Tuesday, 4 January 2005

The Amazing Race 6, Episode 6

Berlin (Germany) - Budapest (Hungary) - Eger (Hungary) - Budapest (Hungary)

A lot happened in this leg of the race. At any rate, we saw a lot of it, since this one leg of the race — with a single set of challenges, a single “pit stop”, and a single elimination — was broadcast in two parts, on 21 December 2004 and 4 January 2005. And in between, on 28 December 2004, there was a broadcast of outtake clips collected from previous episodes.

The elimination of Hera and Gus largely came down to their choice on the final challenge to paddle an inflatable raft across the Danube (more difficult than it appeared, as river crossings often are, due to the current) while each of the other teams of racers chose to play water polo against an expert (easier than it sounded, as it turned out, since it was two against one).

The more interesting lesson for other travellers came much earlier in the episode, and two weeks earlier in the broadcasts, when the teams had to drive themselves from Budapest to Eger, Hungary, in classic old East German “Trabant” cars.

I was in (West) Germany in 1989 on the first weekend after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when East Germans first were able to visit their long-estranged friends and families in the West. Those East Germans who had cars almost all had “Trabies”, which instantly became objects of conversation (and comedy) in the West, especially since their extremely small size — relative to typical West German cars — was offest by their being packed with as many Easterners as could squeeze in for a first-time-in-decades trip to the formerly-forbidden West.

The Trabant was “the Volkswagen of East Germany”. Millions were made, and at one time the Trabi was most common type of private automobile in central Europe. Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the basic design of the Trabi remained essentially similar for decades, from the late 1950’s through the 1980’s.

The editing of “The Amazing Race” gives the impression that Trabants are inherently unreliable and inferior to better-known (to us in the USA) makes and models, and/or that their fallability (several of the racers’ cars are seen breaking down, and some have to be replaced) is somehow related to their being small and “toylike”.

But small size is often an advantage when parking or maneuvering in the narrow streets of older cities, or on narrow rural lanes, or when a car needs to be dragged out of a ditch and there’s no heavy equipment available. Remember those scenes of Indian bystanders pushing and carrying the racers’ Ambassadors through the streeets of Kolkata last season? Try that, or try finding a boat large enough to ferry your vehicle across a flooded stream, with a big American “sport utility vehicle”.

So what if Trabies have two-cylinder, two-cycle engines? They may be noisy and pollute the air, but that doesn’t make them unreliable. For what it’s worth, Saab’s with two-cycle engines were being sold in the USA into the 1970’s.

Really, the only trouble with Trabies is that that, (1) not having been made since 1991, shortly after German reunification, all those that remain are becoming antique, or at least quite old, cars, and (2) they were never designed for the contemporary autobahn speeds at which the racers seemingly attempt to drive them, making them peculiarly ill-suited for a race.

Like the Volkswagen Beetle (including those made until recently in Mexico and Brazil) or the Indian Ambassador, the Trabant can be seen from different points of view as “crude” or “simple”, “unadorned” or “uncomplicated”, “unsophisticated” or “easily user-servicable”, “ill-suited for high-speed expressways” or “well-suited for unpaved Second and Third World roads”.

It’s cool to have the latest and greatest high-tech tools and gadgets, especially if they are inessential and not so expensive that you’ll care too much if they are lost or stolen. But the crucial criterion for travellers — especially for mission-critical gear and equipment — is how easy it will be to repair or replace it, on your own or with locally-available tools and assistance — when (not if) it breaks down along the way.

In most cases, that means you are most likely to get where you want if you use whatever type of vehicle or other equipment is most common, for which spare parts are most easily found, and with which local mechanics are most familiar. Even if its performance, specifications, and odds of breaking down in the first place are otherwise far inferior to more advanced but locally “exotic” models.

Fifteen years ago, when a Trabant wasn’t yet an antique, that would clearly have made it the appropriate choice for a car to use in Hungary, rather than, say, a West German Mercedes or BMW. The same is still true today of the Ambassador in India or — even though they haven’t been made in a few years — of the Volkswagen Beetle in Mexico or Brazil.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 4 January 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Love your column; Welcome Back! Not to nitpick (I enjoyed your car comments: much to the point and correct!), but I think it's THREE not two cycles, engine-wise. The Saab three cylinders are a great example: for years the engine had a LIFETIME (!) guarantee; how amazing is that? Keep up the great work on the show and otherwise.

Posted by: John Westcott, 19 January 2005, 09:06 ( 9:06 AM)

To clarify: Trabants had two-cylinder, two-cycle ("two-stroke") engines. Most two-cycle Saab's had three-cylinder engines. Like other two-cycle engines, both required the lubricant to be mixed with the fuel: a quart/liter of lubricating oil with each tank full of gasoline.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 19 January 2005, 12:38 (12:38 PM)

I also would like to welcome you back. And I also have a little nitpick: though you called the two episodes a "single leg" with "a single set of challenges," by conventional Race standards, it had two sets of challenges: two Roadblocks (the bungee thing in Germany, the spicy soup in Hungary), and two Detours (catapult vs. cannon, river crossing vs. water polo). I think it's equally valid to consider these two episodes as two ordinary legs, just with the intervening Pit Stop removed (although most of the teams had almost 12 hours to wait between the Internet Cafe and the Railway Museum, so almost nothing was different for them!).

Posted by: Jason, 22 January 2005, 20:48 ( 8:48 PM)

Just wondering if they "CBS" have opened the boaders to Canadian residents for the new Amazing Race (Family Edition) My family definately has what it takes to kick some U.S. Butt :)

Posted by: Canada Res, 9 February 2005, 17:58 ( 5:58 PM)

I'm going to Berlin in June, as well as Dresden and then onto Hungary for a total of two weeks. I'm wanting to go to the bar, or pub, where they were searching for the coasters. A name, or precise location in Berlin would be wonderful.

Posted by: John, 3 April 2005, 14:30 ( 2:30 PM)


Very interesting article. I live in Budapest and my friend and I (both amateur filmakers) are planning to drive a Trabant around the world as the focus of a documentary film. As far as anyone here knows, has this been done before?

Posted by: Farkas, 19 August 2005, 00:36 (12:36 AM)

long live the 2stroke 2cilinder trabis they may be slow and unrisponsiv but thay rockmuch cheeper on gas then a camaro or caprice

Posted by: robert, 16 December 2005, 19:35 ( 7:35 PM)
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