When Trabants Were Like FerrarisS

Think cars and waiting lists and what comes to mind is the months ticking away after the down payment on a 458 Italia—or Horacio Pagani’s little black book. But for communist Eastern Europe’s motoring not-quite-masses, waiting list meant waiting and waiting for your apportioned Trabi. And waiting. But if you didn’t want to wait, there were ways to not wait.

One of the many quirks of communist planned economies was that you couldn’t simply go and buy things like a car or a phone line. You submitted an application and waited for years. The system had unexpected upsides after communism fell in Eastern Europe—cell phones, for instance, took off like wildfire—but it was a gloomy state of affairs. Tricks were needed.

The document here is a Hungarian order form for a Trabant from the waning days of communism. Merkur was the only company with a license to import cars (Hungary didn’t have its own car industry apart from the weirdly awesome microcars). Notice the dates! The form is dated June 2, 1982, with an estimated delivery for 1987. The car was ordered by József Ekker, who told me the story of how he got it two years earlier.

When Trabants Were Like FerrarisS

The way to do it—unless you were a party apparatchik, in which case all it took was a 10% down payment and a few months—was to bribe someone at Merkur to procure a car classified as a having a faulty paintjob but which was, in fact, in perfect order. For József, it took 5,000 forints and a change in color: instead of Bone, his car was colored Dolphin Gray. But he got it in 1985.

This weird state of affairs led to yet another quirk: used cars could be sold for more than they’d cost you new. József paid 62,500 forints for his Trabant, drove it for four years—all across Yugoslavia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria, including up the Grossglockner High Alpine Road twice—then sold it for 65,000 forints in 1989. Then, with his Trabant, communism was gone too.

Special thanks to József Ekker.