"How do you double the value of a Trabi?" – "Fill it up!" is one of the jokes in the 1991 film "Go Trabi Go", in which the East German couple Struutz with their daughter Jaqueline make the streets literally unsafe, because her sky-blue Trabant turns out to be a not-so-reliable companion thanks to its several breakdowns. Finally, they manage to drive it to Italy.

Back in the days, the Trabant divided minds: in the West it was condescendingly laughed at, while for the ordinary people in the East the cheap car was a blessing. Its owners had a kind of love-hate relationship with the Trabi, while truck and bus drivers and others only poked fun at the "cardboard car" because it was loud and uncomfortable. Every second car in the German Democratic Republic, for instance, was a Trabant, and the vehicle has come to represent the former bloc like no other commodity.

Especially when you consider the Trabant’s unreliable working parts, it seems remarkable that the company Go Trabi Go, which named itself after the film, has a fleet of 40 still functioning cars. The company started with only a few 11 years ago and grew to offer such events as company teambuilding, weddings and birthdays. Today they operate various tours through Budapest, including a communist one to see traces of the vanished system, and Trabi taxi rides.

Managing director Tímea Palai has used the internet to buy more cars from Germany to enlarge the fleet, the oldest of which is 36 years old. Meanwhile, the company had to move to a larger site in District XXI so that it has its own garage. Most of the cars are the most-produced model in the Trabant series, the P601.

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Palai is especially proud of her own pink Hello-Kitty Trabi, two rare convertible Trabants and a "tramp" Trabant, an off-road military car. In addition to the fully functional cars are about 30 Trabant bodies that are used for various games. For group events, for example, the bodies are painted white and can then be decorated by the participants with water colours, preferably more outlandishly than everybody else.

These latter often prove to be flowery hippie designs, something representative of the painter’s country or something artistically unique, the results then being immortalised in photos. There is also a Trabi with two fitness wheels installed in the boot. It can only be operated by a team of two cyclists and a driver. A third game is the Trabi race with an empty body, where your own feet have to be used, like a racing bike.

Budapest sightseeing tours by Trabant are held. "People always smile and wave when they see our colourful Trabi fleet driving through the city centre," smiles Palai. The excursion starts at the Széchenyi fürdő, proceeds over Heroes' Square to the Chain Bridge then through the Castle District and over Gellért Hill. This route is set so that a safety car can quickly help in the event of an accident or technical problem. Sometimes people have got lost too, requiring a search party to be sent out.

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"For most of our guests, they don’t really know what to expect and it’s s suprise when they see the old cars," says Palai. "For tall people the little Trabi can be a challenge, but so far everyone has had fun."

All those aboard can have a go at the steering wheel. Driving a Trabant is not difficult but when one is hired it still requires a short introduction to the technology before setting out. Unlike modern cars, the Trabi does not have power steering, so requires a little muscle. At 600 kilograms, it is considered a lightweight among automobiles. This is mainly due to its material, duroplastic glued to a metal frame. With its two-stroke engine and four-speed gearbox, the car reaches a top speed of around 100 kilometres an hour. The brake acts directly on the rear tyres, which makes driving it a mechanical matter between man and machine.

The Trabant was easy and cheap to produce, which corresponded to the ideas of the socialist era economy. At its height, some 2.9 million were on East German roads. Due to the shortage of production, there was a waiting list of up to ten years for a "luxury" Trabant. One person was allowed to order one vehicle. Most people over the age of 18 went on the list. Spare parts were hoarded, not just in case of beating a shortage when needed but also as a possible barter for other goods.

Despite the German history of the cult car, German tourists rarely come by, says Palai. The tours are more in demand among foreigners such as Italians, French or Americans. Hungary was one of the few countries to which East German citizens could travel freely, and many entire families drove to Lake Balaton with a tent strapped to the roof and the boot full of luggage.

In summer 1989, shortly before the fall of the Iron Curtain, thousands of German Democratic Republic citizens left for Hungary and a refugee camp was built in Zugliget. Hardly anyone dared to talk about their plans for fear of secret service spies. Eventually about 150 refugees in 50 Trabants left for the pan-European picnic on the Austrian border, without any certainty about the future. They all left their beloved Trabis and Wartburgs on the Hungarian side and exchanged them for the new freedom.

With the fall of the Wall in 1989, a long caravan of Trabants drove west across the border points of East Germany.


Go Trabi Go prices: from 6000 forints per hour
See gotrabigobudapest.com


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