A West German businessman was driving his Mercedes through East Germany. It was a rainy night, and his windscreen wipers stopped working.
He stopped at a garage where the East German mechanic explained there were no Mercedes windscreen wiper motors in the German Democratic Republic. Nonetheless he thought he would be able to fix it.
The man returned the following morning, and found his wipers were now working perfectly.
“How did you find a Mercedes windscreen wiper motor in the East?” he asked the mechanic.
“We didn’t,” replied the mechanic, “We used the engine from a Trabant.”
More Trabant jokes?
Q. What does the ‘601’ in Trabant 601 stand for?
A. 600 people will order one, but only one will get it delivered.
(Or, by 1990: There are 600 cars on the lot, but only one customer.)
Q. Why does a Trabant have a heater at the back?
A. To keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it.
The ‘Trabbi’ or ‘Trabi’ was a small, smelly car produced in East Germany between 1957 and 1991. Almost 3.1 million were produced in total at the factory at Zwickau in Saxony, both for the East German market and for export.
“Creativity combined with boldness and the revolutionary will of a working class that has been freed from exploitation have given birth to this inconspicuous and yet sensational car,” ran the official line in the 1960s.
The reality was different. Its inefficient two-stroke engine belched out loads of exhaust. People could sign up for a Trabi and still be awaiting delivery ten years or more later.
Spares? Don’t be silly. East Germans quickly learned to hoard them or, later, cannibalise old Trabis. Due to all the care lavished by the typical owner, the lifespan of an average Trabant was 28 years.
It had its good points. When the first models were made, it was fast. It had room for four adults and some luggage. It was light, compact, and rugged, and its construction was so simple that owners could carry out their own repairs. Older Germans who lived under the East’s communist regime often regard it with nostalgia as, for all its faults, it was the family car for three decades, making holidays and picnics possible.
Indeed, the Trabi was a member of the family, as portrayed in the popular 1991 German comedy movie Go Trabi Go in which an East German teacher and his family attempt to re-live Goethe’s Italian journey in the family Trabi (called Schorsch) with, as they say, hilarious results.
One of the most enduring images of 1989 is the lines of Trabis abandoned on roads and campsites in Hungary as East German holidaymakers opted to cross the newly-opened border. Though there is the story of one young couple who, as they were dashing for freedom, turned to take one last look at their Trabi, realised they couldn’t bear being parted from it, and so made their spluttering, smoky way back home to East Berlin.
After German reunification, many Ossis couldn’t get rid of their Trabants quickly enough, trading them in for a few dozen Marks in favour of secondhand VWs. Others kept them as second cars.
Despite being widely regarded as one of the worst cars ever built, there are still plenty of Trabis on the roads of central Europe. Apparently some people think that owning a Trabi will bring you good luck.
One more? OK then…
Q. How do you double the value of a Trabant?
A. Fill up the tank.