The trailer for director Guy Ritchie's film adaptation of The Man from UNCLE opens with an improbable nighttime car chase through the streets of East Berlin in 1963. The sequence features two relics of the Cold War, neither of which is remembered for its chase-worthiness: a lumpy Wartburg 311 and a Trabant 601. Of the two, it is the Trabi, piloted by Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) that catches the eye. There's simply no denying it: the car has star power.
In much the same way that Japanese gearheads adore the awful Chevrolet Astro van and Germans fawn over Hasselhoff-era Pontiac Trans Ams, American motoring writers, this one included, tend to maintain an abiding affection for the Trabant, that innovative yet nightmarishly unreliable people's car from the former Easter Bloc. So it is no surprise that gatherings of Trabant enthusiasts and their beloved P50s, 600s, 601s and 1.1s, are the subject of great interest to said writers.
As Germany gears up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of reunification on 3 October, Trabi enthusiasts fired up their cars and gathered in the former East German town of Nossen, about 50 miles southeast of Leipzig. Many of the dozens of rolling survivors that occupied the Steinbusch on 8 August – most of them 601s, of which some 2.8m were produced between 1963 and 1990 – carried original East German "DDR" oval plates.
As its champions will gladly share, the Trabant 601 was quite clever in many ways, including its transverse-mounted engine and front-wheel drive, fully independent suspension, unitised steel structure and tough thermoplastic body panels strengthened by waste cotton or wool fibres. Of course, the car's two-stroke engine left much to be desired, thanks in no small part to its use of a gravity fuel feed (with a front-mounted fuel tank) rather than a safer, more reliable mechanical pump. Such failings are mere quirks to the Trabi faithful, however, and really, sharing tales of overcoming mechanical adversity is the whole point of gatherings like the Nossen meet. Misery loves company, after all.
So how do you turn a 26-horsepower Trabant into an action hero? To prepare the 601 for its role in The Man from UNCLE, the film's stunt team replaced the original 0.6-litre two-cylinder engine with the screaming in-line four from a Suzuki Hayabusa motorbike – and in the process changed the driven wheels from front to rear. The result is a wickedly quick, tail-happy monster. Watch the trailer below.
The Man from UNCLE reaches cinemas on 14 August.
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