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Trabant: The car that gave communism a bad name

Greg Mellen
Orange County Register

Santa Ana, Calif. — It’s been said that beauty is skin deep, but ugly is to the bone. The late and clearly not lamented communist-era East German Trabant was not only ugly but plug-ugly.

To say it looks like a clown car insults all the other clown cars.

Time magazine wrote of the Trabant, “This is the car that gave communism a bad name.”

But one man’s eyesore is another man’s amore. And when Josef Czikmantory sees his much-maligned Trabant gleaming in the Southern California sun, what he sees is freedom. What he sees is an escape from the yoke of Soviet-style socialism. What he sees is something beautiful.

It was a 1975 Trabant 601 that carried Czikmantory and his family from the Eastern bloc to the West in 1986, when freedom seemed an elusive and priceless commodity.

Since moving to the United States, Czikmantory has cashed in on the American dream, working, starting several businesses, buying a home and raising a family. He is also a regular participant in car shows and frequently partakes in Sunday drives with his wife.

Czikmantory’s departure from Hungary was no Steve McQueen kind of great escape.

Rather it was a kind guard at the Austrian border who gave the nod to lift the gate.

“He said, ‘Good luck with your life,’ ” Czikmantory said. “I was afraid to breathe. Then I got in my car and went putt-putt-putt across the border.”

It wasn’t until he was beyond machine-gun range that Czikmantory exhaled.

At a recent car show, Czikmantory explained his connection to the car to a woman wearing a T-shirt from the Kowabunga Van Klan of VW enthusiasts, who definitely knew a “Thing” or two about ugly.

“Let’s say there is Chevy guy. He loves all things Chevy. Imagine he is in gulag,” says Czikmantory. “Then he gets his hands on piece of (junk) Pinto. And he gets away in that car. What then will be his favorite car?”

The rhetorical question hews pretty close to Czikmantory’s life story — minus Chevys, Pintos and gulags.

In 1985, Czikmantory, who is from Transylvania in Romania, was near the top of the social ladder in Hungary. Yet the ambitious, imaginative young family man felt imprisoned by communism. Sure, he was a mechanical engineer and valued at his plant as a kind of machine whisperer. He had the Trabi, a status symbol and highly prized in the Soviet bloc despite all its shortcomings. He had a condo, a good salary and a wife and his 10-year-old son, Akos. He was only 35 but had climbed just about as high as he could in his country.

And it chafed.

“I thought, ‘OK, it’s over,’ ” he said. “I thought, ‘I can do more and better.’ ”

But not in Hungary. Not in a Soviet-style country.

Czikmantory says he tried about 10 times unsuccessfully to part the Iron Curtain.

Until the guard overlooked his lack of proper paperwork and allowed the family to leave.

The little Trabi didn’t make it far into the West. After Czikmantory crossed into Austria, he was told he needed car insurance.

So, as many Germans would do later when the Berlin Wall came down, he did the only sensible thing. Czikmantory parked the car in front of a trash container and walked away.

Czikmantory said his family slept on park benches in Vienna on their first night of freedom.

In the U.S., Czikmantory was able to parlay his mechanical wizardry and entrepreneurial spirit into building several small businesses, including Josef Czikmantory Enterprise Ltd., which he now owns. He even designed and built parts for Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

Czikmantory didn’t necessarily miss his old Trabi. But over the years a certain sentimentality built up.

About 12 years ago, Czikmantory’s son, Akos, said his father called him to look at a Trabi up for sale, one of only about 200 in the U.S.

However, after they looked at the car, for which Akos said the seller wanted $4,000, they passed, because it had a number of problems.

“So we went home,” Akos said. “Then I looked on eBay and there was one for $850. So I bought it for my Dad.”

Akos and his father both joked that the price was outrageous for a car many former owners literally couldn’t give away. Many Trabants can be found moldering in fields in Europe where farm animals have learned the Duroplast siding was actually edible.

After buying the car, Czikmantory paid about $2,000 to ship it from Europe and has since put in another $5,000 to paint it white, the color of the car he escaped in, apply undercoat, overhaul the two-stroke engine and make other improvements.

Wherever he goes, the car is a head-turner, due in part to its amazingly loud rattle and belching smoke clouds. And the “IRN CRTN” license plate.