It's been said that beauty is skin deep, but ugly is to the bone. The late and clearly not lamented communist-era East German Trabant was not only ugly but plug-ugly.
To say it looks like a clown car insults all the other clown cars.
Time magazine wrote of the Trabant, "This is the car that gave communism a bad name."
But one man's eyesore is another man's amore. And when Josef Czikmantory sees his much-maligned Trabant gleaming in the Southern California sun, what he sees is freedom. What he sees is an escape from the yoke of Soviet-style socialism. What he sees is something beautiful.
It was a 1975 Trabant 601 that carried Czikmantory and his family from the Eastern bloc to the West in 1986, when freedom seemed an elusive and priceless commodity.
Since moving to the United States, Czikmantory has cashed in on the American dream, working, starting several businesses, buying a home, and raising a family. He is also a regular participant in car shows and frequently partakes in Sunday drives with his wife.
At a recent car show, Czikmantory explained his connection to the car.
"Let's say there is a Chevy guy. He loves all things Chevy. Imagine he is in gulag," says Czikmantory. "Then he gets his hands on a piece of [junk] Pinto. And he gets away in that car. What then will be his favorite car?"
His little Trabi didn't make it far into the West. After Czikmantory crossed into Austria, he was told he needed car insurance. So, as many Germans would do later when the Berlin Wall came down, he did the only sensible thing. Czikmantory parked the car in front of a trash container and walked away.
In the U.S., Czikmantory was able to parlay his mechanical wizardry and entrepreneurial spirit into building several small businesses, including Josef Czikmantory Enterprise Ltd., which he now owns. He even designed and built parts for Elon Musk's SpaceX company.
About 12 years ago, Czikmantory's son, Akos, said his father called him to look at a Trabi up for sale, one of only about 200 in the U.S.
However, after they looked at the car, for which Akos said the seller wanted $4,000, they passed, because it had a number of problems.
"So we went home," Akos said. "Then I looked on eBay and there was one for $850. So I bought it for my dad."
Many Trabants can be found moldering in fields in Europe where farm animals have learned the Duroplast siding was actually edible.
After buying the car, Czikmantory paid about $2,000 to ship it from Europe and has since put in another $5,000 to paint it white, the color of the car he escaped in, apply undercoat, overhaul the two-stroke engine and make other improvements.
Czimantory believes he has the best-looking and -maintained Trabant in the U.S. But wherever he goes, the car is a head-turner, due in part to its amazingly loud rattle and belching smoke clouds.
Czikmantory's wife, Judy, says the car sounds like a popcorn machine. But she loves touring with her husband and observing the gawkers.
"We have a blast with it," she said. "We have a lot of fun."
Akos remembers the car being like a toy when he was a child.
Today, however, the son understands the symbolism in the modest car.