Good morning! Today’s Shitbox Showdown includes a history lesson. Thirty-four years ago today, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened up, and cars like the two shown here were able to share the road after decades of separation. Since both are icons in their own right, I decided to pit them against each other, and find out which side’s car you all prefer. We’ll be spending more imaginary internet money than usual today, because one of these cars is a bit hard to find for sale, and the other one is increasing in value seemingly by the hour.
But before go off to meet Linda Fiorentino at the Cafe Friedrichstrasse, we should finish up with yesterday’s cheapies. When it comes to dirt-cheap cars, condition is everything. How well a car was built matters less than how it has been treated since then, and while we’re all largely in agreement that the Ford Escort was probably the better car when new, when it comes to this Escort versus this Cavalier, the Cavalier comes across as the better deal.
Many of you seem to share, if not my enthusiasm for the J cars, at least a grudging respect. Shoddy construction and cheap materials were the hallmarks of GM’s bottom-tier US-built models, but that loose sloppiness somehow translated to a cockroach-like longevity. Chevy Cavaliers and their siblings just run and run and run, held together with baling wire and hope. In a way, they’re a bit like the American Lada, or for that matter, Trabant.
Which brings us to today’s matchup. For an entire generation, a 100-mile-long border wall split a city in two. This monument to fear and folly created two cultures within one country, and more importantly for our purposes, two car cultures. West Germany produced world-class performance cars; East Germany… didn’t. And yet, after the wall came down, a funny thing happened: one horrid little East German car became a cultural icon, and we all found out that, on the other side of the wall, it had been all along. Let’s see how it measures up against one of the cars that propelled West Germany’s rise to automotive fame.
Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter overhead cam inline 4, four-speed manual, RWD
Location: San Leandro, CA
Odometer reading: 120,000 miles
Runs/drives? Runs great, but needs a little reassembly to be driven
BMW today is known for high-performance, high-technology cars (and increasingly, SUVs) built to a high standard, but plagued by complexity and fussy styling. But once upon a time, not too long ago, its cars were pure, focused machines that placed driving feel and roadholding above all else. The technology was a means to that end, not an end itself. One could say that BMW has lost its way, and one could make one’s case by pointing to this car, the 2002.
In sharp contrast to the massively powerful BMWs of today, the 2002 makes do with a two-liter M10 four-cylinder that only makes about a hundred horsepower. It sends that power to the rear wheels – suspended independently on semi-trailing arms, one of the keys to the 02’s lively handling – through a four-speed stick. This one recently had its engine and transmission replaced, and it runs great, but the original engine and transmission are included. It also includes three sets of wheels and tires, and a whole bunch of other parts. The interior is disassembled, and a new carpet kit is half-installed, but it sounds like if you bolted the driver’s seat back in, you could drive it home.
Surprisingly for a 2002, the seller claims this car is rust-free. Normally, the shock towers and floors on these are pretty crusty, but this one is solid through and through. It’s painted matte black on the outside, with BMW tri-color stripes. It looks sharp, but personally I’m not a fan of the whole matte-black thing. I’d rather see a car shiny, or with natural patina.
As a 1972 model, this one still has reasonably-sized bumpers, and the iconic 2002 round taillights. Perhaps as importantly, it’s now free from any sort of emissions testing, so it can be modified and upgraded to your heart’s content. And since it’s already not terrribly original, no one is going to complain too much about “ruining” it – as long as you don’t do anything stupid.
Engine/drivetrain: 594cc two-stroke inline 2, four-speed manual, FWD
Location: Staunton, IL
Odometer reading: 12,000 kilometers
Two cylinders. Twenty-something horsepower. A recycled plastic body [Editor’s Note: Technically, Duroplast, a Bakelite/fiberglass-like material made from resins and old Soviet underpants. – JT] that became a favorite snack of Eastern European goats. And buckets of character. There isn’t much that I can say about the Trabant that hasn’t been said before. Simultaneously the butt of jokes and and an object of immense admiration, the Trabant came to symbolize everything that had gone wrong in East Germany. It’s objectively horrible: small, slow, and poorly-made, yet somehow charming. It’s also a symbol of just how much the freedom an automobile provides means to people: There was a waiting list as long as thirteen years for these things. Terrible as they were, they were what was available, and that made them special.
Two-stroke car engines are almost unheard of these days; they’re dirty, noisy, and require oil mixed in with the fuel, all of which are at odds with modern emissions requirements and driver expectations. But for a cheap car in an impoverished nation, they make sense. If I’m counting right, a two-cylinder two-stroke engine has only five moving parts: one crankshaft, two connecting rods, and two pistons. This engine doesn’t even have a fuel pump; the fuel/oil mixture is gravity-fed to the carburetor. It’s air-cooled, so there’s no radiator to worry about. Automobile engines literally don’t get any simpler than this.
This Trabi runs and drives, the seller says, but that’s all the information we get. I get the feeling they don’t know much about this car, but in fairness, southern Illinois is an unlikely place for a Trabant to end up. Its odometer shows only 12,000 kilometers, about 7,500 miles, but we have no way of knowing whether that’s accurate. I’m not sure it matters; if you want a Trabant, there aren’t many in America to cross-shop.
Even better, this one’s a wagon. Trabant sedans are dowdy, but the wagons are kinda cool in a VW Squareback sort of way. It looks clean and shiny, even the wheels. The trailer hitch strikes me as optimistic, but it’s a nice touch – you can imagine some East German family hooking up an equally flimsy and ramshackle caravan and heading off for a weekend at some state-run campground.
If you’ve never been to Berlin and seen the East Side Gallery – the remaining section of the Berlin Wall still standing, covered in murals and graffiti – I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was there in 2000, and the stories told by the murals painted on that crumbling concrete are powerful. More than one features a Trabant, the little car that meant so much to a nation deprived of so many things. It’s a bona-fide classic these days, but is it more desirable than a famous West German sports sedan? You decide.
(Image credits: BMW – Craigslist seller; Trabant – Autotrader seller)