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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 November, 2003, 14:59 GMT
Honecker's cars under the hammer

By Ray Furlong
BBC, Bernsteinsee, Germany

The Bernsteinsee is an unlikely place to find the East German politburo's fleet of limousines - an idyllic lake tucked away amid winding country lanes and fields near Hanover, in Lower Saxony.

Limousine beside
But turn a corner, pass through a gate, and there they are: seven extended Volvo limousines gleaming in the late autumn sunshine.

They were bought by the East German leadership in 1984, but then passed into the hands of an eccentric millionaire after the collapse of the communist state in 1989.

They've spent the last 13 years sitting in his garage - but now they're on sale.

"This is a piece of German history. We expect at least 80,000 euros from the sale," says Hamburg businessman Holger Emmerich, who is organising the auction of the cars.

"When you drive in them it's a strange feeling: this is how (the former East German President) Erich Honecker was driven around!"

No frills

Mr Emmerich said I should try it for myself, and I was soon sitting in Honecker's hot-seat. Surprise number one: no luxury.

There's no mini-bar, no television, not even bullet-proof glass or tinted windows. If your bodyguard sits opposite you there's not too much legroom either.

We've had more interest than we expected. Private collectors have called from all over the place - Italians, Czechs, Bulgarians
Holger Emmerich
Auction organiser
Then the engine started - and the whole neighbourhood must have heard. Aside from a dodgy exhaust pipe, the car needs an oil change, a new battery, and work on its air conditioning.

But apparently, there's no lack of interest in buying the cars.

'We've had more interest than we expected. Private collectors have called from all over the place - Italians, Czechs, Bulgarians," says Mr Emmerich.

"But unfortunately no museum has bid. This is a shame, because these cars should be admired by the public."

Erich Honecker had no lack of cars - in a country where ordinary people had to wait 20 years to buy a Trabant.

You need a huge parking place and it's impossible to get spare parts if you break down
Curator Ulrich Kubisch
Some of them are in the possession of the German Technical Museum in Berlin, although at the moment they too are locked away in a garage rather than being on display.

There's his customised Range Rover, which he used on frequent hunting trips, and his extended Zil limousine - also used by Mikhail Gorbachev on his last visit to East Germany.

This, too, is a bit of a heap.

"I wouldn't recommend buying it," says curator Ulrich Kubisch. "You need a huge parking place and it's impossible to get spare parts if you break down."

Fleet of cars
The old number plates and flags will ensure curious glances
"Then there's the fuel consumption. I once drove the 30km from Berlin to Potsdam and it used up 40 or 50 litres!"

Before the Volvos go under the hammer, Holger Emmerich wants to drive one of them through the Brandenburg Gate on 9 November - the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down - with a Honecker double.

He's also hoping to draft in a German pop star for added glamour. But the main attraction is the historical value.

The cars come complete with their original number plates and flags - something that, as I found out during my test drive, will guarantee the new owner some pretty odd looks from passers-by.

The BBC's Ray Furlong
"I'm president for the day, riding in a car once enjoyed by East Germany's communist bosses"

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