When the Berlin Wall crumbled, many East Germans dumped their Trabant cars unceremoniously at the border and strolled westwards. Seventeen years later and the fortunes of the low-tech autos have come full circle: today, tourists pay good euros to fold themselves into a “Trabi” and splutter around Berlin on the Trabant Safari.
The selling points on the tour website are somewhat unusual: “Trundle around the city at 30km per hour … Learn the secrets of the four-“revolver” gear system … See the city from an entirely different perspective.” The entirely different perspective turns out to be low and squashed. The Trabi is small and to see out you have to slouch deep into the springs of the back seat.
Jürgen, our driver, got his Trabi-savvy from growing up in the east. Peering at us in the wonky rear-view mirror, he says a fleet of 60 Trabis takes tourists around Berlin or the eastern city of Dresden. There are two experienced Trabant mechanics on call at all times, he adds, sounding almost reassuring. Then there’s a loud splutter and a billow of black fumes. We are off, a motley convoy of three so-called “cardboard racers”. I’m in the front one: mustard yellow with brown fluffy seats. Our engine sounds like a chronically ill lawnmower (there’s an mp3 Trabi soundbite on www.trabi-safari.de/) We are on the “Wild East” tour, which costs from €25. It takes in the retro spike of the TV tower in Alexanderplatz, swathes of communist-built housing blocks and more traditional tourist spots such as Norman Foster’s Reichstag and Angela Merkel’s Chancellery building (nicknamed the washing machine).
It is 50 years since the first Trabi rolled off the production line. Three million of the cars were built and its essential traits changed little over the decades. Judging by our cars, the Trabi’s speed range goes from leisurely to tortoise-like. We keep having to pull over to wait for lagging safari companions who are struggling with Trabant technology. “It’s very weird to drive,” one British tourist says when he’s caught us up. “I put my foot on the ground and nothing seemed to happen at all.”
Jürgen admits it takes getting used to. He fondly pats the car’s cotton and resin bonnet and calls it “a robust little auto”. It’s only at the end of the trip that he lets slip that these days he’s the proud owner of a Mercedes.
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