Don’t Weasel With My Diesel And Other German Engineering Feats

Released this week, Consumer Reports' 2016 rankings report evoked memories of a truly horrible brand from the past — East Germany’s Trabant.

A couple who found a more effective use for a Trabant (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia).
A couple who found a more effective use for a Trabant (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia).

Amid all the ugly news of exploding airbags, malfunctioning seat belts and seemingly endless automotive recalls, one automotive story surfaced this week that brought a smile.

Consumer Reports delivered its annual ranking of the top 30 automotive brands and placed Germany’s Audi in the top spot, Italy’s Fiat pulling up the rear and everyone else stuck somewhere in the middle lane.

Yes, some might take issue with the magazine’s current choices. After all, the aforementioned German automaker saw its U.S. slogan morph from “Truth in Engineering” to “Don’t Weasel with My Diesel” in recent months, and the improved Italian brand probably deserves better than its oft-heard “Fix-It-Again-Tony” label.

But that’s not what brought about the smile. Nope, for some reason the 2016 rankings report evoked memories of a truly horrible brand from the past — East Germany’s Trabant — a brand that today would fail to qualify for the magazine’s upcoming lawn and garden issue.

The Trabant was designed by designers following World War II to show the world that Communism would roll forward — even if mostly downhill and only when pushed.

Built (Assembled? Glued? Stapled? Chewing-gummed?) in a former Audi factory that was abandoned after East left West, the new team obviously used a different set of engineering schematics from those used previously — one that initiated a unique “Quattro” format that reflected only the number of tires.

In a Time magazine article on “The 50 Worst Cars of All Time,” the 1975 Trabant was highlighted for its 18-hp two-stroke engine that “smoked like an Iraqi oil fire” and often lacked brake lights or turn signals.

At the depths of its height, the Trabant was in such demand that the waiting list behind the Iron Curtain ballooned to 13 years, which is longer than it takes to get season tickets to even some very bad NFL teams here in the states.

For every new Trabant produced, 43 people were standing in line. Demand was so great that used Trabants were moving at more than double the 4,000 DDR Marks (about $400, according to some estimates) price established and locked in by the government.

One can only imagine the look on the faces of the lucky folks who placed their orders for a brand-new Trabant in 1977 and took delivery just before the Berlin Wall came down, rendering that $400 gem completely valueless.

On the other hand, those who managed to keep their old-smoky in tip-top shape today can find a pretty good collectors market not only in Europe but also here in the U.S.

But, buyer beware! There’s actually a site called Trabant USA that offers important rules before buying and importing your Trabant:

Rule 1: It must be 25 years old or good luck getting past EPA and DOT regulations. (In California, chances are it’s easier to get a nuclear-powered toothbrush approved than a Trabant, but that’s just a guess.)

Rule 2: Title must be in the name of the person who is selling the car. (Not easy since so many changed hands, possibly as it was rolling downhill.)

Rule 3: It’s OK for the engines to smoke but not necessarily 24/7 (and you thought it was tough finding parts for a 1982 Fiat).

Rule 4 (my rule, not Trabant USA’s): Collect stamps instead. They’re cheaper and last “forever,” as in until Amazon buys the U.S. Postal Service.

That’s the story of the Trabant.

If there’s interest, next time we’ll look at the meteoric plummet of the Yugo, one small car for (a) man . . . one giant leap into the landfill.

If there’s no interest, we’ll examine famous victories involving the Corvair, and that might not be so pretty.

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