It is not that we miss a lot of things from the socialists years, but let’s admit: when looking back, probably quite a few of us can remember at least one thing that was not all that bad. There were some funny things and one of them is definitely the Trabant – designed and made in East-Germany. Probably every family owned one in the 70s as it was affordable. In Hungary, I think we had to wait about 6 months to receive one. In East-Germany the waiting list was about 18 months or so. Can you imagine?
Anyways, not long ago I did something ‘crazy’ and booked a Trabant tour. All I can say is that I loved it! Respectively, we loved it. My partner has never experienced a Trabant before, so it was beyond words – well, hilarious – to see his facial reaction. Trabant tours are one of the specialties of My Personal Budapest private tour service company that I wrote about a while ago.
For our trip we were picked up by András Novák, owner of My Personal Budapest, by Balázs Ackermann, our private Trabant driver and by a long-time-no-see Trabant. After a sneak-peek under the hood – which was amazing -, Balázs drove us around the city and András showed us some places I have not even been to (or did not know of – how embarrassing…). We enjoyed both: the cute Trabant as well as having been taken to the hidden spots of the city.
During the tour one thing definitely struck us and it was Balázs’ enthusiasm about his Trabant and how he loves driving it. It turned out that his entire family is crazy about Trabants and they also own a collection of these cute cars. Obviously, I could not resist and have arranged for an interview with him to find out more about his passion:
Hungarian Success Stories (HSS): When did you notice that you have a special bond with cars and how old were you when you started driving?
Balázs Ackermann (BA): Usually this is the first question, when I meet someone trying understand my hobby. (Balázs smiles …) Well, I basically grew up in my mother’s first Trabant. It was my first experience with cars and I fell in love. It was very different from the typical cars of the 90s and it definitely planted a seed. Somehow it also came naturally that at one point I said to my mother I would surely drive a Trabant when I get my license. This sounded a little strange to her, as all of my mates were dreaming about sports cars and certainly not about a simple old car that was designed in the early 60s in East-Germany.
I started to learn driving when I was 7 years old with my Mom’s help. I could not even look out of the car, I was still a little boy. But I have driven independently from the age of 11. First we went to test my driving skills at a slalom race in Hungary, and I ended up on the 4th place which was quite good for a beginner racer. That was the moment when I started to race with our Trabant and step by step I learnt more spectacular driving tricks.
HSS: It is not hard to guess what was the first car you owned . . .
BA: My first car was the same Trabant 601, what I use today. It is my daily car and my mate during the Trabant sightseeing tours. This year I have been using it for about 11 years and it has never broken down. I usually take it to the Trabant get-togethers or sometimes I drive it for longer distances. Once my family and I even drove to Germany and the Trabant was very reliable considering the long journey. It is needless to say I have other Trabants, too, some oldtimers from the 60s to the 80s, but my first Trabant is the best in the collection.
HSS: How come that you and your family have this Trabant-Love?
BA: It has been kind of a family tradition to drive Trabants for many years. My father’s first car was a Trabant, too in the 70s and it became the symbol of reliability in the family. We owned different cars during the years, but the Trabant was the best. We could repair it anytime when we had to and it was cost-effective to maintain it. When I started my racing ‘career’, Trabant seemed to be the most affordable choice to make this dream come true. On the other hand, I love classic cars from the 50s and 60s and the style of the Trabant is very similar to those but in Eastern-Europen size. It has the typical characteristics of old American cars: tail-fin, grill on the front, gear shift on the steering wheel – very American design, but from the communist part of Europe. An interesting mixture.
HSS: You also do some stunts like driving on two wheels with your Trabant. When did this come to your mind?
BA: This is a funny story. When I was little I admired stunt drivers, who could balance on two wheels with their cars. This was one of my childhood dreams to be able to do this one day. And on the other hand, I noticed an effect, when I was racing: once I did a turn while pulling the handbrake during a race and tilted the car on two wheels. Luckily there was no accident, only a few meters of balancing. So I started to think, how can I do it again, but this time I was thinking of something like a spectacular show. I bought my second Trabant to practice and now I use the same car for the shows. I try to drive it very carefully and do not want to destroy it. It is a challenge not to turn it over, but I can do it now. At the moment I am the only stunt driver, who can do it with an original two-stroker Trabant. I am very proud of it, but first of all, I am proud of my car for surviving these exhausting shows. You see, the Trabant is a good car! It can even drive on two wheels – I am the living proof. It is also a good way to show everybody, this car is one of the best ones ever . . . :)
HSS: You mentioned that you regularly visit races. Where can your fans find you?
BA: I usually do shows at races, e.g. Hungarian villages’ days and sometimes I also do it for children. They are the best audience, always screaming and cheering when they look at my stunts. I love this feeling. I give them a spectacular show and their eyes are filled with lots of happiness. Of course, I have to be absolutely concentrated, because I could turn over the car anytime and anywhere – I can never be 100% sure, no matter how much I practice. I am always very careful, and that is why I have not destroyed my car so far. Doing stunts taught me how to concentrate on only one thing at a time. This year I would like to develop my skills, I plan to learn some new stunts and to become better in two-wheeling, too.
HSS: Would you ever lend your Trabant to anyone?
BA: Honestly, my first thought to this question was to say ‘NO‘. . . :) – only because I like my car, and I know how easy it is to turn it over. However, I would love to teach this trick to driving enthusiasts in the future. It is not a secret, it is not a hocus-pocus, you only have to feel the balance and you have to practice, practice and practice. It is funny though, because I have never seen anyone doing a stunt like this with a Trabant and I would like to have a look at it – so the only way is to teach it to someone and enjoy. (Balázs is laughing out loud . . .) So my final answer to the question is: yes, I could let someone drive my Trabant, and he or she could try the two-wheeling, too.
HSS: At My Personal Budapest tours you are one of the private drivers. What are the usual reactions when guests see your Trabant at first? And what do they usually say when they sit inside? (Now I am laughing out loud . . . )
BA: This car seems so strange to most visitors, but it is lovely at the same time. They usually cannot imagine, how could we use them for so many years during the socialist years. It just sounds impossible to them, especially to Americans as their cars are much bigger than my Trabant. It is always very entertaining to see their reactions when they sit inside and I explain how to drive it. Everything is different, but after a few kilometers everyone enjoys it. The most unbelievable thing for guests is that I use these cars on a daily basis and so does my family, too. These are not vintage cars just for the tours or for the weekend, it is kind of a lifestyle for us.
HSS: Do you have an interesting story you would like to share with us regarding the Trabant tours?
BA: Well, of course I have a lot of stories, but I guess, and one is really wort mentioning. Once we picked up two high ranking managers from one of the most expensive hotels in Budapest. Prior to this trip the Trabant never broke down, but this time it suddenly stopped in the middle of the city – we had to push it to re-start the engine and our guests helped us without saying a word. It was a funny situation – we all laughed. But since this affair, everything has been OK – these cars have souls, sometimes they are nervous and are joking with us, but if they stop running, I can easily repair them and that is the difference compared to modern cars. This is the reason why I like them!
HSS: Are you member of a special Trabant-Club where you can meet like-minded fellows, who are just as crazy about Trabants as you are?
BA: I am a member of the Hungarian Trabant-Wartburg Club. Usually, we organize meetings and trips to nice places in Hungary. But most importantly, we help to each other to find spare parts. I found some really good friends thanks to this passion and we are a big happy family. There are sub-groups in the Club: an old-timer section, the racers group and another group that is crazy about tuned Trabant cars. Different thinking, different Trabants, but the same family. I prefer to drive the early versions of Trabants, so I am a member of the old-timer section.
HSS: Where do you get your spare parts from, if you happen to need one or two?
BA: That is exactly the biggest challenge! I have a quite big stock of spare parts at home, but I usually need something that I do not have … The only way is to search on the internet and to ask my friends in the Club. Sometimes you can find Trabants in the junkyard, but these cars became rare in the last years. If I cannot buy something, the only way is to make it at home. The Trabant is the creative driver’s car! :)
HSS: If you are not on the road with your Trabant, what are you doing?
BA: Well, in the meantime this hobby is now a part-time job, but for now it is a passion that I do in my spare time. During the last years Trabant tours in Budapest became very popular and because of it, I work a lot with my cars to show this nice city to visitors. And, I have a lot of plans for the future, but at first I would like to finish my engineering studies at the university. However, nothing is impossible: if guests continue to love these tours, it can become a full time job for a while – I love doing it.
Also, I am really happy to work for My Personal Budapest. When I started to learn English in school I never thought that once I would do tours for guests. I never thought my cars could be interesting to visitors. I am actually living the dream as I love to tell my story and to show my interests to others and to spend a lovely time in Budapest with nice guests. A lot of locals here think, the only way to have a happy life is to leave Hungary and to move to other countries such as Germany or Austria. I am Hungarian, I am proud of it and I think we do have a lot of possibilities here, too. Hungary needs more powerful youngsters and I am doing my share by trying to make this country more popular among visitors and I guess – we are on the best way, with My Personal Budapest and with my Trabants.
My partner and myself really had a fantastic time and obviously it was not only about the Trabant, but about the whole experience with Balázs and András. Time spent with innovative people who turned their passion into a paid job is always a blast and it is very inspiring. We can absolutely recommend this tour, you will definitely not regret it. And just to finish off our story: there was four of us in the Trabant and none of us is of short stature. Not sure how we managed it, but we did and we had a great time. Now it is your turn . . . :)
Source of images: Balázs Ackermann’s courtesy.