars were more numerous than I had expected.
By now it was clear that Trabants was tough old machines, built to last from a simple template. However, I was in for one more surprise. Out the back of the only restaurant in town, I spied yet a fourth. This was a late model yellow affair, the 1100 built in the late 1980s, with a four-cylinder engine.
But as I walked around it and studies the bonnet and windscreen, I noticed an oval plate in on the left-hand side. It said ‘DDR’. Perhaps it too is as tough and resilient as these cars, biding its time for its own return.