I recently had the opportunity to drive a Trabant, which was an automobile manufactured by Communists in East Germany. And as I sat there in the driver’s seat, with smoke billowing out the tailpipe, staring at the gauge cluster — which contains no tachometer, no indication that you’ve turned on your headlights or turn signals, and no fuel gauge — I started to think that maybe, possibly, on some level, this is why Communism failed.
But I’ll get to the Trabant experience in a minute. First, let’s discuss why I was in a Trabant in the first place. This opportunity came about when I received an email from a reader named Robert Dunn, who runs a YouTube channel called Aging Wheels. Robert was trailering his Trabant across the country, from St. Louis to a Trabant meetup at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and he wanted to know if I’d like to check it out afterwards.
Coincidentally, it just so happened that I would be in Washington, D.C. that day for a weekend getaway with my fiancee. Did I want to interrupt a little of our vacation time to drive a poorly built, radically unsafe Communist car loaned to me by a random Internet stranger I’ve never met? Of course I did! So I dropped off my fiancee at a coffee shop in Fairfax, Virginia, and I met up with Robert and the Trabant.
For those of you who don’t know what the Trabant is, here’s a little history. After the Berlin Wall went up, the East Germans couldn’t exactly buy West German cars, on account of the fact that, you know, they had put up a wall to separate themselves, like two kids fighting in the back of a minivan. So West Germany made cars (like the Volkswagen Beetle), and East Germany made cars, too — that would be the Trabant.
Initially, the Trabant was quite competitive: it had a plastic body, independent suspension and front-wheel drive, all of which were unusual advancements in the late 1950s. But as other cars advanced beyond the Trabant, it remained roughly the same — for years, and years, and years, and years, ignoring an enormous number of technological and safety improvements happening on the other side of the wall. For example: Despite the fact that the Trabant I drove was a 1981 model, it had no rear seat belts, and it had no external fuel door, instead requiring drivers to pour a mix of gasoline and oil directly under the hood. In 1981! Unbelievably, in spite of its vastly outdated design, the Trabant remained in production until Communism fell at the end of the 1980s.
In other words: The Trabant was manufactured at the same time as the Ferrari F40.
So anyway: I arrived to meet Robert and the Trabant, and these were my impressions upon seeing it for the first time: It’s ugly. It’s loud. And it pollutes approximately as much as Central America.
Also, by modern standards, it’s truly awful. Not even by modern standards. By the standards of the time it was made, 1981, it was already truly awful. I’ve covered a few of the reasons — fuel/oil mix, no rear seat belts, no tachometer, no turn signal or headlight indicators, no fuel gauge — but it goes so much deeper than that. For example: The panel gaps are inconsistent — some are large, some are small — and they can even vary along the same panel. There’s no headliner. There’s also no trunk liner, or trunk insulation of any kind. There’s no glovebox. The fuses sit uncovered next to the steering wheel. There are open screws on the outside of the car. The only interior door lock is on the passenger side.
So I filmed all this stuff, and then it was time to go for a drive — after Robert carefully told me how to start the Trabant. First, you switch the fuel tank from "Z" to "R." ("What does that mean?" I asked Robert. His response: "I have no idea.") Then, you turn the key and let off the parking brake. Then the car belches out roughly the same amount of smoke as a wartime shipyard. Then you shift into first, using an unlabeled column shifter. Oh, and one more thing, Robert told me: you cannot coast in any gear except fourth. If you’re in first, second, or third, you must be on the accelerator. If you want to coast, and you’re not in fourth, you have to shift into neutral.
So we got out on the road, and I quickly discovered why Communism fell.
Here’s what happened: I found first gear easily enough, and I put on my turn signal, and I got out on a main road, and the car produced a tremendous amount of tailpipe smoke as I accelerated. Then I shifted into second, more smoke, third, more smoke, and then I got to a downhill. You can’t coast in third gear, I reminded myself. So I shifted into neutral. But the car picks up speed in neutral, and steering this thing at high speeds is about as easy as using telepathy to direct a moose. So, back to third. But I can’t coast! So I have to press the gas! More smoke. Uh oh, intersection coming up. Go for turn signal. Except — OOPS! — the turn signal has been on for the last five minutes, because it doesn’t cancel, and there’s no light on the gauge cluster to remind me it’s still on.
Eventually, I came to a traffic light, and I made the mistake of shifting into neutral while stopped. When the light turned green, foot on the clutch, with a Lexus RX behind me, I went for first… and got reverse. Smoke came belching out of the tailpipe as I inched backwards. So I went for first again. Got third. More smoke. At this point, the Lexus simply went around me. By the time I found first, the light had already turned red.
So the Trabant is hard to drive, but I admit that a large portion of this has to do with my inexperience. However, all the experience in the world can’t fix the fact that this vehicle has only 26 horsepower. There were several situations during my drive when I had the pedal to the floor, and I was going up a hill, and the speedometer was simply staying constant. And it wasn’t like I was driving this thing up those 45-degree hills in San Francisco, where the local 7-Eleven serves as a base camp for people about to begin the grueling trek to their local pharmacy. I was just cruising around a residential neighborhood in Fairfax, Virginia, going roughly the same speed as people walking their dogs.
Eventually, the drive was over. I returned to the spot where we started filming, a local high school parking lot, and I shut off the Trabant, and I looked at Robert. Then we both burst out laughing.
So here’s my conclusion: The Trabant is loud, slow, poorly designed, badly built, tremendously inhospitable to drive, ancient, uncomfortable, confusing and inconvenient. If I were giving it stars, it would earn zero; if I were giving it thumbs, I’d have mine surgically removed before putting them up for the Trabant.
But few other cars offer this level of uniqueness per dollar: Robert paid only $3,000 for his Trabant — and that figure didn’t just buy him a classic car, but also a piece of history, and a glimpse at a completely different empire. Plus, it’s hard to imagine buying anything for $3,000 that commands so much attention. Undoubtedly, for example, when the Trabant arrives at a cars and coffee, it turns all the heads. And then, quickly, as the smoke fills the air, those heads turn the other way and start coughing.
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.
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