Inside the little car, within reach of the driver, was a lever. When pushed, the lever would release the 'reserve' fuel tank, handily allowing a few more kilometres of travel to be eked out, and ensuring a scramble to the nearest gas station.
He released the lever. Then he forgot all about it. Bumping along a remote back road of East Germany in his rattletrap "Trabi," he putt-putted on to the highway, the car coughing like a coal miner and spewing its trademark blue-black fumes out the back. Putt putt, sputter, putt, sputter, stop. Vilmos Friedrich was out of gas.
Friedrich got out the map. Which way, he wondered, should I walk.
Before he could locate the gas canister and head off on his lonely footslog to fill it, he heard the coughing and sputtering and spewing of another Trabant, which had pulled over to assist. "Need a hand, buddy? Want a ride? What can I do for you?" Then one more little rickety, hacking Trabi quickly announced itself, standing in line to offer exactly the same generosity of spirit. "How can we help you? Would you like a lift?"
"I was stuck on the highway without a drop of fuel in the tank," says Dr Friedrich, a scientist now based in Vienna. "And immediately these Trabants stopped to help.
"There was always a kind of camaraderie among Trabant owners." The Trabant, or the 'Trabi', would become the unwitting icon of the Iron Curtain; the make-do, 50s-looking auto with a lawnmower engine, about a half a horse of power, a 'Duroplast' body (including a cotton/wood resin), a cartoonish sparcity of essentials wherein blinkers were sometimes optional, and a mighty, mighty spirit that has been revived long after the Curtain was torn down.
The clunky little heap of pseudo-plastic that called itself a car is rallying back. German toymaker Herpa, which makes miniature Trabants, has had a sellout success with the models. So much success that the toy company is negotiating with car manufacturers to reissue the car itself and put it back out on the road. Spruced up, of course. No lever needed for the reserve tank, and windshield wipers on every car. The ‘New Trabi’ with a major facelift would sell for about €50,000. Not your East German father’s car.
The Trabi is helping to peddle the movement, but many other products – merrily thrown out the bloc housing window when communism crumbled – have already been polished with a new shine, to resounding success.
The Czechoslovak Kofola Cola, Prim watch and Pedro chewing gum and Hungarian Traubisoda and Tisza tennis shoes are just a few of the products that have been resuscitated and marketed to a grateful generation, which is gobbling them up and shows no sign of stopping.
"Although it [communism] was a terrible time in our lives, there will always be something good from it,”" says Robert Parnica, a historian and archivist in Budapest who tracks communist-era household goods. "We were young; we had ideals. Okay, we aren’t teenagers any more, but we can look back and find something good."
Andre Jordan’s family fled Hungary when he was a small child, escaping the persecution that was cast upon ethnic Germans at that time. His father had received a letter, ordering him to Siberia. Instead of complying, he took the risk and smuggled his young family into West Germany.
But Jordan came back to Hungary a few years ago, to live amid the culture that he had been born in.
Leaving his apartment in Budapest one morning, he was met with scores of boxes of Tisza tennis shoes being brought into a storefront in his building.
Tisza sneakers were the standard-issue Hungarian shoe during the '70s and '80s, steadily rolling out of a state factory in central Hungary that also made military boots.
"The [factory] made 10 million sneakers a year, and there are about 10 million inhabitants of Hungary, so you can imagine that everyone had a pair," says Jordan, laughing.
They were poorly crafted tennis shoes made with cheap goods, so when Pumas and Adidas began lining the shelves in the early '90s, the factory gave up without a fight and stopped producing the line.
Several years ago, enterprising young importer Laszlo Vidak bought the rights to the brand along with the mould for the shoe. He made 20 or so sample pairs using high quality goods and passed them along to his friends. They were ecstatic about them. Then he made 200 more. And then more.
Vidak eventually opened his first store, the one beneath Jordan’s Budapest apartment, which is how Jordan came to be the CEO for the company that now produces about 30,000 pair of Tisza tennis shoes a year.
The shoes are produced entirely in Hungary and sell for about €80. Each new line features a traditional Hungarian folk motif as part of the design.
"We sell in our [own] stores, or through specialised boutiques," says Jordan. "We’re opening stores soon in Germany, Spain and Austria, but we don’t want to become too commercial. [The US company] Footlocker was trying to get Tisza shoes but we didn’t sell to them because we didn’t want to lose this exclusivity."
If Germany had its Trabi and Hungary its Tisza sneakers, in Czechoslovakia, they had Kofola Cola. The Cola Wars met the Cold War, and communism’s answer to the Western fizz was Kofola.
In 1962, Kofola was concocted to tickle the tastebuds in the land where Coke and Pepsi were banned. It was a suitable alternative, but when the Western brands poured in along with capitalism, Kofola choked.
After a near-death experience in the early '90s, Kofola is now the No.1 soft drink in Slovakia and comes in at No.3 in the Czech Republic. Buoyed first by sentiment and then by patriotism, Kofola launched a spectacular comeback thanks to a marketing campaign that nurtured the nostalgia. The company merged with Polish firm Hoop and went public late last year (Nov 2007).
"[Buying these old products] has become a kind of lifestyle here," says Jordan. "I don’t think it’s a trend. It has so many things to do with our childhood. When we were kids, we didn’t know how things were in the West. So this is why we’re reaching for the things we knew."
And so it goes with the trusty old Trabi. They were last seen trundling en masse across East Berlin into West, greeted by those who'd come to welcome their fellow Germans into freedom. Not long after, Trabants stood orphaned along the roadways, abandoned, like communism. Walk away and don't look back.
But we do look back. We pick from the rubble that which is most dear to us, dust off the ashes and pocket our newfound treasure.
"I was happy to have the Trabant," says Friedrich. "You must understand, it was my first car. I was just married; a young scientist with a low salary. We became mobile, and even went abroad. We drove virtually all over Eastern Europe in that car."
Trabi turned 50 last year. The New Trabi, if it ever gets reborn and on the road, would be a state-of-the-art automobile. And as with the revival of Tisza shoes and the like, will pull on the heartstrings of a generation bridged between East and West, and bound by the tenderness toward treasures of youth.