When Julius Caesar returned to Rome after his foreign conquests he had a boat heavy with golden statues and other spoils of war. When Col. George Newman returned from serving in the U.S. Army in West Germany, he had a crappy East German car.
It’s called a Trabant, and when George starts it in his Great Falls garage, blue smoke belches from the tailpipe. “It’s just the antithesis of a good car,” he told me as we took it for a spin Wednesday. And yet it probably taught George more about how the Cold War would end than any briefing he got as an officer in charge of an artillery brigade in the 1980s.
Back then he was stationed with his Army nurse wife, Jane, in Heidelberg, fully expecting that at any point the forces of the Warsaw Pact might come streaming through the Fulda Gap. There were watchtowers along the border and both sides stared at each other through their respective binocular lenses.
What are those people like? George sometimes wondered.
Well, like us, they were people who coveted fine automobiles. Sadly, what they got — if they were lucky, if they didn’t mind spending 15 years on a waiting list, if they could manage the annual payment to keep their place on that waiting list — was the Trabant. It had two doors, a two-stroke engine (meaning you mixed oil with the gasoline), 26 horsepower and was capable of maybe 60 mph — with a tail wind. It had a body that was neither steel nor fiberglass, instead it was composed of cotton fibers and resin, a material called Duroplast.
“It’s a Cold War trophy, but it is just a symbol of the inefficiency of communism and why the whole thing just collapsed at its end,” George said. “The focus was what the government wanted. What the people needed just didn’t matter.”
When George and Jane were posted back to Germany in 1990, the Berlin Wall had fallen, a milestone marked by Trabants streaming from East to West. The cars were going for a song. George got his — a white(ish), 1962 P600 — for less than $500.
“The West Germans made a concerted effort to get rid of them as quickly as they could, for a couple reasons,” he said. “They are terrible polluters and they weren’t capable of being on the Autobahn. They’re just a hazard. They couldn’t go over about 60 mph, and everybody else was passing them at 100.”
Unfortunately, Trabants proved even harder to get rid of than communism. Duroplast doesn’t ever rust, George said. “And you can’t burn the body because it puts out all kinds of toxic fumes. It’s an environmental disaster from all aspects.”
It’s also a lot of fun.
“The thing is actually pretty peppy for 26 horsepower,” George said as we tooled around the sun-dappled capitalist roads of Great Falls. “And it drives like a go-kart.”
The Newmans’ Trabant and those of other area owners will be on display Saturday outside the International Spy Museum. It’s a way to play up the whole Cold War vibe of the museum and mark the anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling (that was on Nov. 9, 1989). This is the fifth time the “Trabis” have been on parade.
“People show up from the Eastern Bloc countries and they tell their stories,” George said. “They’re really nostalgic about this. They look at these old cars and they invariably get a big smile on their face and then they start telling you about their memories.”
Old cars don’t just take you from Point A to Point B. They take you back in time, too.
Speaking of time machines, the 38th annual D.C. History Conference is Friday and Saturday at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. Things actually kick off with a reception Thursday evening at the Goethe Institut, where Kenneth J. Winkle , professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will lecture on “Lincoln’s Citadel: The Civil War in Washington.”
Sessions Friday include presentations on African American history, the Civil War, the local Soviet Jewry movement, D.C. archaeology and more. Saturday’s sessions include the history of policing in Washington, contrabands in the D.C. area and local history resources on the Web. There are also guided tours of Civil War fortifications, Prohibition-era Washington and Lafayette Square. Registration is $20, $30 for the Civil War tour. For information and to register, go to 38thdcstudiesconference.wordpress.com.