Motoring: These were the snows of yesteryear

Ladas, Trabants, Dacias, Zils - they rendered the Eastern Bloc mobile. So where are they now?

THERE IS a notional route that runs all the way from Limerick to Moscow. Euro-compliant maps will mark it as E30, though our British section is better known as parts of the M4, A14 and sections between. Continue, via ferry and Holland's Hook, and in time you'll pass Checkpoint Charlie.

Ten years ago, the Berlin Wall came down and Checkpoint Charlie lost its purpose. Nowadays Charlie is deserted, a silent signal of what went before, and some very different cars pass it as they head east on a motorway that has grown many more entry and exit ramps this past decade. Once the West Berlin corridor, this part of the E30 is now a major artery for eastern Germany, and Poland beyond.

Heading west, many cars and vans will be Polish-registered and pulling empty trailers. Heading east, those trailers will be loaded with cars that once travelled the roads of Western Europe or, more likely, with stripped-out bodyshells and piles of parts. They are heading east for a new life.

Does that mean the Poles buy wrecked cars and bodge them back together again? Apparently not: the cars aren't wrecked, they are merely dismantled. There's import duty to be paid on complete cars, but much less on parts. Get the pieces back home, put them back together, find an eager buyer, make a profit.

Move south, and you'll see once-German, Swiss and Austrian cars heading for Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and further. No wonder the average age of cars is falling in the heart of Western Europe. The oldies are leaving home, to fill a vacuum that's only now easing a decade after communism's collapse.

It's astonishing how quickly all this has happened. I was in the former East Germany shortly after reunification, and the smoke-belching, resin- reinforced cardboard Trabants were everywhere. The Trabant was the symbol of the awakening East as the Trabbie convoys slipped through Hungary's border with Austria to the guards' blind eyes, but back in the "Ostland" in 1997 I saw hardly any. The car population, now wearing West German- style number plates, had grown hugely.

Visiting Prague in 1991, I saw many used West European imports, Peugeot 405s being a particular favourite. Three years later, new Mercedes, Jaguars and BMWs were smoothing along the streets. Unlike eastern Germany, the Czech Republic hasn't forsaken its people's car. Skodas are still everywhere even if Tatras, hefty saloons with rear-mounted, air-cooled V8 engines once the Party's transport of choice, are harder to find.

Moscow, too, is home to high-prestige cars bought by those who have worked the economic free-for-some to their advantage. But Russia still controls its own motor industry, though outside help would be gratefully received. You can't buy a new Lada in Britain any more, but the factory makes some much more modern cars including the Oka mini-car, the 110 saloon range (which includes an Opel-powered GTI), the Nadeschda mini-MPV and a new off-roader.

The ancient mid-1960s Moskvich continues as an Ish, and the square-cut, chrome-laden, 7.7-litre Zil is still made for those government officials who can bear to be seen in one, but there are new Volgas coming and the Tavria supermini is a passable design. Elsewhere in the former eastern bloc, all car factories bar one (Romania's Dacia, in which Renault is interested) have either closed or been bought by West European or Korean companies.

BMWs were made, pre-war, at Eisenach in the east. Later the home of Wartburg two-stroke cars, a posh alternative to the Trabant and similarly derived from past DKW/Auto Union (now Audi) technology, the operation is now back in BMW's hands. General Motors also has an Eisenach factory.

Zwickau, originally an Auto Union factory and later the home of IFA, maker of the Trabant, now makes Volkswagens. (The last Trabants had non- smoky VW Polo engines.)

Poland's FSM factory makes the Fiat Seicento while the former Polski- Fiat operation, later FSO, now belongs to Daewoo which also has factories in Romania and Ukraine, and is planning to invest in the Czech Republic and Uzbekhistan. The Korean maker is now one of the biggest players in central Europe, so its instability at home could have wide repercussions.

Pre-1989, local-market versions of the Vauxhall Astra were built in Hungary, cars remarkably like those with which Daewoo entered the UK market. Now, Hungary's car output is much grander, for it is here, at Gyor, that the Audi TT and all of the VW Group's 20-valve engines are made.

In Slovakia, the former Skoda factory at Bratislava now makes VW Polos, while the rest of Skoda at Mlada Boleslav, in the Czech Republic, is also under VW control but retains much design autonomy.

In 10 years of fast-track economic upheaval, Skoda has come out of this best of all. Its latest cars are as good as any western rivals, its rebuilt factory is the VW Group's showpiece, and Czech engineers, once rated among the world's best, can be proud again.

Yes, they're still in thrall to a foreign power. But this time it's all right.

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