Clarkson on: the Trabant
This article was first published in August 2001.
As Europeans everywhere blanch at the notion of a single currency, fearing that such a thing will turn us into one giant amorphous blob, I have at last found one thing that does unite the entire continent.
We may speak different languages, eat different food, practice different nocturnal perversions and keep different dogs, but believe me, a local car show in Zwickow is the same as every local car show you've ever been to anywhere.
You get the same blokes in stone-washed denim mooching about buying things that their wives would rather they didn't: bits of steering wheel, rear light assemblies, CJD burgers. You get the same unintelligible public address systems and the same line up of bored girlfriends in inappropriate outfits.
Zwickow is in former East German Democratic Republic, so named, of course, because there was no democracy. What there was, just outside the pretty old town, was a huge and useless car factory where they made Trabants.
When the wall came down, there was a drive to rid the roads of these hopeless little cars with their 26bhp two-stroke engines and their woeful safety record.
It wasn't so bad when everyone had a Trabant, but in a unified Germany they were sharing the roads with Audis, and it was a mix as devastating as Baileys and lime juice. You may remember that in '95 an entire East German family in their Trabant was killed when it hit an A8. And the Audi driver? He went home with a broken radiator grille.
Trabants did not sit well with Germany's philosophy of environmental protection either. I have done some mental arithmetic here: an S-class Mercedes produces the same amount of toxic waste over 30 miles that a Trabant chucks out in three seconds.
The only good thing about this Commie oxbow lake in the river of capitalism was watching the Green party agonise. The Trabby had to go, but this would be seen as Western arrogance. They couldn't deny the poor Easterners their wheels, planet killers though they may have been.
"In a unified Germany, Trabants were sharing the roads with Audis, and it was a mix as devastating as Baileys and lime juice"
Wait, there was another good thing about it. It spawned the first German joke that didn't involve poo. A cartoon appeared in a newspaper showing a Trabant salesman knocking on someone's door, saying: "Your car is here!"
Don't get it? Well, there was a 20-year waiting list for Trabants when the wall was up, and here was a car being delivered long after it came down.
Anyway, 12 years after Checkpoint Charlie was abandoned, most of the Trabants have gone but there is now a movement afoot to preserve a few for posterity. Hence the car show.
Not being the slightest bit bothered about Western arrogance, I rocked up in a Mark One E-Type Jag. Roof down. Dido on the CD player. And they didn't pay me any attention.
This is because I'd parked next to the longest car I'd ever seen. I think the owner said it was 15 metres long. Though he might have been giving me his mother's recipe for baked Alaska.
I was much more concerned about the fact that I had started to sink. It is a well-known fact that the weather at any car show can do what it pleases but the ground will always be like a quagmire. Zwickow was no different.Then there's the onion problem. There were stall holders selling pizzas, beer, hot dogs, more beer and beer. But still, there was the same all-pervading aroma that blankets every car show from Portugal to the Baltic. Fried onions.
There was confusion with the music too. Trabants can be bought in working order for just £30, which makes them very popular with young men who then spend £30,000 equipping them with stereos that can blow the doors off a police van at 400 paces.
Thus, the sound at the car show is a pulsating cacophony of bass. The organisers know this will happen, so why do they provide music for the tannoy?
It was the usual fayre. We started with the Scorpions and then Brian Adams, Toto, Europe and whatever else made the DJ feel like he was working for some Godawful soft rock KZFM west coast radio station.
We can't hear any of it, moron. Your puny loud hailers are no match for a Trabant pickup that's been turned from a dog into a giant woofer.
It's amazing what you can do to a Trabant. I found one with a VW 16v engine, and another with the two- stroke tweaked to deliver 68bhp. Then there was Michael Schumacher's idiot cousin who'd tried to make his Trabant look like a F1 car. It hadn't worked.
But that didn't stop every person stopping to take a photograph of it.
Everywhere I went, macheteing my way through the bass'n'onions, the story was the same. I was told that none of the best cars had made it. Which put me in mind of those crabs on Christmas Island. Millions set out for the mating grounds but only the fittest survive.
A bit like society really. They tried communism but it didn't live long. And neither should the cars it spawned. The solution's simple. Put one Trabant in a museum and shoot the rest.