On the road – from Germany to Cambodia – in a communist jalopy
Towed by camels and laughed at by pedestrians, the lowly Trabant is a modern-day Marco Polo for a good cause.
Move over, Herbie; here come the new stars of overachieving motorized underdogs. Hear them roar! OK, cough, wheeze, and sputter.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Meet Ziggy, Fez, and Dante – intrepid globetrotters, all three. Well, strictly speaking, only two remain: Dante gave up the ghost in Laos.
The decrepit champs are Trabants – "the worst car of all time" as autophiles label the infamous Soviet-era rattletrap; or "a piece of junk," as disgruntled owners used to put it across the former Soviet bloc, where the vehicle was once ubiquitous.
Yet a half century after its unveiling and two decades after its production ceased, the much-maligned car has finally proved its mettle.
Ziggy and Fez, with Dante an honorary also-ran, just completed a punishing, six-month transcontinental journey, from Germany to Cambodia, in a feat rivaling the adventures of Marco Polo. (Well ... in distance covered.)
The lowly auto owes its new prestige to Trabant Trek – an expedition meant to raise money for street kids in Cambodia. The worthy humanitarian cause also came with an automotive benefit – helping the derided little car prove that it could.
The team of four Americans and four Europeans (from England, Spain, and Hungary) drove their long-suffering jalopies across Central Europe to Turkey, then across Central Asia, on through Siberia, Mongolia, and China before limping wearily, via Laos and Thailand, into Cambodia in February.
It took them 173 days, 16,000 miles ,and countless breakdowns.
"The stress of driving in this car," admits John Drury, a linchpin of the expedition, made him constantly want to quit. "My knees are up here touching the steering wheel," explains the 6-foot, 3-inch bartender, from Bethesda, Md., as he squeezes into the tubby little driver's seat behind a plastic toy-like wheel. He faces a jittery odometer and three plastic switches.
Then again, he adds, you can just knock your seat back and drop into an exhausted sleep – in the Gobi Desert, say.