The New York Times visits a Trabant owners’ rally in Germany:
“I’m not a typical complaining ossi, who always talks about how great everything was then,” Uta Pleissner said, using the colloquial term for East Germans. “But we treasured things in those days. The Trabant was a symbol: You had your family, you had a house, and you even had a car.”
Or at least a reasonable facsimile of one: With a body made of fiber-reinforced plastic, known as Duroplast, the Trabant really has more in common with a lawn mower than with a modern car. With its two-stroke engine, it accelerates from zero to 60 miles an hour in a leisurely 21 seconds.
…Moreover, unlike a Mercedes, the engine is so simple that virtually anyone can peer under the hood and make sense of it. Because East Germany produced only two main models of the Trabant over 30 years — more than three million cars in total — the parts are easy to find and interchangeable.
When I first came to Germany, saw one of these cars parked on the street with a "For Sale" sign, and decided to buy it.
After all, it was only 500 Euro. Plus, the sign in the window said that it had something "automatisch." With my faulty German, I interpreted as meaning it had an automatic transmission. This is important. Like most Americans, I can’t drive a manual-transmission car. "Fancy that," I though, "a Communist vehicle with automatic transmission!" So I call the guy who owns it, and ask him whether the car really has automatic transmission, in my crappy German. I have a strong suspicion that I asked him whether the car had "automatic grain", since the word for cereals (Getreide) is similar to the word for transmission (Getriebe) to non-native speakers.
"Yes! Yes!" he responds in his crappy English. Of course, he had no idea what I was saying.
We meet outside the city, so I can test-drive the ancient plastic Communist chariot. The first sign is reassuring: there’s a gear-shift lever on the neck of the steering-wheel. Just like in real automatic transmission cars from the 1970s! I shoehorn myself into the car, which is slightly bigger than a cake decoration. The owner, an amateur tennis player in his 20s, is even taller than I am. He contorts himself into the passenger seat, with much grunting and the rich crackle of kneecap displacement. I cheerfully start the car, which, if memory serves, required doing something very odd with the key, like inserting it a hole between the seats. "Yes, it is wonderful car! "says my new friend. "The family has been waiting 10 years for the car, then comes the Wende and I became the car as a transport means."*
Who could have been stupid enough to think that Communists could design a car with automatic transmission? Me, that’s who. Of course, the car was a manual. I have no idea how — or even why — to operate a clutch lever. To make matters worse, the clutch lever in this model is some sort of flimsy metal flange located far beneath the dashboard. The ‘test drive’ can be divided into three parts: (1) hideous grinding and thumping noises; (2) stretches of free-gliding down narrow streets in a hilly suburb, narrowly missing pedestrians and other cars; and (3) mind-breaking terror as the Trabant rolls toward a busy intersection and, cursing and shrieking, the owner tries to explain to me how to downshift and stop the car before it plunges into cross-traffic. Him: "Nein! Nein! Push down the Kupplung!! Please do it now!" Me: "What the fuck is a Kupplung?" Him: "Ach! You must stop the car! You have not the Vorfahrt!" Me: "Shit, these gear letters make no sense! [grind, thunk] Am I supposed to shift up or down? [thunk-thunk, shudder] What the fuck is a Vorfahrt?"
We survived. Needless to say, the previous owner drove the car back to the city, amid awkward silence.
I learned a lot of valuable lessons that day.
* Germans frequently directly translate the German work bekommen, or "get," as "become"’ in English. A friend once described a meeting in which his boss, a German media executive, tried to convince Chinese clients that if they hired his firm, "they would become lots of money." The Chinese looked down at their bodies, as if contemplating an exchange of those sacks of smelly flab for crisp 500 Euro banknotes. They seemed to find the idea intriguing.