Small cars have never garnered the respect that big cars get. Big cars are usually fast, flashy, luxurious, not particularly frugal, and expensive. Small cars are the opposite of all of those things and may suffer from the perception of being "cute" or toy-like and not really suitable for practical transportation. In 2008, Malcolm McKay from Classic Rally Press recreated the 1958 Liege-Brescia-Liege (LBL) rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original LBL rally when 27 sub-500cc microcars spent a week driving from Belgium to Italy and back again with just a single night's rest in Brescia. McKay's event, slightly less masochistic, allowed its 54 competitors to rest each of 10 nights. But was still a challenge. It included a wonderful cross-section of sub-700cc automobiles, including BMW Isettas and 700 Coupes, Heinkels, Berkeleys, Fiat 500s, Citroën 2cvs, and Subaru 360s.
In 2009 McKay organized a seven-day Micro Marathon Rally. The goal was to drive from Toulouse in the south of France, over the summits and cols of the High Pyrenees Mountains, onto the plains of Spain, and onward to the Mediterranean. The event, limited to microcars of 600cc or less, would then return over the mountains to finish in the medieval city of Carcassonne, France.
Shipping costs to send a car from the U.S. would have been quite high, so I looked for another alternative-buying a car in Europe. McKay helped me in my search, and we quickly found a 1977 Trabant 601S Combi station wagon, conveniently located in Wales, with fewer than 20,000 km on its clock.
The East German two-stroke 600cc Trabant sedan and wagon (called the Universal or Combi) was introduced in 1958. Its body was built from plastic resin composite reinforced with wool and cotton fibers, and featured front-wheel drive. By the '70s, when the capitalist West had dropped most of its miniature car lines, the East Germans continued to build the smoky two-stroke twin-cylinder cars at their Zwickau factory, with a waiting list for a new car of between six and 15 years. More than 3 million Trabbis were built before the end of the line in 1990.
Getting to the start in Toulouse when our rally car was garaged in England required significant logistical effort. We drove the Trabbi across London to Dover, where we took the ferry to France and an overnight train to Toulouse. Upon arrival 12 hours later, we rushed to a local Fiat dealer just in time for our 11 a.m. Saturday morning start.
McKay didn't spare any time getting us up to speed. The first day's run put us immediately into the highest peaks of the Pyrenees. Followers of the Tour de France will recognize the names of climbs like the Col d'Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet, a monster that reaches to almost 7,000 feet. Grinding uphill in second gear for almost an hour in East Germany's finest 600cc two-stroke automobile puts these Cols into new perspective. Twelve miles doesn't seem that far, but averaging 15 mph and negotiating scores of switchbacks provides its own kind of driving challenge. I kept expecting the pistons and crankshaft to come flying out of the screaming engine.
Unfortunately, descending from our vertiginous climbs did not go as well-there are no mountains in East Germany the size of the Pyrenees, so the Trabant engineers probably never thought about putting adequate brakes on their communist creation. Brake fade caused the small drum brakes to squeal all the way down the mountains and into the valleys, alerting anyone in our path of our approach.