Monday, 17 March 2008
Trabant - the little car that could
The Tale of the Trabi
The image of Hungary's most popular, populist car, the noisy, blue-smoke belching Trabant was so linked with the system that many now see it as a symbol of the Communist era in Eastern Europe.
However, although the Trabant and Communism shared many similarities: clumsy, smelly, uncomfortable, and some say unattractive, there is one major difference.
Communism collapsed with the Berlin wall in 1989, but the Trabi is still rolling along. In 1997 enthusiasts, nostalgists and those who use their Trabi every day as a trusty method of going to work, celebrated the fortieth birthday of the beloved Trabi.
The Trabant turned 50 in 2007, and although a brief mid-life crisis threatened its existence, it continues to cough and splutter through the streets of Budapest.
Love it or loath it, the Trabi won't go away. Budapest mayor Gábor Demszky tried unsuccessfully in 1995 to rid the capital of the Trabant. The Green program offered two years' free BKV transport pass, worth Ft30,000 for those who traded in their Trabi's.
Demszky did not bargain on three things:
people with small businesses needed their Trabants,
a painter and decorator could not take his equipment on the metro,
you can pack the contents of a small flat into a Trabant.
Despite the low fuel-mileage ratio, Trabants are relatively cheap to buy and workers could not afford anything else and thirdly, people loved their 'soap-dish' Trabis.
The company that won the tender to clear the Trabants from the streets of Budapest, allegedly recycled the cars as spare parts and out of 200 Trabants that were traded in, 120 were back on the streets in some shape or form.
Gábor Muczán runs the Trabant-Wartburg club from his home behind Farkasréti cemetery.
It started in 1994 with a few auto-enthusiasts and has grown to a membership of nearly 400 Trabant and Wartburg fans, who meet five times a year, and make annual pilgrimages to the Trabant factory in Zwickau.
He says although the Trabants were made in the former NDK -East Germany, "Out of all the Communist countries, Hungary had the most, other countries like then Czechoslovakia had the Skoda, Romania the Dacia, the Soviet Union the Lada and East Germany also had the Wartburg.
In Hungary, there are still 300,000 Trabants on the road, it seems like there are less because there are so many other brands too, but the Trabants are not disappearing."
Muczán's car collection at present stands at 14 automobiles, crowding his garage and the road in front of his house. Muczán often visits Germany, where he can, "Buy a Trabi for the price of a burger," because the German environmental tax on the Trabi makes it now as expensive to run as a Mercedes.
Fortunately, his wife Kriszti shares his love for Trabants and when they married in 1993, they drove off in a decorated P601, "There is no limit to the silliness, " says Kriszti, showing off her trophy she collected in the 1997 Trabant and Wartburg slalom race, for first place in the "remodeled" category.
She used to work in an environmental protection agency, and said it's true the Trabi smells bad, "But look at all the other cars on the road, a 20-year old Zhiguli is much worse, it's just the Trabi's blue smelly smoke is so obvious."
The Muczáns' kitchen is decorated with number plates of cars, mostly Trabants that Gábor has owned or renovated.
A brown bottle, once filled with Trabant beer, produced in Zwickau-home of the Trabi, sits on the table.
Many people use the Trabant-Wartburg club as an information service, as members try to get the original spare parts. "Not everybody treats their Trabi as a hobby, for many it is a useful tool, taking them to work and back," says Muczán.
The Trabant is not as beautiful as an Italian car, not as fast as a Japanese, not as road-worthy as a Swedish or filled with character like a French model, but it is reliable.
No car starts in the cold like a Trabi and once going, it just keeps rolling along.
The Trabant may appear boring to some, but riding in it involves an element of danger, "If you crash, it's the end," says Muczán.
The panels were made from Duroplast, a compressed mixture of resin and polyester, which was light, easily available, rust-proof and cheap. However, on impact it would crumble.
Only the equally tiny and tinny Polski Fiat has such a high-risk impact factor. Interestingly, early American Pontiacs also used Duroplast. However, from an environmental point of view, the Duroplast is totally non-recyclable and although a crash may reduce it to smithereens, those little mosaic tiles of blue, beige and olive green will never disappear.
Because it was so light, it only required a two-stroke engine, 26 horsepower, giving the Trabi its unique cough and splutter, similar to a Budapest pensioner after 50 years of Munkás cigarettes.
All cars in the 50's were large and heavy. "The Trabant was an innovation, a world class car then," says Muczán.
The life and times of the Trabi make interesting reading.
It had an imperfect birth, in fact it was never meant to be a car, but a rain-proof motorcycle with a boot, thus cheap transport for all the family.
The name Trabant derives from the German word for satellite or escort henchman, the verb 'trab' means to trot along.
Trabant production ceased in 1990, because the hand made cars suited the socialist system, where everybody had a job and labour was subsidized by the State.
"Now everything is automated, the Trabant would be too expensive to make," says Muczán.
Communism ran according to "Plan economics - nothing like what people actually want," says Muczcán, and he calls it a miracle that the Trabant, a product of plan economics actually works.
Trabant engineers were some of the most talented in the business, but their creativity was often stifled by the system. In the early days, the car's shape was considered both innovative and beautiful, and it was one of the first of its type to have the engine in the front.
In 1972, Trabant engineers designed a super Trabi like a future Renault 5, but East German president Honnecker didn't allow anything special, he said the people only needed the most basic car to get them from A to B, to work and back every night, not something to go gallivanting across borders in. "Communism did not allow fancy models in anything, although some special Trabants were built, they were locked in museums and their blue-prints burnt," says Muczán.
There were Trabants that resembled the modern Fiat Uno, although no record of them exists.
The normal type was the P601, in 1969 the talented Trabant engineers designed a 603 model, but after a resounding "No" from Honnecker, the engineers left the country.
Story has it, that they began work for Volkswagon and turned the Trabi 603 into what is now the highly successful VW Golf 1.
It is said that they developed a special fuel additive so that Trabants and Wartburgs appeared to run faster in East Germany. There are reports that the Trabant know-how and machinery has been sold to Egypt, Ecuador and India.
Trabants were first used in East Germany as a military vehicle, and one of many Trabant jokes says the Trabants are great for attack because of the terrifying noise they make, but you cannot escape in one as they are too loud.
In 1991, the Trabant 601 was fitted with a four-stroke, 50 horsepower engine, originally used in the VW Polo, the result was a shaky and unmanageable bomb.
The Trabi has had its moments. Recently VW Golf conducted a Reindeer Test (so called because it simulates the swerving necessary if a reindeer jumped out in front of the car on an icy road) as a marketing ploy.
Several makes of car were tested, the Mercedes turned over.
German journalists took a two-stroke Trabant to Sweden and it passed the reindeer test at 75 kmph, the Mercedes turned over at 60 kmph. This was the greatest humiliation for the supercilious western engineers.
On November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall came down, and unforgettable images were seen throughout the world media.
A cacophony of honking echoed down Berlin's Ku'damm.
Described by some as a "horn concerto," it was the sound of hundreds of Trabants. For months a trickle of these had escaped to the West with their East German owners, when the then Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn allowed them an exit route through the more liberated Hungarian territory.
The tiny hole in the wall turned the trickle into a flood, and the Trabant, the most rickety vehicle known to man became a symbol of freedom.
However, when consumerism took hold, Trabis were out, Audis, Fiats and Renaults were in.
The star of the liberation reverted to the sad epitome of socialism, inefficient, slow, dog-eared and dull and nobody wanted it.
Then, the Trabant production line at the Zwickau Automobile factory was nearing its three millionth car, but it never made it. Work faltered and then stopped. Outside, rows of new vehicles waited for thier owners tocome to pick them up, but they waited in vain.
At that time you could barely give a Trabi away. So shattered was the market that there were even small ads in local papers, offering to swap cars for packets of cigarettes.
However, in the West, the Trabi's cult status spread as museums, galleries and even rock groups picked up cars for a song. In the early 1990's, U2 took a fleet on tour as part of their Achtung Baby set.
Bono has his own light blue P601.
In the sixties and seventies, at the height of Trabi-mania, the car still had a fuel tank perched on top of the engine, with a dipstick instead of a fuel guage.
It had, however, developed a mystique based on a huge waiting list. For most families, getting a Trabant was a far, far longer process than having children.
To be sure of having a car in your thirties, you had to put in your application as soon as you turned 18.
After 13-15 years, customers would receive a letter announcing that their P601 was ready. If they then had any particular requests - a radio, go-faster stripes - these were then put in the pre-contract, and would add a further six months to delivery.
Even then, your Trabant wasn't ready to drive away.
The body had to be sealed, and you were advised to tighten all the screws you could see, as well as grease and oil all the working parts.
The Trabi traditionally has only one item on the dashboard, under the flat windscreen, a combination speedometer and odometer.
It was precisely the Trabant's "primitivity" that made it the people's car, "It is easy to drive, easy to mend, you just get in it and go," says Muczán.
Prospective car owners would pray they were not alloted a P601 in beige.
The choice of colours was limited to beige, bathroom tile light blue and olive green which was used by the German army border patrol.
Muczán shows off one of his collector's items, an early model that was considered quite racey as the side panels were beige, but the roof was light blue!
When, in the early 1970's the average salary of a Hungarian worker stood at around Ft 3,500 a month, a Trabant was selling for Ft48,000. In the 1980's you could get one for Ft100,000, a relative increase much smaller than that of other Eastern cars. For your money, you received a 500cc, 620-kilo sticking plaster bomb, or soap dish, which did 0-80 kmph in little more than 20 seconds.
It had all the acceleration of an overweight slug and might be capable of reaching 100kmph going downhill with a strong wind behind.
The engine itself was so light, that it could be lifted out by one man and rally-racing Trabants often carried a spare one in the boot.
Muczán raced Trabis for years and says Trabants and Wartburgs raced in the Monte Carlo rally, a Wartburg even won in its category.
In Germany now there are Trabant clubs all over the country and a huge Trabant sculpture is planned as a symbol of the past regime. The last Trabi was made in 1992 and the factory was transformed into a modern plant for Opel.
However, Zwickau remains a place of pilgrimage for the annual Trabi rally, last year attended by 10,000 people from across Europe.
The Trabant in its proud ugliness has outlived the system and the factory's demise and rolls along, remaining the most communist car of all, a true car for the people.
How do you double the value of a Trabi ?
Fill it with petrol.
Why does a Trabi have safety belts?
So that you can use it as a rucksack if it breaks down.
What does a Trabi owner do about potholes?
Park in them
What does the P601 stand for?
600 order it, but only one gets it.
Those who trade in their two-stroke Trabis for one with a catalytic converter will now receive Ft200,000 incentive. After May 1 and entering the EU, only cars with catalytic converters will be considered road-worthy. Old-style Trabi lovers have until July 15 2004 to swap their beloved set of wheels, or at least update their mechanics. Disabled Trabi owners can get either Ft200,000 cash back or a Ft400,000 loan from the Environment and Nature Protection, Water Authority. (Orszagos Kornyezetvedelmi, Termeszetvedelmi es Vizugyi Foigazgatosaghoz). The financial reward will only go to those who promise to take their smelly, smoky Trabis out of circulation and buy a car, younger than ten years old, four-stroke, catalytic converter fitted set of wheels. Pensioners who refuse to give up their tried and trusted Trabis will be able to buy the catalytic equipment for Ft20,000.
Information from the KvVM department Tel 477-7400. or on the website http://sansz.ngo.hu/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2362