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Write What You Drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

East Berlin in a Trabant

Tourism and "travelling" is big business; tourists all looking for the one quick-fix defining experience of a particular location so they can say "done that". I'd love to claim not to belong to the 21st Century breed of tourists who want to tick off places like the world is some sort of giant Eye-Spy book, without having any intention of appreciating the history or subtleties of local culture.

Unfortunately, on a recent trip to Berlin I would have been found at Checkpoint Charlie, walking the course of remaining sections of the wall and mooching around the Reichstag like the rest of the tourists. Thankfully I didn't feel the need to trivialise the city's potted history with a cringe-worthy picture arm-in-arm with mock American/Soviet soldiers or striking a cheery pose next to any of the more poignant pieces of artwork on the East Side Gallery.

By far the most unique part of my visit was renting a Trabant for a guided tour of the east side of the city. Recommended to me by Dave Robinson, I booked the "Wild East" route for the full communist experience.

The brilliantly named Axel and his colleagues at Trabi-Safari don't take themselves too seriously and the experience is pitched at just the right point between informative and poking fun at one of the world's most renowned rubbish cars.

The Trabi itself was a faintly terrifying combination of being both difficult to drive and faster than expected. There are 3 pedals, a handbrake and gear lever (of sorts) but starting off with a cold engine that would stall without a tickle of gas ratcheted up the difficulty.

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You work it out...

The gear selector is located at the side of the steering column (a la US auto) but has an H-type layout for manual gear selection, meaning that getting into 3rd involved resetting the lever to the neutral position and then pulling it out towards you before pushing down to engage. This is easier said than done when reaching around a steering wheel at 30 mph in a car with bodywork made of recycled plastic.

For this reason, I didn't listen to a lot of the opening 10 minutes of the tour that is relayed to you, along with directions, over the Trabi's radio from Axel in the lead car - preferring instead to concentrate on not killing myself. However, after I had got to grips with the gears, my attention turned to the Trabi's 0.6L two-stroke engine.

It has a number of features that could have been described as outdated in 1963 (when production of the 601 started) and positively alien when compared to cars of today. A gravity-fed carburettor necessitates the fitting of the fuel tank to the top of the engine (further increasing my aversion to any sort of front-end impact) and the lack of a closed lubrication system meant that two-stroke oil had to be added (and burned) along with the fuel. This did push hydrocarbon emissions up a little; a point not lost on me after an hour in a Trabant convoy resulted in a bit of light-headedness.

Again, 26 horsepower wasn't a lot in the 1960s but with the Trabant only weighing 600kg and its fast-spinning 2 cylinder engine it is deceptively nippy up to 30mph. Wikipedia notes that a skilled driver can outperform modern cars in a sprint away from traffic lights. In a bid for skilled status, I demonstrated this point to a BMW 5-series driver at a set of lights by the East Side Gallery, showing that communism perhaps didn't get everything wrong...

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East and West in perfect harmony...

Whilst the straight line performance wasn't too shabby at town speeds, I'm afraid the same can't be said of the handling. Taking a corner at anything above 20mph led to the steering becoming comically light and the feeling of the skinny wheels and tyres struggling to transfer lateral cornering forces and 26 rampaging East German horses.

But the point of the Trabi-Safari is not to have the ultimate driving experience; it is enormous fun and I, like everyone else on the tour, struggled to keep a huge grin from my face for the whole journey. If you're visiting Berlin and fancy a dose of the unique then I reckon you can't go far wrong with a Trabi.

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