A Real Story: Frugal Innovation – Fixing a German Writer’s Perfect Car (a Trabant)

This story is about frugal innovation, but especially about Johannes Bettisch (born 1932, Timisoara – deceased 2014, Stuttgart), a German language writer, originating from Romania and a very special character in my life.

During the first years after World War II he was a colleague of my father in a technical school in Timisoara and they were friends. Later, he graduated a Russian class and studied many languages (German and Hungarian as mother tongues; Romanian as the official language; English, and even Chinese and Esperanto). He was a teacher and obtained a PhD in linguistics too. During his military stage he also got an airplane (sport) pilot license.

Starting from the 7th to the 12th grades, I took private English lessons from him, but practically during those hours he advised me on how to improve my Russian and German too, and he was a sort of mentor for me, from modern art to engineering. I remember that, despite him being my father’s friend and the empathy between me and this “fellow” since I opened my eyes, my mother kept searching for me for all sort of boring language teachers. She told me much later that she, as a professional teacher, considered him too ironic and “pungent” for smaller kids. When I grew up and refused to take German classes “simply because I didn’t like the teacher, and by induction nor the language” she couldn’t oppose me anymore, and, having no other solution, I started at least English with “Punti” (this was his nickname). She was astonished how during a single summer, he managed to improve my Russian school grades “unconsciously” with some vinyl records.

He owned, together with his wife who was a pediatrician, nothing more than his library and some interesting cubistic paintings in a soviet type two rooms small flat and only during the late 70’s he bought a second-hand car, a Trabant. Before that, he was just a pedestrian airplane pilot; I remember we went once all to his parents in law, and we had to squeeze 6 persons in our Renault Gordini “Supercar”.

His Trabant became a sort of research and testing laboratory for a wide range of engineering solutions, and I took part in many of them, and even had some debates with other “trabantists”, and with my father too, who also was a “Supercar” owner. But my father’s was “the French police’ speediest car” at that time, and later, when he bought a Dacia, it could never compare to that first and formidable one. Because of this technical superiority, my father and I were looking down to those noisy and smoky two stroke engine cars and “scientists”. They also told many jokes and swearing in Hungarian, and I regret even now that I couldn’t and still can’t understand. It was my father’s fault (a 100% Hungarian native), that he didn’t teach me Hungarian, nor swearing; only my grandfather and Mr. Bettisch partially tried to repair the first mistake. Mr. Bettisch, who had a lot of comparison terms, said it Hungarian is the richest language in this regard, and appreciated my father as being a very good “swearer”. Unfortunately, for me and my children, this is an asset lost forever.

A “Trabant research” launched once by Mr. Bettisch, made me feel useful as an engineer for the first time, becoming a frugal innovator. During the late 80’s, the Trabants were very precious because they even worked with a sort of petrol for heating, still not rationalized by the communists, but even this advantage came to an end. And how for every restriction people find loopholes, Mr. Bettisch found a methanol source that he never disclosed, probably because of fear of not being labeled a “conspiratorial anticommunist”. As we were living in a house, there was enough space to keep the barrels and he trusted us to store his portion too, so that we had enough fuel for our car without other headache. Soon after, he took me with his Trabant on a short walk because the engine heated seriously.

“Do you have a problem, both with your wife and your car, that you use the kitchen oven instead of the car’s engine?” I asked. I must explain this: his wife, a German native, was a formidable cook, she excelled in all sorts of refined dishes and sweets and he was more than a gourmand. The kitchen oven was one of the most appreciated things in their house.

“Maybe I have a problem, you’re right, but not completely. My wife and my car can’t be doubted, they are both perfect. My problem is that I accepted two oversized and cheeky guys on board [one being himself]”.

He was right, it was winter and we both had thick coats, and just imagine we had to sit diagonally in order to fit the Trabant space as Mr. Bettisch alone would require about 3 quarters of the space in front to act the dashboard positioned gear changer. I reformulated:

“My engineering opinion is that too much heat is produced by two big sources too big for a space too small”.

“However, I suggest you search a third source too. And something more: the space is perfect, if you don’t feel comfortable, go home by foot”.

Unfortunately, the next day, my Dacia heated similarly with me alone on board. Mr. Betttisch and my father, after a spicy Hungarian swearing party, said that, since they couldn’t drink the toxic methanol, and since they already made their duty investing in their children’s education, it was only my task to return their investment and save their methanol (the son of Mr. Bettisch, being a doctor, was unfairly excluded). Under this pressure, of saving two barrels of methanol and a lot of mobility for our families, I gathered all the chemistry and combustion books I found at home, studied the methanol and gasoline burning parameters, and noticed that for the same air intake (the same carburetor), an almost double quantity of methanol was required for an optimal combustion. The engines were heating because of a too poor of a mix. I enlarged the carburetors’ fuel nozzles and everything returned to normal, except the fuel consumption and the initial over optimistic mobility estimations.

This story spread quickly in the factory where I worked, from those people who effectively enlarged my nozzles. Then I was courted by the owners of other car types (like Lada, Moskvich, Skoda, some old Fiat and Renault) to compute the nozzle sizes for their cars too. Some made previously the mistake to “steal” the Dacia nozzle’s diameter, but they still had problems, so that they finally had to address me.

Don’t you also feel inspired to experience a (frugal) innovation challenge?

The story ends in the beginning of 1990, when Mr. Bettisch emigrated with all his family in Germany and it was a big loss that he didn’t take his Trabant with him. He could have, but he was discouraged by the restrictive antipollution regulations of the Western Germany during that period. If he would have known that, short after, the millions of eastern “trabantists” would have been reunited with their country, he could have been simply himself. So he was just one of the many thousands of correct Germans emigrating from Romania. There he worked a few years as a translator at the Stuttgart Court and begun travelling and writing. We continued meeting or speaking by phone, and I felt how gradually, in a few years, he regained himself. My regret is that I can’t read the literature he wrote in German, because, as I previously said, when I was little, some of my teachers instead of making me liking and learning German, succeeded only to make me taste Louis de Funes’ humor about Germans during World War II, which was of a very high quality otherwise. Those teachers were good too, or I was the problem, or maybe my father and Mr. Bettisch, with their Hungarian swearing shows…

However, there is a book Mr. Bettisch wrote in Romanian too, “La Mintea Cocosului“ [Foolproof], but I find that it represents best “the essence of Mr. Bettisch”. Even the title is half ironic, the phrase’s figurative sense being “easy to understand”. It’s rather the opposite: a random collection of about 1,000 profound and humoristic thoughts, situations of himself expressed by himself in no more than 1-2 sentences each.

I translated some of them, to let you discover directly the Bettisch’ charm:

687. What I saw travelling through the world, helps me understand what I didn’t see.
686. In this society full of laws, norms, rules, customs, interdictions, we live so free as a bird in a cage, with the disadvantage that no one gives us to eat, we have to procure on our own.
2. Who wants to realize his dreams must sleep less.
9. Does your father know you overturned the car? Sure, he is beneath.
15. I learned with difficultly. I can only forget easily.
16. If we wouldn’t forget so much, could we retain the few things we need?
23. The birds have the vastest perspectives at a relatively small brain.
24. If you know how to talk, you don’t need grammar. If you know grammar and you don’t know how to talk, you learned it in vain.
46. We don’t become younger. But it is curious that we notice this only when we are old.
52. Everything has an end. Only the sausage has two [ends], and usually at a too small distance from one another.
62. The old weapons’ trader is sad: his single son died in war.
69. The doctors’ mistakes are covered with earth, while those of the teachers with fame in politics.
73. How curious: all nice women and god park places are already occupied.
75. Good ideas usually come too late, and this only in the case they come.
76. If a dog bites you, it doesn’t mean he has something personally with you, he just does his job.
77. According to the last sociologic researches, it seems that there are more oxen, pigs and donkeys than mentioned in the zoo technical reports.
78. The animals are so primitive that they don’t even know swearing.
84. Sure I have an opinion about this, but I don’t agree with it.
98. If what you gave me yesterday was coffee, then I want tea, if it was tea, then I want coffee.
109. Honor your parents! Otherwise your brother inherits everything.
111. More people were killed because of the truth than in wars. Isn’t it that lies save lives?
113. If you aren’t rich, at least you should be fat.
131. The forgotten good ideas are always more numerous than the transmitted ones.
140. Must the writers read? Are the readers writing?
146. The motive of so many divorces is, statistically seen, the marriage.
161. Did you have problems with your English in London? Not me, but it seems that the English people had.
580. The forest is ill. Cure the people.
593. You must not give him a book as a gift. He already has one and he didn’t read it.
640. The potassium cyanide must never be overdosed. It would be a waste.
635. Orgy with drinks and women in hell: the glasses and bottles have holes in them, the women don’t.
652. I would do everything for you, but don’t ask me anything.
710. For this man everything is positive, even the Wassermann test.
719. The best is to perspire in the head, it loses some water.
731. They say God was once a man. Then what can you expect from him?
749. Since I was ten I walk with crutches. Now, I was only two weeks at the Calacea Baths and I left the place without crutches. Why? Did the pain disappear? No, but the crutches did.
751. Mr. Pharmacist, can you prepare this prescription the vet wrote for my donkey? Yes, just write the name on the prescription and give it to the office. Whose name, mine or the donkey’s?
718. I begun eating like a canary. So little? No, so often.
755. Why Stuttgart is written with double tt? Because one is not enough and three are too much.
820. The “Wash and Go” shampoo rebranded for dirty people: “Go and wash”.
918. For some people the church is of vital importance. Especially after death.
1070. There are people who keep fleas. Some also have one or two dogs for feeding them.
1115. If he drinks coffee he can’t sleep. For me it’s the opposite: if I sleep, I can’t drink coffee.

Rediroma Verlag, Biografie und Werke von Johannes Bettisch (German)

J. Bettisch, La Mintea Cocosului, editia a IV-a, Ed. Tipomoldova Iasi 2013, Cuvant Inainte (Romanian)

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