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Classic German Cars Find Home In Longmont

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A Trabant (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

A Trabant (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

LONGMONT, Colo. (AP) — After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, scores of East German families flooded across the border to a new life in their tiny, rattly Trabants — the spare-yet-iconic cars that were thriftily manufactured for decades in the communist country.

Once across the border, many families abandoned their “Trabis” — which sported sputtering two-stroke engines akin to a souped-up lawnmower’s and bodies sculpted out a type of plastic that was reinforced with cotton or wool — leaving them scattered across no man’s land or dumped in the streets.

But one man’s trash is another’s treasure.

More than two decades after the last Trabant rolled off Sachsenring’s production line in Zwickau, Germany, at least three have found a welcoming new home in Longmont — two with Charlie Bigsby (though one is mostly cannibalized for parts) and one with John Short.

With only an estimated 100 or so Trabants in the United States, that makes Longmont a hotspot of East German car culture.

It may take a certain kind of person (and the right era) to fall in love with a Trabant, the way Bigsby and Short have. The often-maligned cars have been the brunt of a seemingly endless amount of jokes — How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill up its gas tank — and when Germany re-unified, the biggest issue with Trabants was how to get rid of them.

You couldn’t recycle the car body, and burning it released toxic pollutants in the air. For a couple of years in the early 1990s, scientists were even searching for a type of microbe that might eat the cars, which were stacked up in junkyards.

But Bigsby and Short say Trabis — which are beginning to be appreciated across Europe and the United States as collectors’ items — have gotten a bad rap.

“The Trabant has a reputation for being cheaply made, but they were frugally made,” Bigsby said.

And by that, Bigsby means they have everything you do need and nothing you don’t: no sun roofs, no cruise control and, for that matter, not even a gas gauge. (You stick a plastic dipstick in the gas tank to tell when it’s time to fill’r up — and don’t forget to premix some oil in with the gas.)

“They have all the things you need for them to be a car — wheels on the bottom, doors on the side,” Bigsby said.

Bigsby, who has never been to the former East Germany, or even Europe, for that matter, fell in love with Trabants, and actually, all vehicles odd, scarce and Eastern Bloc-ish, when he was young and flipping through European car magazines.

“The weirder they are, and the less there are, the more I’m interested,” he said.

That explains why Bigsby now owns eight motorcycles from the same region — including a couple of Jawas manufactured in the Czech Republic and a Ukrainian Dnepr — as well as a Czech Skoda vehicle from the 1980s. And Bigsby, who covets finding rare-in-America Russian Lada cars, says he has another Skoda on the way.

Bigsby’s 1966 Trabant has been modified to mimic a Trabant rally car, which, apparently, was a real thing.

“An East German team rallied these all over Europe,” he said. “They raced in the Monte Carlo.”

John Short’s 1972 Trabant looks more like the classic car that East Germans bought for approximately a year’s salary after sometimes waiting more than a decade to have their ordered car delivered. And just like those families, Short’s Trabant is his primary vehicle, and he says it runs well in all seasons.

“The Trabi does great in the snow,” he said. “I’ve got some East German snow straps.”

Short, a native of England, first fell in love with Trabants when his family vacationed in Eastern Europe, and then began driving one in his home country. When he moved to Colorado, Short didn’t want to be Trabant-less, so he had a friend buy a car and put it on a ship bound for the United States.

Short picked up his precious cargo in South Carolina, and then promptly drove it across the country. (He can get his Trabant going up to 80 mph on the interstate — but it’s better, and more comfortable, he says, not to push 65.)

Short also is a lover of authentic Trabi accessories, and beyond the snow straps, he and Bigsby have built a camping tent for his car. The blue-and-yellow canvas creation pops up on top of a welded frame that is attached to the roof. The whole deal was built to the original specs that Short found online.

“We have copied that to the letter,” said Short, who has used the tent on some fishing trips into the mountains.

For both Bigsby and Short, owning Trabants in Colorado has brought some attention and many a run-in with curious passersby and even other car collectors.

“It’s just a whole lot of fun to show up at a car show, like Cars and Coffee in Lafayette, and back in with a smoking, East German, two-stroke Trabant right next to a bright red Ferrari,” Bigsby said, “and watch all the fellows who are clustered around the Ferrari leave it as though it had the plague to ask questions about the weird little East German car they’ve never seen before.”

- By Laura Snider, The Daily Camera

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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