I first became aware of Trabants while traveling in Germany during the week of unification in 1990. It occurred to me that there wasn't much celebrating going on there, and most of the folks I spoke to in Germany were skeptical about unification. I was working for the television program "MotorWeek," producing the show's "Porsche Special." The Porsche press office in Stuttgart had lent me a 928 GT to use for getting to my interviews in Germany and France. The 928 GT also allowed me to experience the Autobahn.
On a lightly traveled stretch of Autobahn between Garmish and Munich, I decided to see if the Porsche would achieve its advertised top speed, or rather, I decided to see if I could achieve it. As anyone knows who has ever tried this sort of thing, the last few kilometers per hour come very slowly and relative visibility drops quickly. What seems like flat, straight pavement at 120 kph turns into the Nurburgring at 270 kph. It was at about that speed that I sighted a very small beige car pulling out from between two lorries, into the left lane. The driver didn't know I was behind him.
As I approached the car's bumper at nearly three times its speed, I remember thinking: I am about to destroy this little car, and I don't even know what kind of car it is. Luckily, God and Robert Bosch were with me that day. I must have bent the Porsche's brake pedal trying to stop, just before the driver of the beige car suddenly recognized the peril he was in and moved back into the right lane, just a meter or two short of destruction. I learned two things that day: It is nearly impossible for drivers to judge distance when speed differentials are so great, and a lots of East Germans had driven to freedom in funny, slow, smokey cars called Trabants. From then on, the Trabis mocked me in my 928 GT. There were Trabants everywhere I went, including one on display at the Schlumpf Collection of the National Automobile Museum in Mulhouse, France.
It wasn't until 1997 that I found a Trabi in the States. It belonged to journalist friend in California. His story about acquiring the car goes like this: He had purchased a wrecked Porsche 935 in Germany and had it shipped in a container to California. He claims he opened the container and found two Trabants, one on either end of the Porsche, apparently as packing material. Seems they were littering the streets of Stuttgart, and something had to be done with them. Whether inclusion of the Trabants was a joke played on the buyer by the seller of the Porsche or whether the Trabis were really intended to keep the Porsche from further peril during shipment in the container, who knows.
In any case, after a drink or two with the owner, sight unseen, I purchased one of the two Trabis, a 1964 601. Since then, the car has been restored, and I keep it as a reminder of the lessons I have learned in life and in appreciation for the role it played in liberating half a nation.