The Czech love affair with the intrepid 'Trabi'

01-09-2005

With its motorcycle-sized engine and fibreglass coachwork you can literally kick a hole through, the humble but intrepid Trabant has become an unlikely symbol of freedom throughout Eastern Europe. Though derided in the West, in its own ersatz way, East Germany's "kleine wunder" was truly a marvel of minimalist engineering. Here in the Czech Republic, the Trabant was until recently the second most common foreign car on the road. The dwindling numbers belie the demand for well-maintained models and spare parts. But can the Czech love affair with the 'Trabi' be attributed to simple 'Ostalgia'?

Gearing up for the rally...Gearing up for the rally... "I think the attraction is mainly [the] simplicity of this car. Its construction, its engine; everything is really simple, so you could do everything on you own. And the attraction maybe started because those cars were produced for many years it was a symbol of Germany - sorry, of course Eastern Germany - and there was nothing cheaper, nothing easier they could buy, than a Trabant."

Vladimir Vlach is a self-proclaimed Trabant purist. He has a comprehensive, professional looking website devoted to the car- www.trabant.cz - and is the proud owner of a rare mint condition Trabant 601 S de Luxe. "Deluxe" meant the rear windows actually open, there is chrome plating around the head and brake lights, and the interior looks a bit like real leather.

... at the 'finish' line ... at the 'finish' line RP: It's often been said that you didn't 'buy' a Trabant, you 'applied' for one, because you had to wait your turn, you never actually could go to a dealership, say, 'I want that one' and get it, drive it home. Was that your case?

"It wasn't my case: I am not so old! I bought my first Trabant eleven years ago and the story you just told is right, but only partly. It was like that in Eastern Germany: you had to apply. In the Czech Republic [former Czechoslovakia] it wasn't so bad; you didn't have to wait seven years, like the Eastern Germans."

Mr Vlach is among the 140 odd drivers who have come to participate - "compete" is perhaps too grandiose a term - in a Trabant rally here in the southern Bohemian region of Strakonice.

Note the tee-shirtNote the tee-shirt As one proud owner of a vintage 1963 Trabant says, keeping one going "doesn't take much money, but it's an awful lot of work."

Radek Zajic has been organising the event for nine years running now. He says the number of young enthusiasts has been growing steadily. Most first get interested in Trabants - or 'Trabis' as they are affectionately known - because of the rock-bottom sticker price: some sell for less than 100 dollars. But, Mr Zajic says, it soon becomes a labour of love - an eccentric hobby shared by thousands of kindred spirits throughout the Czech Republic, and indeed the whole of Europe.

Vladimir Vlach with his 'de luxe' TrabantVladimir Vlach with his 'de luxe' Trabant "What does it mean? For most people, maintaining and driving a Trabant is an entertaining way to spend some leisure time. I don't mean to say it's a 'lifestyle' - like Harley Davidson motorcycles are for some. It's not truly a lifestyle, not really, not exactly. For many people in the Czech Republic, especially young people, this hobby started because they simply couldn't afford another model - as was my case."

Libor Jelinek, a student from Pilsen, is among the young recruits. His first car was an old BMW, but he found it too expensive to keep running, an opted for something smaller - much smaller. He's now on his fourth Trabant, which he has taken completely apart and reassembled to get it humming.

Libor Jelinek traded in his BMW for a TrabiLibor Jelinek traded in his BMW for a Trabi "I'm a big fan and really devoted to it. I come back home from work or school and go directly to the garage. I devote most of my free time to it. Why? I like one definition of a Trabant owner that I heard on television. He said you take all the money you've got, put it into your car, and then -- you proudly look like an idiot [laughs]. This is how most people feel here, I think-- not amongst each other, because we're all the same -- but around others."

For a while, rally organiser Radek Zajic made his living importing spare parts for Trabants, of which he now reckons he owns fifteen. He readily admits that not all of his models are in tip-top shape; he fixes them little by little, when he's got the time. But Mr Zajic does have three Trabants that are worthy of showing in vintage car shows - and, of course, entering in the rallies.

Man with DDR shirt and Trabi medalion checks out the competitionMan with DDR shirt and Trabi medalion checks out the competition But do Mr Zajic and his compatriots really take Trabant ownership, and the races... seriously? After all, your average factory-issue Trabant doesn't exactly explode off the line: it does zero to 100km/hr in about 25 seconds.

"For the majority of people who are riding with us today, for them it is really a kind of joke, a nostalgia, more or less, not only for Trabants, but also maybe for the whole time of the GDR [East Germany]. Nowadays, people are collecting all kinds of socialist-era paraphernalia. But owning a Trabant really is today a kind of running joke. Throughout the world - and in Germany, of course - there also are many people who find joy in such things. People meet and talk about old times, and then go for a drive. It's all in good fun."

Many owners like to modify their TrabantsMany owners like to modify their Trabants In today's united Germany, they call it "Ostalgia" - the ambivalent nostalgia felt by many eastern Germans for a bygone era on the "gray" side of the Berlin Wall. The Trabant is about as "Ostalgic" as you can get; artistic "street cred" in motorised form, a form of protest against materialism for some, or a creative expression of perseverance.

Fuel flows to the Trabant's simple two-stroke engine by virtue of gravity, and its petrol gauge is... a dipstick. With such specs, many owners, like Vladimir Vlach, take great pride in how far they can go in a Trabi.

Kusturica's film features a Trabant-eating pigKusturica's film features a Trabant-eating pig "I was twice in Scandinavia. Once for two weeks - we drove about 7500 kilometres in two weeks. And the second time, I went there for a month and we travelled all around Finland, Norway, Sweden and back. I was surprised that [people there] knew what this car is. Once we stopped at a gas station, and there was some young boy, and he said, 'Oh, this is a Trabant! My grandfather had one!' So he was surprised that they could drive such long distances."

Originally conceived by central planners as East Germany's answer to the Volkswagen, or "people's car," more than 3 million Trabants rolled off the East German assembly lines during the life span of the GDR. Because the Soviets stole most of the East German steel presses after the war, the Trabi had a body made from 'Duraplast', an odd kind of resin that was little more than densely compressed cotton and phenol. Goats have been said to eat the body frames -- a pig famously did so in Bosnian director Emir Kusturica's film "Black cat, white cat".

A Trabant 601 'combi' in its natural habitantA Trabant 601 'combi' in its natural habitant Yet the unique frame makes the Trabant extremely light weight and dexterous. A Trabi once beat a Mercedes Benz A Class in a performance test. Radek Zajic again:

"I've heard the story, but I'm not sure it is true. It's difficult to say if the driver of the Mercedes made some huge mistake, but there is a photo that was shown throughout the whole world, of a slalom contest where they were going maybe 60 kilometres an hour, and the Trabant had no problem, but the Mercedes A Class had flipped over on its roof. The photo exists, but maybe it was doctored, I don't know. But otherwise, basically we can say yes, the Trabant is truly a stable car; and it doesn't easily flip over."

The Berlin WallThe Berlin Wall But not everyone loves the Trabant. An English motorist last year published a tongue-in-cheek guide to the 50 worst cars ever to grace the roads of Britain, called simply: Crap Cars. The Trabant placed ninth overall, the Czechoslovak-made Skoda Estelle a distant thirtieth.

Here's an excerpt:

"[The Trabant] had an engine so lame even the people who made electric carving knives deemed it feeble. When the Berlin Wall came down, news reports claimed that East Germans 'flooded' over the former border. Not if they were driving Trabants they didn't. 'Farted' would have been more appropriate."

In the early autumn of the revolutionary year of 1989, thousands of East Germans flocked to Prague after the Czechoslovak authorities agreed not to prevent them from emigrating via the West German Embassy. The Czechoslovak capital was suddenly filled with hundreds of Trabants, whose owners abandoned them on the streets of Prague with the keys still in the ignition.

"Quo Vadis?" a modern sculpture recalling the migration, by the Czech artist David Cerny, is now a permanent fixture in the courtyard of the German embassy in Prague. The anatomically correct Trabant, painted gold and standing on giant legs, was unveiled in 1991.

To the question, "Whither goest thou," in a Trabant, anyway, the answer is: everywhere; slowly.

01-09-2005