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A Trabi Renaissance

A Trabi Renaissance

CreditRenate Benkner

BERLIN — The two-door, 2-cylinder Trabant was — and almost certainly remains — the most familiar commodity to come out of the former East Germany. The flyweight car with plastic body panels and an engine barely more powerful than a garden tractor was best known for its dull tones and cramped, bumpy ride.

No wonder, then, that today it is seen by many as an artifact of the failed German Democratic Republic (which was actually socialist) and for many, a symbol of the collapse of the entire Eastern bloc. Here in the German capital, the Trabant is an object of jest and playful ridicule that tourists gawk at in museums of contemporary culture or, as a lark, might rent to tour the city for a day.

But this mocking take on the Trabi, as Germans call it, belies another world, one of committed, doting Trabant owners who are convinced that the model, mass produced as of 1957, has virtues that go largely unappreciated.

You won’t often see these aficionados in Berlin, where Trabants without catalytic converters or special permits are banned.

There is an exception, however, when Trabants are welcome in the city: Nov. 9, the anniversary of the 1989 breach of the Berlin Wall.

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Among the festivities scheduled for this year’s celebration, the 25th anniversary, is a Trabant parade through downtown. Joining participants from Holland, Switzerland and the Czech Republic will be two Trabant convoys, one from Stuttgart and another from Paris.

With 32,000 Trabants on the road across Germany, according to the country’s motor vehicle authority, one might conclude that the owners were mostly former East Germans wallowing in nostalgia. In fact, owners represent a bright palette of young and old, men and women, easterners and westerners — and all they have in common seems to be an ardent love for the Trabi.

“It’s become a cult object — the Trabant is cool again,” said Olaf Seifert, editor of Super-Trabi, a glossy magazine that claims a circulation of 4,000.

“Young people are discovering them now,” he said, referring to teenagers and young adults who had not been born when the last Trabants were made in 1991.

Mr. Seifert said that Trabant fans associate the car not with the rigid dictatorship of the postwar years, but with the tens of thousands of East Germans filing out of the country in bumper-to-bumper lines during the fall of 1989. To the car’s present-day admirers, the Trabant is a symbol of defiance and liberation.

Vital to the Trabant’s renaissance, Mr. Seifert said, is that they are cheap, robust and easy to maintain, adding that a dilapidated Trabi can go for 100 euros, about $125.

“Some people parked their Trabants in an old garage or shed and forgot about them,” he said. “Now they’re taking them out, fixing them up or just giving them away.”

Young drivers, he said, can bring such a castoff back to running condition for a few thousand dollars at most. Collectors, however, will pay as much as $10,000 for rare models like the much-derided Trabant 601 with pop-up triangular roof tent, so long as it is in original condition.

Trabi fans are effusive about the cars.

“It’s so basic, there’s not much that can go wrong,” said Falk Wannhoff, 36, a machinist from Hartmannsdorf in eastern Germany. “There’s no air-conditioning, electric windows or any of that.

“People who laugh at the Trabant have never tried driving one,” said Mr. Wannhoff, who owns three.

Daniel Pohl of Prenzlau, north of Berlin, said the cars were really reliable. “With a Trabant, you know you’re going to get to where you’re going, even though it might take a bit longer to get there.”

Mr. Pohl, who rescued his uncle’s Trabant from the scrapyard, said that he could make most small repairs himself.

Renate and Peter Benkner, native Bavarians living in Munich, met by chance at a Trabant club gathering eight years ago. They discovered that they shared a love for the automobile and for each other — and married soon after. Since then, they have taken their Trabant to Italy and Morocco.

“We were even in the Sahara with it,” Ms. Benkner said.

“There’s some learning to be done at first,” she said. “In a way, one has to learn to drive again because automation has taken over so much of the driving experience today.”

Mr. Benkner, who bought his first Trabant in October 1989 from an eastern German, drives his car all year, parking it only during snowy winters when salt brine from the streets would eat away at the undercarriage. But it’s easier than ever, he said, to order spare parts on the Internet. There are many companies selling repair parts, and a company in Hungary produces new hardware.

Most Trabant owners do not modernize their cars’ smoky two-stroke engines with pollution controls, nor do their vehicles qualify for exemptions as vintage models, so they cannot drive in the so-called environmental zones of cities like Berlin.

Nevertheless, a warm welcome is expected when the Trabi convoys arrive in the capital. One of the best things about driving a Trabant, said Lothar Kohlhaus, an owner from Ulm, “is that they make people smile.”

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