Every country has its own automotive icon, a singular vehicle that typifies the nation and people that built it.
For Americans, this car is undoubtedly the Ford Model T, a product that mobilized millions while simultaneously expanding horizons beyond the family farm. In Great Britain, this vehicle is unquestionably the BMC Mini. Across the channel, Citroen’s 2CV proudly brandishes France’s tri-color flag. Not to be forgotten, Italians have their Cinquecento, the diminutive Fiat 500.
Of course, Germany’s iconic automobile is the irrepressible Volkswagen Beetle, an air-cooled marvel of Nazi-sponsored mass production. But the Käfer is only half of this story, literally.
Remember, from 1949 until 1990, there were actually two Germanys separated by the Cold War’s Iron Curtain. Obscured by this ferrous drape was another famous automobile, a darling of its day, at least within Warsaw Pact countries.
The Trabant is an ugly little mutt of a machine that was designed to mobilize East Germans with affordable and reliable personal transportation. In English, its name means “satellite,” a self-congratulatory nod to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik program and perhaps a subconscious reference to how high engineers were while developing it. This is a car that’s every bit as crude as its pedigree suggests.
Against all odds, I got to drive one of these comically peculiar vehicles during my recent vacation in Germany following the Frankfurt Motor Show. A native buddy of mine and tour guide during this trip reserved slots for us on the “Trabi Safari,” a Berlin tourist attraction that’s on par with seeing Checkpoint Charlie and eating currywurst. It’s something that should be experienced by any gearhead with an appreciation for the weird.
And really, is there a better way to take in this European capital than through the oil-mottled glass of a communist-era automotive relic? I can’t think of any.
The Trabant is a tiny car reminiscent of something a Shriner would drive, though it garners far fewer smiles. Unfortunately, its diminutive stature becomes even smaller when an American tries to cram himself into the backseat. Clearly, East Germans were smaller and more efficient than me, either that or even more malnourished.
In one form or another, Trabants were produced from the late 1950s until the twilight of the ‘80s. They featured composite body panels and space-saving front-wheel drive. Talk about being ahead of their time! Unfortunately, those major exterior parts were made of plastic reinforced with cotton scraps or other fibers. This wasn’t an early attempt to be environmentally responsible; it was a move borne out of necessity because they didn’t have enough steel.
A glance under the Trabant’s Bakelite hood reveals something even more depressing. These cars are powered by a tiny two-cylinder, two-stroke engine because remember, only capitalist pigs need more moving parts and greater combustion complexity. Otto cycle? That’s overly decadent!
Supposedly the last production version of the Trabant featured a burly 26 horsepower, enough to propel the 1,100-pound car to 62 miles an hour in just 21 seconds. Trust me, you’ve never experienced a more exhilarating third of a minute in your lifetime!
With instructional formalities about the route and how to drive out of the way, our Trabi Safari began. An attendant helped me start the car as well as turn the headlights and windshield wipers on because it was raining, oh, and one of the control knobs was missing.
As an automotive journalist, I’ve tested a lot of different vehicles. Plenty of them have been great and a few not so much. But even the worst car I’ve ever sampled is far superior to the lowly Trabant.
At idle, the entire vehicle shook like an earthquake. At first, I thought something had catastrophically failed, but that wasn’t the case. This is not to say there’s a little un-attenuated NVH, oh no. The car *literally* trembles like a 9.0 on the Richter Scale. Simply put, it’s unbelievably coarse, imitating some sort of mining equipment thrashing away. Rev it up and the tiny two-stroke smoothes out marginally, but it’s still a festival of racket and harshness.
The car’s four-speed manual transmission is controlled by a stubby lever sprouting out of the steering column. It provides a rough approximation of gear selection, though it’s easy to get lost in the maze of gates as my buddy found out while driving, inadvertently jamming it into reverse while underway. Yeah, that mistake made a lot of really bad noises, though surprisingly it didn’t grenade the transmission.
Getting underway in the Trabant was a bit challenging because the car has zero torque; it’s almost like driving a Honda. Copious revs are required to get things moving, especially with three people on board. Fortunately, the clutch take-up is forgiving and the car’s unboosted steering easy to use, even at low speed.
As you might expect, acceleration is, at best, leisurely, at worst, catastrophically lethargic. This is probably the slowest vehicle I’ve ever driven and I own a 1936 Ford with just 100 horses on tap. With a complete lack of low-range torque, the car needs to be mercilessly revved to generate any sort of forward movement. During the climb to redline, which brings to mind an expedition up Mount Everest because it takes so long, the engine starts to develop a glimmer of power but then, half a second later, it’s time to upshift and start the waiting game all over again.
One particularly ironic aspect of this driving experience was the “No Smoking” placard inside. The car’s two-stroke engine emits more pollution than coal-seam fire. Its tiny tailpipe, which is scarcely larger in diameter than a penny, vomits out an endless stream of wispy-blue haze. This noxious ether penetrates the Trabant’s haphazardly sealed passenger compartment like an invading army violating a weaker nation’s defenseless frontier.
Accordingly, you start to wheeze after a just few minutes behind the wheel. Really, it’s best to roll the windows down while piloting one of these vehicles, though if you’re following another Trabant, this hardly improves the situation. We were last in a procession of about a dozen cars and, accordingly, our health was particularly damaged.
The tour guide leading this conga line was in constant radio communication with every member of our convoy during the safari, pointing out important sites and sharing historical anecdotes about the German capital, none of which I remember or frankly even heard; all of my limited capacity was expended trying to not kill myself or anyone else. Rush-hour traffic, rainy weather and suicidal cyclists were but a few of Berlin’s on-road hazards.
After the safari, which lasts for an hour or so, you’re left with a souvenir, other than memories of skirting death an increased likelihood of lung cancer. Your clothing is saturated with an oily aroma that keeps on sharing its mechanically derived fragrance until wash day, though some participants had to burn their outerwear following the drive, deeming it unsalvageable. Rumor has it this is what communism smells like: oppression with a touch of soot.
Conclusion: Big Fun in a Tiny Package
If you ever find yourself in Berlin the Trabi Safari is an attraction you’d be wise to check out. It’s a lot of fun and pretty reasonably priced. Who needs to see anther foreign embassy, museum or empty space where some wall once stood? Go drive a Trabant, a car so awful it’s awesome!
Check out our Car Reviews Section