Amusing, perhaps

by Eszter Hargittai on July 28, 2013

I stumbled into this scene a few months ago in the delightful Hungarian town of Szentendre. I found it amusing instantly. But then I wondered: Is it too culturally specific to get why finding these two cars backed up against each other is funny if you didn’t live in a certain part of the world in a particular time period?

I was rather surprised that you can still find Trabants looking like this (or looking like anything) on the road. It turns out it’s even possible on this side of the Atlantic: the International Spy Museum in DC will host the Seventh Annual Parade of Trabants in November. Here’s a video of their 2012 parade. Who knew there were so many of these cars around in the US? (To clarify, in my view, anything larger than one or two in this case justifies saying “so many”.) I think the commentator on that video is wrong about this being the only available car in East Germany though. What about the Wartburg? Don’t know what that is? This video has a hilarious ad for it. As for the rest of that video about the production of the Trabant, you decide.



Glen Tomkins 07.28.13 at 2:43 am

The link to the Spy Museum’s Parade of Trabants, has this statement.

” …and enter a raffle to win a ride in a Trabant.”

It goes without saying that second prize in the raffle is two rides in a Trabant.


Ronan(rf) 07.28.13 at 2:59 am

” I think the commentator on that video is wrong about this being the only available car in East Germany though”

And the Lada ?


john c. halasz 07.28.13 at 3:05 am

And I hear tell that Cuba is a veritable museum of Detroit classics.


Eszter Hargittai 07.28.13 at 3:28 am

Glen – Spot on!

Ronan(rf) – Lada was manufactured in the Soviet Union. I don’t know how popular it was in East Germany given that they were one of the few designated Eastern bloc countries for making cars so perhaps they just drove their own. In Hungary, there were plenty of Ladas for sure.

John – I plan to post on that in not too long, actually! I was in Cuba last Fall and the vintage cars were one of the highlights of the trip for me.


Mike G 07.28.13 at 3:36 am

In communist-era Bulgaria, the Trabant was considered the least desirable of available cars – you could get one without waiting. The Lada was considered the best, with a 10-year wait list. There were shorter waits of several years for lesser eastern-bloc vehicles like the Moskvich or Zaporozhets or the Romanian Dacia.

There’s an amusing movie “Go Trabi Go” made in the early 90s, about an eastern German family who take their Trabi on a road trip through western Europe for the first time. It’s on YouTube, though not with English subtitles.


Bloix 07.28.13 at 3:45 am

“Gunvald Larsson arrived at the scene of the crime in his own strictly private car. It was a red EMW, which is unusual in Sweden and in many people’s eyes far too grand for a detective inspector, especially when he uses it on the job.”

From “The Locked Room,” by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (one of the Martin Beck mysteries)


I.G.I. 07.28.13 at 5:48 am

@5 You forgot to mention the Fiat made in Poland, but overall the picture is true. Talk about petty bourgeois mentality and obsession with small possessions….


Mao Cheng Ji 07.28.13 at 7:41 am

Was it so much different from the Cinquecento?


Philip 07.28.13 at 8:50 am

Mao Cheng Ji, I’ve just had a look around wiki and Polski Fiat started out with their version of a 125. Then they Fiat replaced the 500 with the 126 which had a Polish version too. So yeah the 126p is basically a cinquecento. The Polish factory also did the 125 with different bodies as the Polonez.


Philip 07.28.13 at 8:58 am

I remember a story from one of my Polish cousins. On a visit to Warsaw he saw an old soviet car crash with a high-end modern German one. The soviet car had a small dent and scratch and the German one came off a lot worse.


Mao Cheng Ji 07.28.13 at 9:15 am

Right, but not only the Polski Fiat. I mean that the Trabant, and the smaller Yugo, and the Zaporozhets were more or less a rip-off of the Cinquecento; the concept of it anyway. People tell me they loved their Cinquecento…


RSA 07.28.13 at 12:20 pm

When I was living in Germany in the mid-80s, I occasionally saw Trabants, most noticeably when they were pulled over on the shoulder of the road for one reason or another. What few bits I remember being said about them (but I didn’t observe myself) was that farm animals sometimes found Trabant body parts edible, and they didn’t have a gas gauge inside–you checked your gas level the same way you’d check your oil, under the hood. The Trabant in the photo is in great shape, as nice as any I saw almost 30 years ago.


P O'Neill 07.28.13 at 1:22 pm

@Eszter sorry for off-topic but since you’re here, this story seems like it warrants a coda to your Wimbledon/Twitter post.


s johnson 07.28.13 at 1:49 pm

The point is that since the Trabant is no longer inflicted on the Magyars that all’s right in the land of Orban?


Alex 07.28.13 at 2:02 pm

You’d be surprised how many eastern-bloc cars were knocking around 80s Yorkshire. Polski-Fiats, certainly, also Skodas before they were cheaper VW Passats, a few Lada saloons (which were the bottom of the pile), and quite a few farmers bought a Lada Niva/Cossack (which was more to the point).


Alex 07.28.13 at 2:03 pm

But never, ever a Trabi. I remember in Budapest in 2001 being surprised by the mix of all kinds of old eastern bloc cars (including Wartburgs!) and new Audis.


Tom Hurka 07.28.13 at 2:24 pm

In 1968 I was driven around northern Czechoslovakia (as it then was) in a Wartburg — happy memory! As I recall, the relatives whose it was had had to wait for several years on a list before they could buy it. As East German it was a comparative luxury.


Mario 07.28.13 at 5:04 pm


that’s a common misunderstanding. The german car absorbed the energy of the crash, it seams instead of the soviet car, but more importantly, instead of the passengers. Cars getting all crumpled up in a crash is the result of a safety feature, not of shoddy manufacturing . A crash of two solid soviet cars (or any of the old cars, before they figured out the crumpling thing) would have left the cars OK, but with a high probability of killing the passengers.

Ladas were a hit in the 90s in some latin american countries, along with some soviet era motor bikes whose name I forgot. They had the reputation of being cars/bikes for life (“because you’ll never be able to sell them used, haha”)


Random Lurker 07.28.13 at 5:24 pm

Fiat produced various models of car named “500” (cinquecento). The most famous model was the first italian car aimed at medium – low income families and was produced in the postwar period during the italian economic miracle.
As such it became a symbol of “happy days” and widespread prosperity, even if in facts it was a rather uncomfortable (but very cheap) car.


Philip 07.28.13 at 9:17 pm

Mario, I realise it was because of the safety features designed into the car. Dents in older cars that could just be knocked out will need a new panel on a modern car. I just thought it would be a funny image, like the OP.


I.G.I. 07.28.13 at 9:48 pm

The most exotic cars to come from the Eastern Block, however, were the Tatras. Mostly – but not exclusively – used by Government officials they are quite rare today, and consequently command more than a small change on the used car market. They were authentic too, build upon the pre-WW2 Tatra.


novakant 07.28.13 at 11:05 pm

The Trabant was made of some sort of recycled wool and paper compound, no joke. The exhausts were disgustingly smelly and the emissions off the charts. And to top it off the fuel tank was placed in front on top of the engine.

The hierarchy of cars in East Germany could be characterized as follows:

John Doe had a Trabant, the aspirational middle class a Wartburg, the upper middle class drove a Lada and the real big shots would be driven in a Volvo with a free pass on breaking the speed limit.


Tim Worstall 07.29.13 at 8:47 am

“was that farm animals sometimes found Trabant body parts edible,”

I have watched a horse try to eat one. Somewhere near Szceged, 1989…..definitely got a chunk out of it.


Peter Erwin 07.29.13 at 11:38 am

in my view, anything larger than one or two in this case justifies saying “so many”

Which makes me wonder what the appropriate collective noun for a group of Trabants would be… (A rabble of Trabants? A scuttling of Trabants? A breakdown of Trabants? I don’t know enough about them to come up with something really appropriate.)


Tom 07.29.13 at 7:16 pm

. It was a red EMW, which is unusual in Sweden and in many people’s eyes far too grand for a detective inspector…

EMWs were cars built in the old BMW factory in Eisenach, which was put back into post-war production by Autovelo, the DDR’s state automotive manufacturer. The cars were sold as BMWs in the DDR, but the “real” BMW in Munich prevented them from selling them under that brand in export markets. The blue quadrants of the BMW logo were changed to Red, surrounded by the name “Eisenachen Motoren Werke” and local importers (such as in Sweden) were left with the task of filing off the curved part of the “B” on the engine block to change it to “EMW.”


Tim Worstall 07.29.13 at 7:29 pm

A beehive of Trabants. From the sound the engine makes.

Still see a few being driven around here, Bohemia/Saxony.


Omri 07.29.13 at 8:48 pm

The overall shape makes me wonder if they ripped off the designers of the Susita.


nick s 07.30.13 at 3:18 am

I remember the Trabis in Budapest in 1993, when everything was still very post-Communist. The amount of cardboard that went into their bodywork seems to have made them less rust-prone than British cars of the same vintage, which are now bloody hard to find in realistic condition for use in 80s period drama, since the survivors are generally pristine and the remainder were scrapped long ago.

You’d be surprised how many eastern-bloc cars were knocking around 80s Yorkshire.

Oh yes, and a bit further north too. My dad had a Lada Riva, the one based originally on the Fiat 124, and I’ll defend it to the death compared to the Marinas and Allegros and Cavaliers of the time. And especially the Ital.


ogmb 07.30.13 at 1:08 pm

Not only Trabant and Wartburg, the GDR even had its own Porsche…


Owen 07.30.13 at 5:14 pm

wonder no longer — I still don’t get it. something about east Germany being backward?


Eszter Hargittai 07.31.13 at 12:23 pm

Owen – You may be attempting to read more into it than I had meant. I was just referring to the presence of a Trabant backed up to a Mercedes. I wasn’t sure how many people were familiar with the Trabant in the first place and how it is an interesting contrast to the Mercedes brand.

Thanks to folks for sharing the various anecdotes, I enjoyed reading about people’s various memories of Trabants and other Eastern bloc cars. By the way, I did see a bunch of Ladas in Cuba last year, which brought back memories. But the post I’ll be sharing at some point about cars in Cuba will be focusing on other makes.:)

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