The Benefits of Owning a Fiat in Cold War Berlin

About half way through my tour of duty in Berlin, I paid too much for a used Fiat 124 Spider 1600. True to the slew of jokes about the car, it was often in the shop for repairs. Getting it running well was such a challenge that one mechanic gave up, shouting something at me in German to the effect that he never wanted to see the car again. Well, I had no choice, so I called the abschleppdienst (the German term for towing service, a term I learned shortly after buying the Fiat) and had it hauled to another shop where they got it up and running until whenever it next broke down.

As much of a pain in the ass as it was to own the car, I'm glad I did. It connected me to Cold War Berlin in ways that I would not otherwise have experienced. In the first place, when it was running, it was a blast to drive, to zip around a European capital, all the while mixing it up with the aggressive yet skilled German drivers. My wife and I would climb into the car, put the top down and, with the heat blasting because Berlin rarely has convertible-friendly weather, explore sights in the city that just have a different feel when viewed from the bucket seat of an Italian sports car. There's a scene in Casablanca in which Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are tooling around Paris in a convertible; that scene was always in the back of my head whenever we were out for a jaunt in Cold War Berlin. In short, the car was often just plain fun to drive.

The other connection the car gave me to that city at that point in history came about due to its near-constant need for repair. One night while I was driving to work, the clutch pedal simply snapped when I down-shifted. Another abschleppdienst call resulted in getting the disabled car to the Army's auto repair shop at Andrews Barracks where there were tools and work bays for do-it-yourselfers. I'd resolved, after purchasing a new clutch pedal, to save a couple hundred Deutsche Marks and do the repair myself. A Turk worked at the auto shop. His job was to offer assistance to the American soldiers repairing their cars, and he was nicknamed "Der Meister" - the master - for his mechanical abilities. He was a friendly, outgoing guy, and he offered his assistance as I was struggling to get the Fiat's clutch pedal properly installed. I've never really liked people who are immediately familiar and friendly; something about them strikes me as pushy, so I stay away from them, as I did the day I replaced my clutch pedal. It was definitely the right move. Der Meister turned out to be an agent for STASI, the East German secret police! A few years later, when I was back in the states attending law school, I saw a report on the news about an American soldier who'd been stationed in Berlin and who was under arrest for espionage. The report noted that his contact in Berlin had been Der Meister. I was floored. The son of a bitch was funneling secrets to the East Germans and trolling for prey in the damn auto shop! The fact is that being approached by and briefly conversing with an agent of the dreaded STASI during the Cold War in Berlin would never have taken place had I not overpaid for a notoriously unreliable Fiat. And for that experience, and for the chance to zip through Berlin's streets, top-down and heater blasting, I will remain always grateful to a ridiculously needy Fiat.