“Your car is equipped with a communist radio system – you will hear my commentary but you may not respond through it!”
Briefings and safety advice are in thankfully short supply before we are expected to dive into the Berlin traffic behind the wheel of our rented Trabant.
A sticker on the dashboard describes the action of the gear shift, which involves pushing, pulling and twisting a lever in the hope that we might find a gear. “Reverse is here but you will not need that,” we are helpfully told. “In Communism we go only forward!”
A shrug from our Trabi-Safari.de guide is all the help we get as we attempt to coax the windscreen wipers away from vertical. At least the skies look clear.
Then, with a clatter of two-stroke revs, a lingering scent of burning oil and a rather distracting smokescreen we were off.
A trip to Germany presented an opportunity to sample a piece of automotive history that’s relatively tricky to get hold of in the UK. When I realised I could reserve a zebra print one in advance the deal was done on the spot. Well, on the internet, but who’s quibbling.
Over three million Trabant’s were produced in the German Democratic Republic between 1958 and 1991 with surprisingly minimal changes imposed on the original design, save for a notable late-life switch to a VW-derived four-stroke engine to replace the venerable 26bhp two-stroke original.
Intended to provide home-grown mass transport for the East German people, the ‘Trabi’ was the car of choice (and not far off being the only choice) until reunification gave the opportunity to trade in these two-stroke smoke machines. Despite waiting up to ten years to get hold of their Trabant, thanks to lengthy waiting lists, many were willing to part with their smokily stylish transportation.
We set out into the traffic to enjoy the carefully considered route that uses mainly right turns for those less confident driving on the continent. Major sights taken in during this Wild East tour included the East Side Gallery, Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. Viewing the famous mural of a Trabant crashing through the Wall from within the same model was particularly poignant.
After our drive we came to understand people’s willingness to part with these cars. Enormously characterful and providing a sense of occasion they may be, but they’re also catastrophically slow, terribly noisy, hugely uncomfortable and awfully polluting.
An hour touring Berlin in one of these symbols of past divisions gives you a sense of some of communism’s less horrific hardships (it is still functional transportation after all) and a contextually accented view of Berlin.
It may well be possible to get a similar view of the city from a tour bus, but why not be the star of your own show and object of hundreds of other people’s tourist snaps?
It should be noted that all this is only made easily possible by the improbably light Berlin traffic; the city has one of the lowest levels of car ownership per capita in Europe. To consider something similar in our capital would be futile.
The Trabi was a perfectly decent car at the start of its life, undermined by patchy manufacturing processes and a lack of development.
Yes, it’s hugely outdated but, for an hour or two as a tourist, it gives a great sense of occasion and fun that we can’t recommend highly enough.