Vyst's Misadventures Through Europe

Trabant Woes

Experienced: December, 2011 Written: Shortly Thereafter


While I was staying at my first place in Romania, a farm owned by a British guy north of the city Reghin, I had a scenario of trying to get one the dilapidated cars in his collection to work. My car knowledge is hit and miss and after being unsuccessful, I sent an email to my dad to see if he could come up with anything useful. After writing it I thought it was funny enough to send out to my mailing list. I reposted it here in its entirety, having only re-organized the pictures to fit into the text (instead of all being dumped at the end).

Yo Dad,

This British guy in Romanian that I'm staying with has a collection of Trabants. Some East German car from the communist era that runs on 2-cycle mix and is mostly made out of paper. The guy is from London and has barely done any driving in his life. That makes me the mechanic, seeing as I've been under my old Saab more than once.

Willis, my 1992 Saab back in Vermont.

Here's the Trabant.

Ain't she a bute?

We tried to get one started today and ended up nowhere. I was wondering if you could think of something I didn't, as the engine is pretty damn basic. Here's what happened:

Graham (the British guy) handed me the keys as we walked toward the car saying, "You said you know how to drive, right?" I got into the driver's seat, searched for the keyhole which was under the steering wheel, put my foot on the clutch and reached for the stick only to find a parking break. I looked around between the two seats then asked, "What the fuck? Is this thing an automatic?" despite my foot still pressing the clutch. I looked around a bit more and found the gear-shifter next to the steering wheel where you would normally find it on an automatic. I kept my foot down on the clutch and moved it around a little bit--there was no labeling as to which position was what gear, but he reported to me that there were indeed four gears, neutral, and reverse. I kept my foot on the clutch just to be safe as I started the car.

Now tell me which part about this is intuitive...

The thing revved up immediately and sounded pretty good for having its bumper attached with a piece of wire, and as I put the parking break down the thing died. I pulled the break back up and tried to start it up again. I got some form of combustion but it didn't keep going by itself this time. It was around now that Graham pointed out that there was a choke and a valve for the gas line next to the two knobs for the thermostat. Doh!

Ohhhh... I get it!

He also pointed out the instructions written on a piece of duct tape on the dashboard of the car:


Useful advice for me.

The choke has two labels--an R and an A, which obviously correspond to something in German. I just treated it like any other motor I've dealt with and assumed pulling the thing out gave it more choke. We were then left wondering what exactly the other valve did. Graham mentioned something that you were supposed to turn it on when you're driving and had to make sure you turned it off while not because you could lose all your gas (it has no labels, by the way). I turned the valve as far as I could to the other side and tried to start the car again. The engine turned over strongly (at least the battery is good), but still didn't take off. I pushed down on the gas pedal a bit to give it some encouragement, but that did nothing. I then pushed down on the gas pedal all the way and that did the same amount of nothing. I even started to get the feeling that the gas pedal wasn't actually sending any gas through the line. I then turned the "throttle" or whatever the hell it is all the way clockwise (the position I found it in) and we got out to see if we could find anything about it on the internet in English.

The immediate answer to that question was no.

After taking a break I went back to take pictures of the thing to send to you and I decided to give it another shot***. More or less the same thing happened; it started up right away sounding quite healthy, then petered out after a few seconds. Stepping on the gas this time gave some sort of response, but couldn't keep it alive. The second start lasted even less long, and the third start gave nothing. The twisting of knobs produced no fruit once again so I came back in to write this email.


"You got a camera?" I asked.

"Yea, why?" came the response.

"Because my camera isn't that great and I was wondering if I could use yours to take some pictures around here."

"Well, mine isn't that great either."

"Oh well, I'll just use mine then."

I went to my room and returned with my camera and showed it to him saying,

"The deal with this thing is that if the front cover is on it won't take pictures. I had to unscrew the damn thing and now I have to take the cover off whenever I want to use it. This is actually worse than it being broken, because if it was broken I could just buy a new damn camera."

"Oh, you have see mine then." Graham chuckled and went into his room, coming back out with a camera in a black case. He pulled it out of the case and turned it on, the lens protruding out as per normal and showed it to me.

"You see I have two options: one dead spider in the lens," I looked closely and indeed saw some curled up spider legs inside the lens of the camera. He then gave the camera a vigorous shake and showed it to me again, "Or two dead spiders in the lens! All my pictures have at least one dead spider in the corner."

Ah, yes. I think we'll be getting along great here.


So the question is, you got any fucking idea what's going on here? My one hypothesis is that when the car runs for a few seconds, it's running off the initial gas in the fuel line, which for whatever reason isn't getting replaced with more fuel (which doesn't entirely hold up because the thing started again 15 minutes or so later). My guess is some combination of the fuel valve sitting in one position for a certain amount of time plus the correct application of the choke is what I'm looking for.

The guts.

I'm including some pictures in the email. Let me know if you have any ideas.


P.S. Pictures include:

#2: The choke and throttle.
#5: The steering wheel with the gear-shifter. See it? What the fuck is that?

8-11-2012 Addendum

To answer the immediate question, no I never got the car started. I ended up being too busy at Graham's place (plus too cold to care) and left after being there for two weeks. However, Uli the blacksmith sent me an email with some information he found (in German) on how to operate the damn thing and some pictures to go with it.

Left: Winter and summer positions for the air in-take. Position two uses pre-warmed air for combustion.
Right: How the gear shifter actually works. What a clusterfuck.

Spots on the car requiring regular re-greasings.

He also figured out what I was doing wrong. What I had originally though was the choke was actually just a knob for the thermostat. What I had thought was just the on-off switch was also the choke! There were THREE options on the valve: R, A, and Z. I didn't notice until much later, but if you take a closer look at the picture of the valve from above, you'll notice a faded-out Z on the right of the diagram:


R is "reserve" (i.e. what you use the get the car started), A is "open" (what you switch it to after the engine is running), and Z is "closed". Who ever had used the car before me had left the valve on the "reserve" position, meaning gas had been slowly leaking into the fuel line for however long the car had been sitting there (giving the added complication of the light-ends of the gasoline evaporating off and the residuals sticking around to gunk the whole line up). Basically, the car was absolutely flooded/gunked-up. It had probably used the last remaining bit of fuel at the end of the fuel line to initially start then abruptly died as the fuel line was either flooded or gunked.

To make matters worse, because I assumed that whatever idiot had used it last would have been sensible enough to leave the car in the "closed" position, I thought "on" was "off" and "off" was "on". Thus when I left the car and came back, I just re-flooded the damn thing and got a similar reaction from it as my first try. Too bad. It would have been fun to drive it around.

Before I left the place, Graham told me a story about how some time before he had used the Trabant to transport his goats after acquiring them. On the way home he was pulled over by a police officer. The plates were outdated on the car, but apparently in Romania that's only a minor concern. The cop walked up to him and, quite understandably, asked what the fuck he was doing with a bunch of goats in the back.

"Goats?!" Graham asked, looking toward the back seat then back at the cop, "This is my wife's family!"

The cop, not really sure what to do with the situation, went back to his car and called up his superior.

"Hi. Yea, you know that crazy British guy who lives out in Idicel Sat?" Graham heard him asking on the phone, "He's transporting goats in the back of a car with expired plates. Listen to this, when I asked him what he was doing he said..." I can imagine the conversation went back and forth a bit longer. "Uh-huh. Yea. Okay. Got it." The cop hung up the phone and came back over to Graham.

"You're free to go." The cop said to him, "But the local department told me to make sure that everyone is properly wearing their seatbelts. Have a nice day!"

Hooray Romania!

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