Growing up in communist-controlled Hungary in the 1980s, Judit Csonka remembered her hair blowing in the wind as the compact, cream-colored sedan cruised down the highway from Budapest to her parents’ lake house. From the back seat, the then-5-year-old observed a trail of nearly identical cars lining the road all the way to the beach — much like the Parade of Trabants that sprung up in Washington’s Penn Quarter over the weekend.
“It used to be the custom that going down the highway from Budapest to [Lake] Balaton and you would see people jam-packed in them,” she said as her 4-year-old son Andras climbed on a Trabant nearly identical to her parents’ outside the International Spy Museum. “When it was a really hot summer we rolled down the window and that was your air conditioning.
“We used to call them paper cars.”
The comparison wasn’t far off.
Made of Duroplast, a heat-pressed mix of cotton fibers and resin, with materials sourced from textile industry waste, the now-sought-after jalopies are relics of an era when time all but stopped. Produced in East Germany from 1957 to 1991, with few modifications over three decades, the car was the Communist answer to the Volkswagen Beetle. It sped off the lot at a maximum speed of 60 mph, pushing 26 horsepower in a two-cylinder, two-stroke engine. It ran on a mix of oil and gas that was standard in gas pumps in East Germany, but has to be mixed by hand by owners and collectors now.
A line of Trabants, with their distinctive circular headlights and cartoonish dimensions, was on display Saturday outside the museum for the 11th annual Parade of Trabants. More than 3 million of the cars were produced in Zwickau, East Germany, according to collectors, and distributed across the Eastern Bloc and elsewhere in Europe.
Collectors estimate that there are about 200 Trabants in the United States; about 20 of them were showcased in Washington over the weekend. They came in every color — papyrus white, mustard, glacier blue. But there were two basic shapes: a station wagon and a sedan.
“These cars are really the Model T of the Communist world,” said Roger Fuller, 60, of Northborough, Mass.
At the parade, owners congregated and shared their appreciation for the hapless little autos.
“It was a ‘people’s car’ . . . [built] to allow people to move — but not too far,” said Trabant owner Caleb Montgomery, 28, of Lawrenceburg, Ky.
The cars, simultaneously a punchline and a treasured piece of nostalgia, unleash all manner of reactions in passersby. Fuller remembered how he and his wife, Ingrid, were driving near Cafe Berlin on Capitol Hill last year when they were accosted by a couple, overcome with emotion at the sight of a 1989 Trabant 601s De Luxe wagon.
“They were just so stunned that we had a Trabant that they kind of reacted viscerally and opened the door,” Fuller recalled.
Once someone signed up, it could take upward of 10 years to receive one of the cars. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the sudden access to brands such as Volkswagen and BMW, many abandoned their Trabants. But for children and onetime owners, a certain appreciation developed over the years.
“For some people, their youth, their heritage is all wrapped up in this,” Fuller said. “They loved them and they hated them at the same time.”
In recent years, a collector industry has sprouted in the United States. Easy access to parts online has allowed it to thrive, owners say.
Mike Annen, who owns more than 20 Trabants, remembers watching scores of the cars streaming across the border on television in Maryland after the wall fell.
“I said, ‘Wow! I’ve got to get one of these!’ ” recalled Annen, of Whitehall, Md.
Annen, who supplied several of the models at Saturday’s rally, said he was intrigued by the simplicity of the car.
Trabant engines, for example, have only five moving parts, making them easy to work on and nearly “indestructible,” in his mind.
“It’s kind of like driving a go-kart,” Annen said. He compared the whirring of the engine to a “weedwhacker in a cardboard box.”
Although the cars are tiny, they have been called an environmental nightmare. That much was evident as a baby-blue sedan chugged away, leaving a trail of similarly colored smoke Saturday.
Compared with the average mid-2000s European model, the cars produce nine times as many hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxide, according to Amanda Ohlke, adult education director at the International Spy Museum, citing facts collected by the museum.
“There is a haze that falls over the front” of the exhibit, Ohlke said.
And the body material, which collectors likened to “cardboard,” is somewhat indestructible — but not in a good way. Burning it produces toxic pollution, collectors noted.
George Newman, 73, of Great Falls, Va., pulled up to the parade Saturday in his “all original” cream-colored 1963 model, with a blue stripe running down the side, after a harrowing ride during which a deer strutted around the George Washington Parkway. Newman, a retired Army colonel, managed to avoid it in his trusty “Trabi.”
“I call it my Cold War trophy,” said Newman, who served eight years in Europe during the Cold War. “It’s like all the old cars in Cuba — they really didn’t have a source of parts so they kept these things running through their workarounds, [and] that’s what we do, kind of, in a way.”
That doesn’t mean the car is a glimmering engineering masterpiece.
“It’s just the absolute base lowest sophistication,” Newman said. “It’s just laughable — everything about it.”
The cars emit blue smoke. They lack a fuel pump so the gas tank is placed conveniently above the engine, which Newman calls a “safety nightmare.” There’s no radiator. The car is air-cooled.
“It’s like a lawn mower engine,” Newman says.
At least one of the models on display Saturday was for sale. So — were any passersby on Saturday tempted to shell out for a piece of Soviet-era nostalgia?
Havey D. Bronstein, a D.C. economist supporting friends in the parade band, answered decisively.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of these,” he said. “It looks like a clown car from the circus.”
But Csonka, who fondly remembered the view from the back seat of her parents’ Trabi, saw it differently.
“It really represented — and represents for me — just to enjoy life, to have fun even if we had little,” she said. “We appreciated it and that was our life. We weren’t longing for more. So that’s the beauty that it brings.”