Car Culture

I drove a hot pink communist-built Trabant around Berlin

And oh, how people stared.

berlin-trabi-safari-2018-13

Toot toot.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I thought I'd already seen Berlin from every angle. I've seen it from rooftop cocktail bars. I've seen it from walking tours. I've seen it from the hills above the city and from running the Berlin half-marathon.

But then I saw it from behind the steering wheel of an old East German Trabi, and after visiting this city almost annually for the last 10 years, I got to experience Berlin with a fresh set of eyes all over again.

The Trabi, officially known as the Trabant, was one of the only vehicles manufactured and widely available in old East Germany behind the Iron Curtain. Made by HQM Sachsenring, a company that until German reunification in 1990 was owned by the government, the Trabi is often seen as a symbol of Cold War-era East Germany.

It's an antiquated piece of automotive technology -- a novelty and tourist attraction now -- that stands in contrast to some of the cutting-edge products and gadgets I'll see this week. I'm in town for the annual IFA trade show, which will play host to smart washers, gigantic ultra-crisp TVs and even robotic pants. But before I jump back into that world again, I wanted a more retro experience. 

Almost 30 years on, Trabis are a rare sight on the roads, and when they are seen -- especially in Berlin -- it's often because people like me are driving them as part of sightseeing tours. A Trabi Safari costs 49 euros and allows you to drive your own Trabi as part of a convoy around Berlin for an hour or so, taking in the city's main sights, from the Reichstag to Checkpoint Charlie.

Trabis are short and squat with prominent round headlights that look like bug eyes. My particular Trabi had been on the roads since June 1988 -- almost exactly as long as I've been alive. It was also a hot pink soft-top. My passenger and fellow CNET editor Andrew Hoyle told me afterward that we attracted a ton of attention as we drove around Berlin with the roof down. I didn't notice. My eyes were firmly fixed on the road.

I turned on the engine and the car sputtered to life, shaking and wheezing and rattling our rib cages. With leather peeling off the doors and exposed circuitry below the dash, the interior of the Trabi had seen better days. I was surprised how comfy the seats still were, though.

It's been a few years since I've driven a manual-shift vehicle, never mind around a major city, but my muscle memory kicked in almost immediately. For years after I first passed my test at 20, all I drove was an ancient Renault 5, a temperamental tin can with no power steering that it now turns out was the perfect set of training wheels for this old banger.

The first 15 minutes or so our caravan -- a guide car leading three other vehicles --pootled around Berlin's Mitte like a family of ducks. Over the car's crackly speaker we were instructed to get out of the lower gears as quickly as possible, and once I'd mastered heaving the gear stick toward me to get the car into higher gears, I was up into third and fourth in a flash every time. (There's no fifth gear to speak of in a Trabi.)

I got the knack of it just in time as our group leader suddenly hit the gas and nailed it along Unter den Linden, one of Berlin's main thoroughfares, stretching from the Brandenburg Gate up through to Museum Island. I didn't check the speedometer, but I think I might even have hit 50 km/hour, the top speed of the trip.

One aspect of driving the Trabi that requires some concentration is the indicator, which is not automatic. As thin and flimsy as a plastic straw, it's hard to remember to flick the stalk back to neutral after turning a corner. Only about halfway through the trip did I realize the indicator is also the horn. I gave it a couple of boops. It sounded a bit pathetic -- like it had a cold.

The commentary from our tour leader during the trip was on the weaker side (the tour was supposed to be in English, but ended up being more than 50 percent in German). Fortunately, knowing Berlin as well as I do meant that I was already well aware of the city's history and was happy just to enjoy the ride and the new perspective.

A particularly emotional moment was driving past the East Side Gallery, one of the best-preserved stretches of the old Berlin Wall and over the Oberbaum Bridge into Kreuzberg. Not so long ago, citizens living in East Berlin would have been banned from driving their own Trabis into this sector and instead would have been contained by the wall.

As always when I'm in Berlin, I marvel at how much has changed in the city in relatively little time. Symbols of the city's recent past are everywhere and as long as Trabis -- funny little cartoon cars that they are -- are on the road, they'll continue to be a part of this very visible historical narrative.

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