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The British diplomat’s Trabant

The East-German car on a British mission

19/04/2013 07:42 |  Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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It’s just a Trabant with some green paint splashed on its shabby body, with a set of plastic five-euro hubcaps on its rusty wheels. All in all, it looks very, er, homemade. It could be any old bugger’s car from the neighbourhood, but blimey, it wears diplomatic plates…

We received a set of pictures from one of our readers. They depicted a Trabant 1.1 that was well past its glory years. We had a shot from the front, another from the rear. There was a catch however: this car had blue plates, not white. At first I thought it would make a funny post as it is on our Hungarian magazine's own blog, and it almost made it there by the afternoon.

But let's stop for a moment. This car might belong to a member of the diplomatic staff from a country in the Balkans, maybe it's driven by the son of one of the secretaries. I had a good reason to think so: the German Democratic Republic has ceased to exist decades ago, people living in the former Soviet states didn't really know the Trabi, the diplomats of the ex-Yugoslavian countries would be using Yugos for a laugh, not Trabant, and the rest of the countries that formerly lived under the umbrella of the COMECON (the extinct economic alliance of countries under Soviet dominance) have long passed this level. For them, a Trabant is not funny yet, no longer is it a necessity.

But there was one problem with my posting the car's pictures on the web. If you take photos of a car wearing diplomatic plates and then publish it, you could get into trouble with the authorities in Hungary. So I decided to do some research first.

A very surprising outcome

I tried to find an authority from where I could get permission for publishing the Trabant's photo. For a start, I turned to our chief programmer of the Totalcar site, Fuge, who is constantly developing a huge database of Hungarian licence plates as a hobby. Although he couldn't find the said licence plate, he disclosed one important information – the 02 plates usually belong to the British Embassy. Hey man, that's impossible; the Trabant we're talking about is almost a wreck, even by Hungarian standards. I mean... It has been really nastily hand painted to some horrible shade resembling Kermit the Frog. It cannot be British...

The next minute I was writing an e-mail to the embassy asking if the car in question was in their registry. I also mentioned that I would be more than glad to have a short interview with the owner. A few hours later I had the answer in my mailbox: yes, it's one of the Embassy's diplomatic vehicles and the owner is a certain Mr. Steven Fisher, who happens to be... the Deputy Head of Mission. And, should I be asking, he is more than glad to see me for an interview, I just have to set the time when it would be convenient. This is how it works with the British. Simply, efficiently, openly. The way it should, and the way it never does here, with Hungarian authorities.

A few days later I found myself in Harmincad Street, in front of the embassy – the place is roughly in the heart of Budapest. I usually read a lot of British mags (though most of them are about cars, I have to admit), I have been to England quite a few times, there were times when I was maniacally devouring Monty Python productions, the Persuaders, the On the Buses series, so I do have a vague idea of how British deal with official things. But even these experiences have not prepared me for this sudden twist of actions in the style of Douglas Adams.

I caught the green Trabant, squatting on the asphalt like a mean, old bullfrog, in front of the majestic building of the embassy. But I couldn't enjoy the heart-lifting view for long - a guard stepped tome right away. When he got to know why I came, he led me into the building, had my pockets emptied, looked in my bag, and only then let me through the security gate at the entrance. Beyond that point sat a receptionist lady in a booth, behind a thick glass with a rolling tray at the bottom. I had to deposit my mobile phone and wait until somebody came for me to escort me to the office of this Mr. Fisher. Who, apparently, is an important diplomat of Her Majesty's service. And he's driving a Trabant that normally I wouldn't poke with a stick. My head was getting dizzy.

I found myself in a high-ceilinged office with sparse, albeit heavy and expensive furniture in it. After the brief introduction we got to the point. Which was the green, papier-mâché caricature of a car in the parking lot. I had a faint notion that this wasn't one of the typical issues that are usually dealt with in this room.

Totalcar Magazine: How did you arrive at buying such a car?

Steven Fisher: I frankly think the Trabant is an interesting car; it somehow blends in with the recent history of the country. And maybe I also have an uncommon sense of humour. There came a moment in my life, when I decided to buy a practical small car to complement the family MPV. I had been thinking of a Peugeot, you know the one that looks like a sports car but in reality it's just a nice coupe. But I took a closer look and it sprang to my mind: it doesn't have such a strong character that I thought, in addition it's barely shorter than the family bus I'm using anyway. So I gave up on that idea.

It was around the time when I saw a bunch of Trabants being driven around Elizabeth square (that's near the embassy). And the drivers seemed to be having real fun. The PR person at the embassy also mentioned to me that Trabants are a hoot to drive; they are a bit like go-karts with some bodywork. As you see, there was a moment when I suddenly had a lot of Trabant-input. And on top of all this, I visited the city of Eger around that time, and I spotted a really nice, yellow Trabi in perfect shape – the owner must have spent a fortune on it. And I found myself liking it.

I took to the internet and with the help of a colleague I found my own, this very car. The owner brought it to the embassy's parking lot personally, I had a go in it around Elisabeth square, I still liked it, and so I bought it. I thought it's a simple contraption, so if anything goes wrong, it will not cost a fortune to mend it. Since then it has been a lot of fun to own it, in fact, it's brought me a lot more happiness than what I paid for it.

And everybody loves it – well, almost everybody, because there are always some who dislike anything that isn't mainstream. They like it in the traffic; I get lots of positive feedback when I use it. It is really easy to fix, when something breaks, I can usually solve the problem myself, if not, I can easily find somebody who can do it.

Somehow this car seems to suit Budapest perfectly, it complements the city. That said I haven't left the capital with it, although I had thoughts of taking it home to Britain. 2000 kilometres – now that would be a trip. I once did 100 kph in it, but that really seemed to be stretching its boundaries. According to the speedometer the car would be good for 150, but the engine would probably explode by then – at least in this specimen.

Even doing fifty seems to be going very fast in it. This is another thing I like about the Trabant: you really feel the road in it, and it's funny to bounce along the streets of Budapest driving it. And if you have to stop somewhere, you can always find a parking place where it fits.

Totalcar Magazine: Where do you have it serviced?

Steven Fisher: I fixed it twice myself, I even remember one of these instances. A wire got detached from the starter motor, and I just had to put it back. Otherwise there is a workshop in Lövőház Street where I take it to. They really like the car – understandably, since they're making money on servicing it -, to these guys a Trabant with diplomatic plates doesn't seem to be too strange.

I only caught stupefaction on their faces once. The cooling system needed bleeding since it had some air in it, and I had to take the Trabant to the service when the ambassador was in Britain. In such times I am the charge d'affaires, so I have to use the long-wheelbase black Jaguar with flags on the front wings.

I was leading the convoy with the Trabant and the embassy chauffeur was following me with the Jaguar. We arrived at the service at the same time. I deposited the car which undeniably has a worn look to it, then stepped out on the street, got in the back seat of the embassy car and we drove off. Now that must have been quite funny.

Totalcar Magazine: What do the other diplomats think of it?

Steven Fisher: They absolutely love it. I am often asked to give them a lift when we are to attend meetings. I'm not entitled to mention names or countries, but I can say that half of the diplomats from European working in Hungary have sat in this car. And my own colleagues from the British embassy – well, almost all of them have tried the Trabant.

Once I even took the ambassador home, because his car was at the service and we live quite close to each other. I told him I only had the Trabant with me. Since he also has got a good sense of humour, he said that's good news. Upon crossing the Margaret Bridge, we were stuck in the afternoon jam; the temperature must have been near forty degrees Celsius. The Trabi's engine – as it usual does so in that kind of situation – started overheating. I turned up the heating to let it cool. I can tell you, we almost melted in our pinstripe suits... And suddenly – a red light lit up, meaning the water was near boiling temperature. I summarized the situation to the ambassador:

1. The water will boil soon, and then he will have to get out of the car and push it off the bridge. And sometime later we will see lots of nice pictures in the papers and on the news, showing the British ambassador in a pinstripe suit pushing a green Trabant on the Margaret Bridge. A granted, albeit not too elegant, way of making headline news.

2. If he shuts his eyes for a moment, I would drive on the tram rails in the middle of the bridge, so the engine can cool down.

I received a mumbled answer that sounded like – “do as deemed appropriate”. I never break the rules intentionally, but had we broken down with the Trabant, we would have caused a jam stopping half the city. So I swerved on the rails, drove a bit there, the red light went out, and I nudged back the car's nose in the traffic a little further. Since then the ambassador hasn't asked for a lift.

Rather, it is the Hungarian authorities that seem to frown at the Trabi. When I am invited to official meetings in the Parliament, the protocol staff always asks the licence numbers and the type of the car I am to arrive with. My secretary provides the necessary data, and there's always dull silence at the other end of the phone. Usually they assume that they probably misdialled the number. They certainly have a tough headache coming to terms with the situation. Of course I always get the permission, and I can enter with the Trabant. There comes the really funny bit, to see my green car amidst those expensive, black limousines in the parking lot.

Totalcar Magazine: Why the colour?

Steven Fisher: When I bought it, it was white, with stickers on the bonnet, greyish patches of tear and wear along the flanks. I didn't like it, and I thought a finish in British Racing Green would really suit it well. Sadly I couldn't find the exact shade at the paint shop, so I chose the one closest to what I imagined. Then I painted the car myself, at home, from spray cans, panel by panel.

Totalcar Magazine: You must be joking when you say car is sprayed. It looks...

Steven Fisher: ...like something painted with a brush, doesn't it? Well I don't think I deserve praise for my work...

Totalcar Magazine: Well, it isn't so bad for a first try...

Steven Fisher: It wasn't easy, believe me. At some places the paint started flowing, on others it dried way too quickly, so I couldn't work out how to achieve a smooth, even finish. Maybe the roof is the only part that came out as acceptable. We painted the car together with my three sons. I like to say: the parts that are ugly was their work.

Totalcar Magazine: When did the hubcaps make their way on the car and what's the reason for the tow hook?

Steven Fisher:

The hook was there when I bought it; I think it is a bit optimistic for a car like this. For the hubcaps: I bought them myself at a tyre shop, the wheels under them look really bad.

Totalcar Magazine: How often do you use the car?

Steven Fisher: I arrive to work with it almost every day. It doesn't like the summer, because – as I have told you earlier – its engine overheats, but it loves the winter months. When cold weather arrived last year, it was misbehaving for a few days, but it healed itself. Since then it has started at the first turn of the starter motor, be it cold or hot.

I have had it for eighteen months, in that time I did three thousand kilometres in it. Tourists and Hungarians take pictures of it alike, the police love it too; they stopped me three times in the first year of ownership. They keep wondering if some hoodlum has put the diplomatic plates on it for fun. But when they see that all the documents are right, they start liking it. I think they find the whole case to be just as funny as I do.

Totalcar Magazine: Have you had a hobby car before?

Steven Fisher: To tell the truth – not. Although my first car was quite old – a 1966 Ford Cortina MkII in 1983 – but I managed to find one that was in an as-new condition. It had leather seats, instruments with these chrome rings around them; in my eyes it was a beautiful car. Sadly its petrol tank ruptured one day, sprinkling four-star on my mother's driveway. She had me sell it right away. Since then I only had average cars – owning the Trabant is a new experience.

Those few friends of mine who have seen it also like it. I recently had a mate visiting me who uses a Lotus sports car – at least when it works –, and he said the feeling to get around with the Trabant here, in Budapest is the same as it is to drive the Lotus at home, in London. Neither one of them goes unnoticed. My aunt has all kinds of expensive cars in her garage, but she drives around in an original, two-cylinder Fiat 500. Maybe this unnatural bend towards small, cheap, old cars is a family heritage after all.

It might sound strange from the Deputy Head of Her Majesty's Mission, but I always try to steer clear of status symbols. I have never longed for a luxury car. I don't like them because of their flashiness, but I feel unmoved by their shape also. The Trabant is simple, it brings a smile to people's faces, everybody feels a certain sympathy towards it. Of course I know I'm not being revolutionary with this whole idea: there are thousands of people out there buying a Trabant just for the fun of it.

But it doesn't ask for much fuel, its papers are clean, it passed the bi-yearly chekup on the first try. It fits the city streets like a glove; I really get a smile by just driving it around. It somehow seems more authentic than a modern car.

Totalcar Magazine: But you could have easily bought a Ford Fiesta if you wanted just a small car. And if not, there is the other question: why didn't you buy the real thing, a two-stroke Trabant?

Steven Fisher: I don't find the Fiesta cheerful enough, it is not related to Budapest in any way, I didn't even think of it. The original two-stroke Trabi seemed really exciting when the whole idea struck me, but when I spoke to others, they all said, “I hope you're only thinking about the four-stroke version.” The two-stroke Trabant is older, it is said to need more fettling, this mixing of fuel and oil at the pumps is a bit alien to me, starting its engine may be tricky at times, and don't forget, I have to be very accurate when I attend meetings. The two-stroke is weaker and slower too, and oh yes, it smokes a lot. What you really shouldn't do is to arrive at an international meeting with a cloud of engine smoke hanging around you. Plus the four-stroke version is an interesting car in its own right; I believe it was only made for a year. Finally – it soothes my bad conscience that this later version doesn't pollute the environment so much.

Totalcar Magazine: How was the look on the vendor's face when he sold you the car?

Steven Fisher: I don't think he had the faintest idea who I was. He just sold his car to a British man, pocketed one-hundred thousand forints (ca. 350 Euros) for it and that's all, he was happy with the whole case. It is a lot of money for a very young man. There was only one personal remark from him - his grandmother asked him to forward a note to the new owner: this car has a real spirit.

The British Deputy Head of Mission as a person

Steven Fisher (48) was appointed as the second person to the British Embassy in September, 2006. When the original article was written in Hungarian, he had been working in this job for two years. In 2010 his mission ended in Budapest, now he's in the Far-East in much the same position. He graduated from Oxford University with degrees in history and modern languages then became a civil servant, later on becoming the Deputy Head of Mission. Officially he was not entitled to use a company car, thus his own vehicle was a Kia Carnival, plus the mentioned Trabant 1.1. He has three sons. His favourite bands are: The Clash, The Smiths, Amy Winehouse. But as he added: the Trabant doesn't have a radio in it, so sitting in it, he enjoys the sound of the engine.

Totalcar Magazine: Spirit, spirit... That's the apology that you always hear from bad-car owners... By the way, how much money have you spent on it?

Steven Fisher: Maybe forty-thousand forints (about 150 Euros) in one and a half years. Something had to be replaced around the steering, maybe a track rod, if I remember it well, and I also had to buy a pair of brand new rear lamp lenses. And of course, there were the usual services – oil changes, adjustments, etc. It really is a cheap car to own.

I robbed him of at least an hour of his important diplomatic time with the interview. But I planned for this, so I prepared to compensate Mr. Fisher for the lost time with a small surprise. I borrowed a perfect, ear-wax yellow, two-stroke, 1985 Trabant 601 Universal from one of my friends a day before, and I arrived to the embassy with that car. So in ten minutes we were walking from the Embassy to the underground car park below Elizabeth square, stopping finally in front of the original Trabi.

There is real excitement on the face of the diplomat. I start up the engine, show how the funny gearstick works (for those not in the know: old Trabant's lever is poking out of the dashboard next to the steering column), and we take off.

“Is this sound normal?”, asks Steven Fisher, who hears the characteristic prump-a-prummm-pumm sound of the real Trabant from so near for the first time in his life. “Of course, after all, this is a two-stroke,” I answer, and in thought I hand out a bonus point to the owner who has postponed the replacement of the old silencer for a while, since it has proven to be totally gas-tight at the last check-up. This way the sound is much more masculine than it would be with a new muffler.

To drive a Trabant for somebody used to modern vehicles might be quite strange. The clutch has a sudden bite, the pedals are offset towards the middle of the car, the gearshift is quite precise, but there's no spring-loading between the panes of the 1st to 2nd and the 3rd to 4th speeds. The brake has to be pressed firmly for proper deceleration, the noise is overwhelming, and the short ratios are strange. But the car comes alive in Steven Fisher's hands, and in a minute we are circling around Elizabeth square and then set off for Szabadság Square on full steam.

The diplomat might be a little tense due to the unbelievable directness of all mechanical actions, but the driver is enjoying himself – by the time we reach the Parliament, we are back to chatting. “Oh, yes, compared to this one, my own car is really, really modern. I also feel it to be a bit more stable on the road, especially when cornering, but I don't think I'd need a lot of time to start loving a car like this,” he adds. “The brakes are not nearly as bad as I expected, although this noise... it is staggering...,” laughs a certain Mr. Fisher, shaking his head, and by this time we're already pulling our blue smoke screen along the Danube.

“By the way, I feel more and more attracted to this classic car hobby, I'm thinking of buying another car. What do you think of these Moskvitches?” he asks, while he parks the yellow Trabant beside his own green car in front of the embassy.

Hungarian politicians would commit suicide if the black Audi limousines that have been granted to them for nearly a quarter of a century, were removed from under their bums... The others? Well, some have a real good sense of humour.

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