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Go Trabbi Go!

When Mike Chalker was serving in the armed forces in Germany during the sixties, a pretty little thing caught his eye. She was small, perfectly formed, and charmed Mike to the point where an indelible impression was imprinted. In fact, this little beauty, the Trabant, has been creating lasting impressions for over fifty years, with many variations of models and prototypes, including emergency service vehicles.

The Trabant, which translates from German as ‘Fellow Traveller’, is regarded with much affection by its followers, as it symbolises the more positive sides of East Germany, and the fall of communism, as many East German citizens rushed into West Berlin and West Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. From there, the car became a hit around the west of Europe, particularly old communist bloc countries, due to its modest fuel consumption, speed, four seats and luggage holding capability; and not to mention its charming good looks!

All those years after Germany, Mike still held a torch for the Trabant, so what better a project to have upon emigrating than to renovate one of his own? Mike, aged 60, says ‘Living here with no proper job, I felt it was important to have a hobby, particularly during the long, but mild, winter days. At one point in my life I lived in Portugal, and I found that many ex-pats just turned to the booze. I love my beer, but it mustn’t take over your life!’

Mike moved to Prisovo, near Veliko Tarnovo, over two years ago, after having worked as a mechanic for around forty years. He was also a sergeant in the AA, ‘when it was a proper club for members instead of the purely for profit monstrosity it has now become’.

Not only did Mike have his experience as a mechanic to justify his love of cars, but his youth also featured simple, classical cars ‘I was brought up in the days when my dad had his pride and joy in a little Austin 7’ he says, ‘In fact, my first motor was a Fordson van with a very simple side valve engine. I love simple long lasting things, and the Trabi is certainly that. It was built without the benefit of costly robots which use enormous amounts of electricity, but with the rather uncertain human input, so they are all different.’

The Trabant manufacturing process was very labour intensive. Due to minimal funding, the cars were built using mostly Vietnamese guest workers, remaining unchanged throughout the Trabant’s production life, which ended in 1991. There were over three million Trabants produced, with the colour green being the most popular, as it was seen as lucky!

With his mind made up, Mike set about acquiring an old Trabant, with a little help from his friends. ‘I have some very dear Bulgarian friends who have a small car repair business in the village, and they heard of my wish for a Trabi. They searched the local papers, and eventually found one. When they took me out to view it, that was it ... I fell in love instantly! For 220 Leva, about £75, I got the car, in fair running order, with spare engine in bits in the boot, a spare wing, and a year Vignetta, insurance and Bulgarian MOT.’

One of the benefits of buying such a common East-European car, is that Bulgarian mechanics are very savvy with the maintenance and repair. Aside from mechanics, everyday citizens often became Trabant experts. When purchased new, the original Trabants had to be ordered, and the waiting list could often be several years. Therefore, when anyone eventually obtained their long-awaited vehicle, they would be very careful with it, and be very skilful in ensuring its upkeep. Due to this waiting list, used Trabants began to fetch a higher price than the new models, as there was no waiting period.

After the purchase, Mike could then start the fun stuff. ‘Because I am a mechanic and not a body person, my lovely friends, Slavvy and Mya, sprayed the car in a genuine Ferrari red both inside and out; I am a great believer in giving work out to the local tradesmen. They also found a local upholsterer to completely rebuild the seats in black velour. The plan was to keep the car original but looking real cool. They also found a small shop which specialised in Trabant parts, and the owner was really pleased when he heard what I wanted to do. Almost everything I want is available and all I am waiting for now is a new front section of carpet. The engine and motor only needed a little tune up and it goes like a dream, albeit a 50-year old dream, so not exactly the Ferrari that the local kids call it, but a lot of fun!’

The average life expectancy of a Trabant is around 28 years old. So how is Mike’s little beauty faring? ‘It’s 21 years old and with its smoky two stroke engine pumping out fumes, it is a nightmare to drive, so we travel only short distances.’ he says, ‘It is so wonderfully simple with transverse cart springs for suspension, and brakes which work - sort of - it is just a little time machine. However, I’m sure it will soon be pushed of the roads by the beaurocrats in Belgium who are all driving their SUVs and 4x4s.’

Although us Brits are used to beetles and minis, the Trabant, like the Lada, is a common sight in Bulgaria. But how are the Bulgarians reacting to an ex-pat Westerner driving around in their ‘national’ car? ‘The chief of the local KAT in Veliko Tarnovo can’t keep his hands off it.’ says Mike. ‘He thinks it is lovely, and all the locals wave when I drive by. Particularly other Trabant owners love it and want to inspect every bit of it. There is quite a large UK community here and now the idea has taken off! They all now want a Trabbi, so of course the prices in the local papers are creeping up!’

Trabants are still featuring around us in popular culture. Rock band U2 used Trabants as stage props in their 1992-1993 Zoo TV tour, and was also used as a cover image on their album Achtung Baby. Chris Rea used a Trabant in his music video, Texas, and several European rock bands derive their monikers from this classic car, for example, Czech band Traband, Icelandic electro band Trabant, and Polish band Los Trabantos. The humble Trabant has also branched into film, featuring in flicks such as Go Trabbi Go,‘Goodbye Lenin!, The Spy Game with Brad Pitt, and Everything is Illuminated with Eliijah Wood.

This mini machine has a big heart, holding huge historical events, cultural fondness and unique manufacturing techniques within its past. With people like Mike keeping the Trabant alive, it’s no wonder a revival is planned.

Long live the Trabbi!