Threatened to Mow Down Escapees with Laughter
Berlin’s dark days are thankfully history, but the city continues to attract tourists fascinated with its Communist past. Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall – it’s difficult to imagine that just two decades ago the city was a major Cold War battlefront. Patrolling the lines was an East German car called the Trabant. Built between 1957 and 1990, the Trabant (or Trabi) was a vehicle that epitomized life under Soviet rule. Ugly yet reliable, the average East German citizen would have to wait around 13 years before they could acquire a Trabi, and forget about choosing the colour. With hardly any production changes in its history, the Trabi used a unique gearbox and an engine reliant on gravity to deliver fluids to the right places. Famous for its choking exhaust, it could hit a top speed of 112 km/hr (downhill) and seat four comfortably (provided circulation in your legs was a non-issue). East Germans used to joke that the quickest way to double the value of a Trabant was to fill up the petrol tank.
Over three million of these cars were produced, of which around 58,000 survive, largely in the possession of collectors. Today, a company named Trabi Safari offers tourists the chance to explore Berlin at the wheel, driving in convoy with a guide in the lead car pointing out interests over short-range radio. I would have liked to hear more, but I was too busy riding the clutch as I tried to work the gearshift, which works on the principle that anyone who drives a Trabi will have no need whatsoever to drive a real car. Pull up, pull down, push in, push out, and somehow the car lurches forward as Berlin’s downtown pedestrians and drivers stare in amusement. “When you hear people use their horns, it’s because they either love Trabis, or hate Trabis,” explains our guide. Or maybe it’s because I almost crashed into them, who knows? Trabi Safari’s cars are painted in bright retro colors (the better for locals to see them and take evasive action) and the company gives ample instruction on how to drive the car. It’s all a very tongue-in-cheek affair, from the guide’s comments as quirky as the cars themselves. It’s hard to believe that East German border guards used to patrol the no-go zone in Trabis. Perhaps the plan was to stop escapees with laughter.
My bright blue Trabi followed a bright pink one, and with the yellow customized convertible Trabi trailing behind we looked like an Eastern European remake of The Italian Job. When a new Mini drove past me, it actually dwarfed my vehicle. Driving into rush hour traffic, we passed the Reichstag, Book Burning Square, Brandenburg Gate, and more than a few unimpressed drivers caught in our wake. Incredibly, Trabi Safari has had almost no accidents, since local drivers know better than to assume tourists know how to drive one. Along the Berlin Wall, an iconic piece of graffiti shows former Soviet and East German leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker passionately making out at the wheel of a Trabi. As a symbol of popular culture, Trabi’s have appeared in everything from U2 videos to just about any Cold War spy movie.
I was finding it increasingly difficult to put the car in the gear, much less believe that the model I was driving was from 1989. Need air conditioning? Open a window. The Trabi’s exterior is made from a plastic resin, supported by wool and cotton. In the event of a head on collision, accident victims can wear the car on the way to the hospital. “All Trabis go to heaven, because they’ve already had hell on earth,” crackles the guide on the radio. Then I fall behind so only pick up random words like “Nazis” and “Sexy Legs.” The tour continues towards Alexanderplatz, along Karl Marx-Allee, with its impressive and towering Soviet architecture. These buildings are fiercely grand, built by the Communists as a permanent reminder of the power of the state. All anyone had to do was get behind the wheel of a Trabi to see that the real power of the state was a smoky two-stroke engine that backfires. As a fun vehicle for exploring Berlin however, the Trabi is just perfect.