When the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu decided in the mid-1960s that he wanted to have a car industry, he chose me to start the project rolling. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I knew nothing about manufacturing cars, but neither did anyone else among Ceausescu's top men. However, my father had spent most of his life running the service department of the General Motors affiliate in Bucharest.
My job at the time was as head of the Romanian industrial espionage program. Ceausescu tasked me to mediate the purchase of a minimum, basic license for a small car from a major Western manufacturer, and then to steal everything else needed to produce the car.
Three Western companies competed for the honor. Ceausescu decided on Renault, because it was owned by the French government (all Soviet bloc rulers distrusted private companies). We ended up with a license for an antiquated and about-to-be-discontinued Renault-12 car, because it was the cheapest. "Good enough for the idiots," Ceausescu decided....
"Too luxurious for the idiots," Ceausescu decreed when he saw the first Dacia car made in Romania. Immediately, the radio, right side mirror and backseat heating were dropped. Other "unnecessary luxuries" were soon eliminated by the bureaucrats and their workers' union that were running the factory. The car that finally hit the market was a stripped-down version of the old, stripped-down Renault 12. "Perfect for the idiots," Ceausescu approved. Indeed, the Romanian people, who had never before had any car, came to cherish the Dacia.
....Ceausescu was an extreme case, but automobile manufacturing and government were never a good mix in any socialist/communist country. In the late 1950s, when I headed Romania's foreign intelligence station in West Germany, I worked closely with the foreign branch of the East German Stasi. Its chief, Markus Wolf, rewarded me with a Trabant car -- the pride of East Germany -- when I left to return to Romania.
That ugly little car became famous in 1989 when thousands of East Germans used it to cross to the West. The Trabant originally derived from a well regarded West German car (the DKW) made by Audi, which today produces some of the most prestigious cars in the world. In the hands of the East German government, the unfortunate DKW became a farce of a car. The bureaucrats and the union that ran the Trabant factory made the car smaller and boxier, to give it a more proletarian look. To reduce production costs, they cut down on the size of the original, already small DKW engine, and they replaced the metal body with one made of plastic-covered cardboard. What rolled off the assembly line was a kind of horseless carriage that roared like a lawn mower and polluted the air worse than a whole city block full of big Western cars.
After German reunification, the plucky little "Trabi" that East Germans used to wait 10 years to buy became an embarrassment, and its production was stopped. Germany's junkyards are now piled high with Trabants, which cannot be recycled because burning their plastic-covered cardboard bodies would release poisonous dioxins. German scientists are now trying to develop a bacterium to devour the cardboard-and-plastic body.
The FLUBA awaits the Obami.