On Trabant Safari in Berlin
By JILL SCHENSUL | The (Hackensack, N.J.) Record | Published: February 24, 2015
I know, I know. Nobody had to remind me that the Trabant, the car manufactured and sold in East Germany during 31 years of Soviet occupation, was regarded as a joke at best, a scourge on the earth at worst. It spewed pollution, often burst into flames when it hit anything head on, and emitted fumes so foul and ubiquitous it became the signature aroma for Soviet-occupied Germany.
Somehow, it didn’t matter. About five years ago, when I first saw a photo of a Trabi — as they’re fondly called nowadays — I fell in love. When I read that a tour company actually lets you drive a Trabi on a guided tour through East Berlin, I was already imagining myself behind the wheel of one of the adorably boxy little polluters.
Trabi production began in 1957, four years before the Berlin Wall appeared. And despite Soviet-era ineptitudes, repression and bureaucracy, the Trabi — like the East German people — eventually made it to the other side.
Now the once-maligned Trabi has become not only an icon of endurance, but also one of those rare opportunities for travelers to experience the atmosphere of a time gone by using transportation from those times.
Some of the infamous East German-made Trabants have been dolled up a little but still sport the same bare-bones interiors and engines.
On a Wall Ride safari by Trabi World (www.trabi-world.com), travelers follow the trail of the Berlin Wall through the city behind the wheel of the historic cars.
The Trabi World parking lot is more like a four-wheel nostalgia wonderland. The semi-organized lines of parked cars offers a whimsical menagerie of paint jobs: leopard spots, zebra stripes, giraffe and cheetah prints, along with bubbles, balloons, gumdrops, sunflowers, a denim number and solid colored models so bright they might not need headlights at night. Framing the scene were two vehicles, one in a Mary Kay pink, with fins that would’ve made a ‘50s Cadillac swoon (or suspicious), the other a shiny black number sporting the simple sentiment “I (heart) Berlin” — though if they really heart it, they really ought to install some catalytic converters.
I was a little disappointed to learn that since I was taking the Wall Ride, one of four itineraries offered, I’d get one of the rather dour olive green models — the original German Democratic Republic military paint job. You want authenticity, I told myself. Deal with it.
The East German vintage tour began before we even saw our vehicles (“we” being myself and two women from Scandinavia ditching part of their business trip itinerary for the ride).
Our guide, Simone Matern, handed out the necessary items for our trip: East German driving licenses (totally unnecessary today, though you do have to bring your own license), plus an East German visa to allow us to drive across borders without being gunned down (this is a bit of a time travel tour, right?).
And to remind our other senses of the situation back then, we got a sack of Russisch Brot (Russian bread, actually a chocolate-covered cookie) and a bottle of Wostock, the Soviet answer to Coca Cola.
The gals, Iris Schenk and Beatrice Walter, were already ensconced in the topless Jeep-style Trabi when I arrived. Yeah, well, they might have the convertible, but I had the alpha driver. I’d be in the lead car with Simone, whose tour narration would be delivered to the other cars in the convoy via high-end walkie talkie.
Simone said I could take the helm for a spell during our twohour tour, but I declined. Though it would have been cool to drive like an East German, I immediately saw the advantage of playing passenger. I could focus all of my attention on the experience — both inside and out.
The Trabi, like the Soviet era, may have been all about simplicity, but there was a lot going on.
Besides, the gas pedal was as close to me as it was to Simone, so I could, theoretically, take a more active role.
The Trabi’s interior was as basic as its two-stroke engine. There was no radio. The dashboard offered little more than a couple of dials and a long shelf for, say, keys (you needed three for a Trabi — door, trunk, ignition), your sack of Russisch Brot and, of course, your “papers.”
Simone gave a tug to snug her Soviet cap down and turned the key.
Gears turned. Metal shook. Dust lifted. Or was it exhaust fumes? Probably both, since I could finally get a whiff of the scent people could only now discuss with a sort of benign nostalgia — that “Eau de East Germany by Trabi” with its notes of unburned oil, gas and carcinogens.
The smell, and the dust and the fumes began to waft around us, inside and out, kind of like a mist, or a scrim that set a scene of a time and a history that, in Berlin especially, still exists, in the mist.
Like everything else in the newly created East Germany, the government used the Trabi, designed and produced at a former Audi plant in Saxony, for propaganda: “Creativity combined with boldness and the revolutionary will of a working class that has been freed from exploitation have given birth to this inconspicuous and yet sensational car” ran the official line in the 1960s.
Inconspicuous it was, at least frillwise. And it had its good points. It was relatively fast, despite the 26-horsepower engine: top speed of 62 mph, mostly because it weighed a mere 1,100 pounds. It could seat four people and had a decent trunk. The engine was so straightforward that owners could often do their own repairs — especially helpful because there were no spare parts, and getting a new one was, well, one of the biggest downsides of the Trabi.
The wait for one to roll off the factory line was an average of 10 years, and often ran as long as 18. The Trabi sold for about 7,600 East German marks new (a full year’s salary is the only comparison I could find for currency conversion), but could cost 11,000 or more used — at the time, the fact that it existed was worth the premium.
Other nowlegendary foibles? Its aforementioned two-stroke engine, whose inefficiency inspired jokes such as: “What do you call a Trabi at the top of a hill? “A miracle.” Some models lacked turn signals and brake lights. And a fuel gauge. The gas pedal was located so close to the center of the car that it was easier for the passenger to get his foot on it than the driver.
No spare tire. The steering wheel and window and door handles were so flimsy that each touch might be the one that cracked it off.
The cars lasted an average of 28 years. Thanks for the most part to meticulous care by their owners. In fact, the little car was treated like part of the family – appropriately enough, since the Trabant’s name, inspired by the Sputnik, means “satellite” or “companion” in German.
Still, East Germans were quick to abandon the things after the Wall fell: They drove them in droves across the border and abandoned them almost immediately once they were on the other side.
The Wall Ride is the perfect itinerary for the Trabi. Both have become more popular as they’ve disappeared. The Trabi ride follows the path of the Wall, which is pretty much gone entirely in Berlin. A pathway of its route has been marked on the streets and sidewalks where possible, but new buildings, new life, have eclipsed the march of historic markers. So a Wall Ride includes much zigging and zagging.
We stopped at the Berlin Wall Memorial, Germany’s most comprehensive remembrance of that era, including one of the longest stretches of original Wall still remaining. When we got back from our short introduction to the 10-acre memorial, our little parked Trabis had become the subject of the moment for passersby with cameras, who were smiling and shooting from both sides of the street.
We were used to this by now. As we passed, we’d leave surprised smiles and pointing fingers in our wake. Stopped at red lights, or even just slowing down, we were tempting photo ops.
The two-hour trip included a few places I’d never heard of, including Memorial Günter Litfin, an East German watchtower often manned by the brother of the man for whom it is named — Litfin was the first victim of the Wall.
At a surprise stop, a “guard” checks travelers’ visas at the “border” near Checkpoint Charlie. A tall, uniformed guard was already holding out his hand to our fellow Trabiers. Papers please, I could imagine him saying.
It was a Trabi World employee, at 6 feet 6 inches a brilliant stroke of casting. It was a great touch, mostly funny with a frisson of fear.
But the real frisson was as we approached the East Side Gallery, another stretch of original Wall that became a canvas for artists’ interpretations of the new freedom in the wake of the fall of the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.
One of the most famous images then, and now, is that of an East Berlin Trabi crashing through that Wall.
I’d been to the gallery a few days earlier on an organized press tour. I’d seen it from the window of an airconditioned van.
Looks different through the window of a little Trabi. No, it feels different, through the dusty, possibly fuelrimed glass of our little car.
If anything could transport us to that time, the little Trabi could.
Our guide on a Trabi Safari in Germany communicates with other cars on the safari via Walkie-Talkie. Travelers get to drive through the city -- and follow the trail of the Berlin Wall -- behind the wheel of one of the famous (or infamous) E. German-made Trabants.
JILL SCHENSUL/THE (HACKENSACK, N.J.) RECORD