Time Machine Test Drive: Exploring Budapest in a Communist-era Trabant

With Lenin, Marx, and Engels literally looking down on us, my fiancée Mindy, a Hungarian taxi driver—whose name I never did catch—and I pushed a dung-brown 1982 Trabant with a dead battery down a hill. After a few feet, it sputtered to life, coughing out a constant stream of blue smoke, a telltale sign that its engine actually had oil in it.

After all, every example of East Germany's proudest communist-era car burned oil from its two-stroke, 2-cylinder engine. It was the most authentically Eastern Bloc moment I'm likely to ever have.

Now worth about as much as a month's rent for a one-bedroom apartment, the Trabant was emblematic of success in 1980s Hungary. Prospective buyers plunked down half the Trabant's value and then waited at least half a decade for theirs to arrive. Buyers didn't even get to pick their color. When theirs was finally built in Zwickau, East Germany, they were ecstatic.

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All that wait for what remains one of the worst cars ever built. Assembled for more than 25 years, it slowly put Eastern Europe on wheels. Trabants were designed to soak up the postwar Eastern Bloc's broken roads and they were built with what limited materials the Soviets could scramble together. Their bodies were made of a recycled composite not unlike Bakelite called Duroplast, which meant that they held up well to abuse.

Driving a Trabant in Budapest

Driving a Trabant in Budapest

Trabant engine

Trabant engine

Driving a Trabant in Budapest

Driving a Trabant in Budapest

Today, the Trabant (or Trabi, as they're affectionately known) is a relic, but one that delights tourists like myself. While on vacation in Budapest, the ever-gracious Mindy agreed to sit in the back seat of a Trabant 601 while a local tour guide puttered us around town for a few hours. For more than a decade, Rent-a-Trabant Budapest has let curious outsiders get a little taste of the way things were (and the way they smelled).

A great way to see Budapest

As we learned, there's not a more fun way to see Budapest than from the unsupportive seats of the world's worst car.

Our tour guide, Judit, picked us up at our hotel in Budapest's ultra-touristy old town area—ravaged by the Soviets during World War II but restored to an almost Disney-perfect charm today—on a sunny June morning. We hopped aboard and found remarkably good interior space for a car two feet shorter than a Hyundai Accent. Over cobblestone roads, the Trabi's leaf-sprung suspension and tall sidewalls provided a comfortable ride. But there was no escaping the clatter underhood, which reverberated off of every surface. Tourists swung around to look at every opportunity and Judit delighted in honking the little Trabi's meek horn.

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Judit drove us to Memento Park, a scruffy collection of Eastern Bloc monuments that once loomed darkly over Budapest until they were removed in the early days of Hungarian independence. Today, these artistic representations of Soviet and Hungarian leaders are almost cartoonish; they don't draw the disdain they once did, but they are far from majestic. Memento Park isn't easily accessible by public transportation, so we were happy that Judit lugged us there in her Trabant.

On the way to Memento Park, Judit told us about how her family waited more than five years for their Trabant, which was delivered in the early 1980s. It opened up a whole new world by putting them on wheels. Theirs was blue, not that they had a choice. When Hungary officially opened its doors to the rest of the world in 1989, Trabants were a symbol of oppression. Most were discarded, once their now-privatized maker figured out how to dispose of their bodies (they were chewed up and re-purposed as an ingredient used in concrete).

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