The International Spy Museum in downtown Washington, D.C., exists to tell the history of espionage and national security by connecting the realities of intelligence gathering to ideas and events in popular culture. Toward that end, it currently has an exhibit about James Bond, demonstrating how 007’s nemeses were inspired by real-life threats. Fortunately for us, this includes a couple of cars: a tricked-out Aston Martin DB5 used in promoting Goldfinger as well as the Jaguar XKR used by the baddie in Die Another Day. But the museum is more famous, automotively speaking, for its annual parade of one of the most unloved vehicles ever to trundle off an assembly line, the car that (barely) put East Germany on wheels: the Trabant.
“When we opened 14 years ago, we had two Trabants on display,” said Amanda Ohlke, adult-education director in the museum’s exhibitions and programs department. “They were props in our re-creation of East Berlin as a city of spies. And then 10 years ago, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we decided to do something fun to celebrate, and so we had a parade of Trabants.”
Since then, the event has become an annual occasion, and it has grown every year. A German band now makes a regular appearance, as does a rolling re-creation of a German border crossing, with museum employees dressed in East German State Security, or Stasi, uniforms. (The German Embassy helps sponsor the event.) Once word got out to the American Trabant faithful, the number of Trabis increased as well. There were just a handful at the first event. Last year, there were 20.
Responsibility for this explosive growth in the population of the fiendishly underpowered, two-stroke smoke machines can be traced, like nearly everything in the universe of American Trabants, to Mike Annen, a 58-year-old Maryland mechanic who first fell in love with the cars while watching the Berlin Wall fall on TV with his German in-laws. “Basically, everyone in East Germany who drove had one. It was just intriguing that they were stuck with the same car for so long. I said I’d like to have one,” Annen said, recounting the scene. “And my father-in-law replied, ‘Aw, they’re shit.’ ”
This did not stop him. Annen found his first Trabants in the early 2000s, a pair behind a fence in a lot in Baltimore. It turned out that they belonged to some other smitten oddball, who had brought them over to the States but was unable to meet U.S. Customs requirements for their certification. “They were scheduled to be crushed,” Annen said. “So I took it upon myself to save them. I started making phone calls and studying them and finding out what it would take to get them through customs.” It took him a year and more than 100 phone calls, but he was finally able to convince the government to approve. “I went back and bought them for scrap,” Annen said. “And it kind of took off from there.”
This is a bit of an understatement. Annen has since been back to Germany 10 times, stuffing Trabants into shipping containers and importing them. He estimates that he has brought 70 over. “I think I’ve sold 40 or 45.” Do the math: This means he personally owns around 25 Trabants and has had his hands on a plurality of the 200 or so that he estimates exist in the United States.
“They have this reputation of being the world’s crappiest car,” Annen said with near fondness of the snub-nosed oil burner. “But you have to remember what happened was that Germany got divided, and the West Germans had the Mercedes and Porsches and BMWs. These were roughly the same engineers who built those cars, but they were told they didn’t have the materials to build them [in East Germany], so they had to improvise. The beautiful thing about Trabants is, they were built out of necessity and a minimal amount of natural resources. But as far as engineering is concerned, they’re very well-engineered cars. And they only have, like, five moving pieces, so they’ll never strand you.”
This year’s parade, held on a Saturday in early November, saw an amazing turnout: 2300 people attended, as well as a dozen Trabants. There was a lock-picking workshop. There was an endless round of raffles for rides in some of the Trabants on site. And there was a reprise of one of the most popular annual events: the Trabant smuggle, in which attendees attempt to contort themselves into a box the size and shape of a Trabi’s trunk and mimic what it might have been like to try to sneak through Checkpoint Charlie during the era of a divided Berlin.
The fact that it didn’t rain was particularly fortunate. Because metal in the Eastern Bloc was reserved mainly for construction and munitions, the Trabant’s body panels were made out of a recycled material called Duroplast. “It’s basically plasticized cardboard,” Annen said. “They would take whatever kind of fiber—plant refuse, cotton that wasn’t up to grade—and they’d just throw it in this big grinder and mix it with glue. I’ve got a really early car, a precursor to the Trabant from 1958, and I store it outside, and I realized recently, wow, this car is starting to get soft.”
The International Spy Museum has just broken ground on a new building, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018. One of the permanent exhibits in the new museum will be a huge gallery devoted to East and West Berlin. The curators enlisted Annen to help them purchase a Trabant to include as part of their permanent collection. It came from the estate from one of their regular Trabant Parade attendees, who recently passed away.
“We bought the vehicle, and we’re going to have it on display in the new museum when it opens,” Ohlke says. “So we’ll have a working Trabant on display—for about two years before it becomes a non-working Trabant. Most of them become non-working Trabants.”