Photos courtesy Tim Cunningham.
They flew. They lit up the darkness. They did not, however – could not, in fact – drive under their own power, yet they remain some of the world’s best-known Trabants (and art cars), and this fall one U2 fan hopes to gather all of the remaining East German Duroplast machines that served as fixtures for the band’s ZooTV concert tour.
“I’m a U2 fan, and for years I tried to find a way to combine my two hobbies,” said Tim Cunningham, who also owns a Ford Model A. “I did that through collecting U2 related license plates, [but] there was another way to merge my car and music though and it comes in the form of East German Trabants.”
Cheap cars built in socialist East Germany might seem an odd choice for a band from Dublin, but the band members connected with the cars – partly as a political and artistic statement, partly because of their surroundings – after traveling to Berlin in October 1990, just as West and East Germany reunited, to begin recording their album Achtung Baby.
“The band noticed that people from the East would drive their Trabants across the border until they crapped out and they would just abandon them on the side of the road, knowing better options were ahead,” Cunningham said.
Built from 1958 to 1991 in Zwickau by Sachsenring, the Trabant got its motivation from an 18-hp, two-stroke two-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. It only changed incrementally over its production run, during which about three million cars were produced. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Trabant had become more a symbol than a mode of transportation, largely representing the failures of communism.
Credit for incorporating Trabants into the album’s aesthetic was claimed by the band’s longtime photographer, Anton Corbijn. “It was a playful thing… a visual element… but it also stood for the fall of the East,” Corbijn said in a later interview. He then added a photo of a Trabant to the Achtung Baby album cover photomontage and included a pair of painted-up Trabants in the video he directed for the song “One.”
Peter Williams, set director for the ZooTV concert tour that followed, promoting Achtung Baby, then decided to incorporate even more wildly painted Trabants into the tour, most as suspended lighting fixtures and one with thousands of mirrors pasted to it as a DJ booth. All had their drivetrains removed and their glass replaced with aluminum panels. According to a 1992 Autoweek article, many of the Trabants received nicknames: Kermit for the green one, Snowy for the white one, Fisher King for the one painted to invoke the movie of the same name, Weekly World News for the one painted with newstype, Junior for the one with a Keith Haring-painted baby, and Liberace for the glitter-ball one. Catherine Owens, who painted some of the Trabants, said “they just became, sort of, the lucky charms for the tour.”
In all, according to Cunningham, the band bought as many as 18 for the tour and for various promotion of the album. “Some of these cars were re-purposed throughout the tour and repainted and others were discarded when they disintegrated as the Trabants are prone to do,” he said.
But some still survive. Four, including Liberace, hang in the atrium of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; one each hangs in the Dublin and Berlin Hard Rock Cafes; the pair of music video cars reportedly now reside in the United States and Luxembourg; and Junior was last seen in Texas, Cunningham said.
Oh, and there’s the one Cunningham bought five years ago. Used for 47 shows of the U.S. leg of the ZooTV tour, it was then given away at the end of the tour through an MTV contest. Cunningham said he plans to have his Trabant at the September 24 celebration of the band’s 40th anniversary that will take place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (another will take place in Dublin), so he’s trying to locate any other remaining ZooTV Trabants for a reunion at that celebration.
Anybody with a ZooTV Trabant who wants to participate, let us know and we’ll pass word on to Cunningham.