When Does a Trabi Reach Top Speed?

By Cameron Hewitt

In my last post, I explained that I just got back from researching our new Rick Steves Berlin guidebook. One of my favorite new additions to the book is this explanation of the classic East German automobile. (Thanks to our Berlin researcher extraordinaire, Gretchen Strauch, for suggesting some of the jokes.) Enjoy this sneak-preview excerpt from our newest book (which hits bookshelves in September):

Communist East Germany (a.k.a. the DDR) is forever linked to its trademark automobile — the Trabant, or, affectionately, the Trabi (TRAH-bee). Built in Zwickau, Saxony, starting in 1957, the Trabi was the DDR’s big play to compete with the popular West German Volkswagen Beetle. But its design and engineering (limited by a centrally-planned economy) were nowhere near VW standards.

A ride in a Trabi was cramped, bumpy, and smelly. To gas up your Trabi, you’d open the hood and pour a gas-oil mix into a tank above the two-cylinder, two-stroke engine, which used gravity instead of fuel pump. The body was made of a recycled, cloth-reinforced plastic resin called Duroplast. (So the body was as “green” as the engine was polluting.) On the upside, the construction was so simple that handy East Germans (who, out of necessity, were excellent do-it-yourselfers) could fix just about any problem with a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench. Because production was limited, for the privilege of owning a Trabi you’d sign up on a waiting list, and be prepared to wait many, many years.

In the summer of 1989, when Hungary suddenly opened its borders, whole fleets of Trabis were left behind by East Germans who went to vacation on Lake Balaton…and decided to flee West, never to come home. The Trabi remained in production until 1991, totaling more than 3 million cardboard boxes with lawnmower engines on Eastern Europe’s roads.

The best thing about the Trabi were the jokes it generated:

  • Why is the Trabi the world’s quietest car? Because your knees cover your ears.
  • How do you double a Trabi’s value? Fill the tank.
  • “I’d like two windshield wipers for my Trabi.” “Sounds like a fair trade.”
  • How many workers does it take to build a Trabi? Three: One to cut, one to fold, and one to paste.
  • Why is the Trabi’s back window heated? To keep your hands warm while pushing.
  • When does a Trabi reach top speed? When it’s being towed.
  • What’s the longest car on the market? The Trabi, of course, at 60 feet long — 6 feet of car and 54 feet of smoke.

Like the Ampelmann (traffic-light man), the Trabi is enjoying a renaissance as a bit of “Ost-algic” communist kitsch. Old Trabis are being rehabilitated and souped up for tourist trips. Just be ready to get out and push.