Behind the Iron Curtain: A Forgotten Metal Road Test

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I feel the cold hand of death tightening its grip on my brain. Lights. I remember flashing light and color and people jumping up and down and then… what? A stage? Was I dancing on a stage last night? How did that happen? I sigh, the vague thought, even now, slipping away, like the runny eggs on my plate slip down the curve of the porcelain. Such is the nature of a certain blue, alcohol-infused and profanely-named future headache. Or, in my case, three of them. Coffee. Coffee is good, I think, downing the rest of the cup. It won’t be long now. Today I drive it. The confirmation call came in last night, a beacon of clarity in an alcohol-fueled Berlin night. Yes, I think, sliding some colorful, foreign bills under my plate. Even now, I can feel the hangover losing its battle to a full stomach. It’s almost time. Today I drive the Trabant. 

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This is going to require some context, and I can hear you now: Oh no, Mike’s going to talk about the War again. Well, yes I am. The aftermath of it, actually. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. 1945 was the official end of World War II, but that didn’t mean that the world wasn’t still in a war-having mood, because it was also the unofficial beginning of the Cold War, so called because of the lack of any actual armed conflict. Effectively, Western Europe was in disrepair because, you know, one of the most destructive struggles the world had ever seen took place there, which left two major world superpowers on the outside looking in: the United States and the USSR.

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Germany was all embarrassed because of the whole Hitler thing, so at the Potsdam Conference their territory was divided down the middle into capitalist West Germany, and into communist, USSR controlled East Germany. Berlin, despite being located in the east of the country, was also divided into east and west, which made things tricky when the US wanted to supply free market goods to West Berlin, which resulted in the Berlin Airlift, because Joseph Stalin’s an asshole and cut off all roads in East Germany. I digress. It’s worth noting though, that there are still some lingering signs of Germans desperately trying to tell people that they’re over being Nazis. Like, the flag in that picture literally translates to “Nazis? No Thanks!”

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So in 1945, the nearly 16 million people of East Germany pushed off the rubble from their ruined homes and businesses, dusted themselves off, and found that they were once again under the thumb of an evil, communist dictator. Remember the Volkswagen Beetle? Of course you do, I just feel weird if we don’t mention that influential bugger at least once a post. Well, in 1957 the Soviets decided that they’d have a go at building a better Beetle, and this is what they came up with: the Trabant, or “Trabi,” and the first thing you need to know about it is that it’s terrible. Wholly and completely. And I got to drive one.

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There she is, my noble steed. I was lucky enough to drive this 1987 Trabant 601-S that’s the color of an olive that’s been dropped behind the kitchen counter only to be discovered weeks later, through the kindness of a tourist outfit called Trabi World in East Berlin, just a steps from Checkpoint Charlie, who were gracious enough to put up with my incessant picture taking and lack of knowing any actual German. They also, you know, made me pay for it (as it turns out, intermittently rambling about cars on the internet doesn’t exactly qualify me as an “automotive journalist”).

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In 1961, the commie/capitalist divide was made permanent when Stalin erected the Berlin Wall, which harshly separated the citizens of the city, and in some cases, tore families from one another. It was a truly awful thing, and one of the darkest periods of world history. And to add just the last rotten cherry to the moldy sundae, their cars were awful. Like the Wartburg from a couple weeks ago. And that was one of the Soviet’s better efforts. They gave that thing to police officers and dignitaries. Which left the Trabi as the car for the oppressed populace. At least, that is, for a time.

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The Trabi was powered by a 0.6 liter, two cylinder, two-stroke engine which, as you can see in the picture above, is located worryingly close to the extremely flammable fuel tank. Danger close, I think that’s called. It produced 26 horsepower through the front wheels which, I think, makes this the least powerful car on Forgotten Metal so far, a race to the bottom that I’ve very much enjoyed. It’s certainly the least powerful thing I’ve ever driven, and I’m including ride-on lawnmowers in that statement. Another big takeaway is that Trabants aren’t made out of metal. To save money, the body panels were formed from a composite fiber of reinforced wood and cotton called Duroplast. Yes, I’m driving a car made out of cotton. I now consider myself a man who knows no fear.

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A man with a thick accent points me to a line of Trabis, gruffly telling me the keys are inside. The tour will be conducted over radios that have been installed in each car. “Communist radios,” the man calls them, “I talk, you listen.” I sling my travel bag into the olive colored lead car, breathing in the smell of must and fiberglass. The sun visor is propped into position using the rearview mirror. An unidentifiable stain lingers, concerningly, under the pedals, and I can feel the metal braces through the comically thin and confusingly purple seat cushions. What appears to be a brick of asbestos is sitting in the open storage compartment. A voice scratches through the radio. It’s time. I turn the key.

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And nothing happens. Anti-climactic, I know. I try again, hearing the starter motor desperately trying to rouse the ancient Soviet engine into some form of half-life. At long last, the Trabi starts, awakening all of its 26 horsepower into beautiful, noisy life. And then, almost immediately, silent, smokey death again. This is a two stroke, remember, which means that you need to keep your foot on the gas pretty much constantly so that oil is allowed to flow through the engine. In other words, idling is tough. But no matter, we’re off.

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What’s it like to drive? Nightmarish, in a word. Complicatedly terrifying, in two. I used the voice-to-text feature on my phone when driving in an effort to record some initial impressions, and I found later an entry that had been entirely capitalized, so that it read “SMELLS LIKE OIL AND GAS IN HERE.” I can only assume that this means I was yelling at the time, perhaps as an attempt to be heard over the raucous clatter of the engine, perhaps as a cry for help. The Trabant 601-S: Where No One Can Hear You Scream. For history buffs, the big pillared thing in the foreground of that last picture is the Brandenburg Gate, where in 1987, then-President Reagan gave his famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech. And the big domed building in the distance is the Reichstag.

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Going from driving a normal car to driving a Trabant is a difference as dramatic as when Van Gogh went to the South of France, or when Miley Cyrus decided to stay relevant. The aforementioned smell is enough to water your eyes, the engine is deafening and rumbles when stationary, vibrating the structure of the car. This renders the rearview mirrors almost completely useless, as they’re constantly shaking. The seat moves around and is seemingly not connected to the rest of the car. The brakes are interesting, not because they squeak (they do), but because when the pedal is pressed, there’s almost no modulation. Braking in a Trabant is very much a not stopping, Not Stopping, NOT STOPPING, completely stationary sort of event. The brakes are either totally ineffectual or way too good at their jobs. It’s a dice game, really.

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The guide told us at the start of this whole circus that “Trabis are like people. Each one has their little quirks.” My Trabi was like a person who had a very difficult relationship with their second gear, in the sense that it occasionally thought that second was, in fact, reverse. This made for several instances where all of the Trabis in our group would roar away from a stoplight, with one intrepid idiot in a green car reversing valiantly into the cars behind. The turn signals also had a total mind of their own. The guide’s car had a problem with the driver’s side door latch, meaning that his door would occasionally swing open, causing him to lean precariously out into oncoming traffic in a valiant but ultimately fruitless attempt to jam it closed. The whole affair was utterly ridiculous, but despite that, or perhaps because of it, I was having an enormous amount of fun.

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Remember Duroplast from earlier? The cotton thing? Well, part of the reason that material was selected was because it made the Trabi rust-proof. So these cars, in spite of themselves, are actually quite long-lived- lasting about 28 years on average. And that was a good thing, because it allowed this terrible little car to have its shining moment, it’s raison d’etre. November of 1989 saw mass riots erupt in East Berlin, with thousands streaming to the Wall in their smokey, noisy Trabis, demanding to have a taste of freedom. And they got it. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and the Trabi was the car that drove them there.

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Let’s be honest. The Trabant isn’t a very good car. Even the word “car” seems a bit generous. But that doesn’t really matter, because the Trabi is something more important than a car. What it is, is a symbol. A symbol of the failure of communism, of the horrible and now public injustices of a state over its people and of course, of the triumph of freedom over oppression. It shows that cars can be as much a part of history as any global conference or international treaty. That their long lives of abuse can be turned around in an instant in an historic display of victory, positivism and hope: much like the brave men and women who drove them that night in 1989. I have never seen a culture so enamored with a car as when I went to Berlin. It’s truly inspiring, and I had a wonderful, wonderful time. Now if only I could remember what I did last night.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • Duroplast was non-biodegradable and toxic to burn, which meant that Trabants (or at least their shells) are actually super difficult to kill.
  • Over 3 million Trabants were made over the course of its 25-year run, the last rolling off the assembly line in 1991.
  • This was the 601-S model, which meant that it featured an odometer and, well, that’s it.
  • The Trabant went from 0 to 60 miles per hour (which was its top speed) in 21 seconds.
  • Early models didn’t have a fuel gauge. Instead, a dipstick was inserted into the gas tank to determine how much fuel was left.
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2 thoughts on “Behind the Iron Curtain: A Forgotten Metal Road Test

  1. Pingback: A Clear And Present Danger | Forgotten metal

  2. Pingback: Warrior Camel Of Xerxes | Forgotten metal

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