The Blog

The Little Engine That Barely Could

7:53 AM, Nov 12, 2013 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Last Saturday marked the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the International Spy Museum in downtown D.C., the day was commemorated by a parade of colorful Trabants, those wonderful symbols of East German innovation and efficiency—central planning at its best.

The Little Engine That Barely Could

Mike Matus

First constructed in 1957, the Trabant was the GDR's answer to the Volkswagen Beetle. Because of its lightness (that would be Duroplast), the "Trabi" could accelerate relatively fast from block to block. It fit four passengers. The outward design is a hipster's dream.

Inside, however, was a different story.

Underneath the hood was a two-stroke engine (two cylinders) that produced enough smoke, in the words of William Jeanes of Car and Driver, "to suffocate whole villages." According to Time, "Trabants ... often lacked even the most basic of amenities, like brake lights or turn signals." (The magazine went further, describing it as "the car that gave communism a bad name.") And as Jeanes noted, "That anyone bought this toad, sometimes waiting 15 years, defines consumerism behind the Iron Curtain."

It was also cramped—those four passengers could not have been comfortable. "You know why the Trabant was the most quiet car in the world?" asked my friend Marcus Pindur, the U.S. and Canada correspondent for Deutschlandradio. "Because you shut your ears with your knees while driving!"

Of course comfort was the last thing on East Germans' minds when they piled into those Trabants and headed west in 1989, "which made [the Trabis] a kind of automotive liberator," as Time puts it. Two years later, Trabant production came to a halt, although these misfits have found their way into popular culture—including a silly movie and U2's Zoo TV tour for the Achtung Baby album (the cars used in the latter are currently on display at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland). And some 200 Trabants are now in the hands of collectors in the United States.

One of those Trabi enthusiasts is Eric Allen. He and his family traveled all the way from Indiana for the Trabant parade at the Spy Museum. He even came dressed as an East German police officer, which made for a great photo op. (The museum also set up a Checkpoint Charlie.) Eric actually owns several Trabants, though he came to town towing just one model (a 1974 blue Trabant 601). But there were at least a dozen other collectors who showed up in their Trabi variants while a German band played oompah music on the street and other drivers slowed down to marvel at this gathering.

I expect next year's gathering will be even bigger as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's demise.

Recent Blog Posts