Go Trabi, Go

By Sam Boni

09.07.2008

Numerous carmakers are history, copious cars make history; the Trabant falls under both categories.

Some automakers are remembered by only a chapter in a book about the past, some makes or models have been reinCARnated. At present, some manufacturers are building new factories while several others and their suppliers are in dire straits.

It’s normally off limits to make fun of someone or some-thing unfortunate, but in this case the people of the former DDR, or East Germany, started it themselves; they made fun of the Trabant, their Eastern Block’s People’s Car.

Like: If the Trabant had two tailpipes, according to a worker on its assembly line, it would make a fine wheelbarrow. Or; how can you double the value of a Trabant? – Fill ‘er up with 92 octane hi-test. Or this: How many workers does it take to build a Trabant? – Two. One to fold and one to paste.

The Trabant had a crude, never updated mid-1950s, boxy “Duroplast” body, pressed into body panels from recycled clothing materials and resin. It also had a smelly, pre-World War II twenty-six-horsepower, two cylinder two-stroke engine. “Sparkplug with a Roof”, motorists referred to it; and the last one was produced in April of 1991.

“The Trabi, as we affectionately called our ‘communist limousine’, was a lot like East Germany,” said actor Wolfgang Stumph, who costarred with a blue Trabant in the 1991 German movie, Go Trabi Go. “It was far from perfect, but somehow it worked. You had to improvise every day to keep it going. It was small and smelly and broke down a lot, but it was all we had.”

Over the decades, more than three million Trabants were “put together”, pushed by hand along the production line every time it failed to run. And most of the assembly was done with common hand tools, not power-tool, much less assembly robots.

In late 1986 the Trabant factory sales office phoned one lucky East German on the waiting list: “Comrade Schulz, you will get delivery of a Trabant on April 1st, 1992”. – Schulz: “Morning or afternoon? I have the plumber coming in the morning.”

Not far from the truth, because the average Trabant customer waited eight years for delivery, some as long as fourteen.

Many Trabis “escaped” to West Germany with their owners after the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989. Paradoxically, they have become a collector’s item among car fanciers all across Europe and beyond. One car collector in the UK was fined £750, because he ignored a court ruling to remove his substantial collection of Trabants, which had been declared an eyesore.

But many collectors around the globe hold them dear, and the jokes continue.
The Irish rock band U2 did a song about ‘Trabis’ and put it on a Vinyl instead of a CD. (And now Vinyls are making a comeback) Why does the Trabant have a heated rear window? – To keep your hands warm while you push it. How do you make a sportscar out of a Trabi? – Put a pair of running shoes in the trunk. Customer in a West German auto parts store: Can I get two new tires for a Trabi? – Store owner thinks long and hard; “OK,” he says at last, “it’s a deal”.

The Trabant got its name after Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, went into orbit. The Moon is a Trabant of Earth in German; from the Latin “fellow traveler”. The meaning of the word ‘Trabant’ later implied notions of ‘servant’ or ‘comrade’, tasks that were carried out by “the little car that could”.

Like the Energizer Bunny, they take a licking and keep on buzzing; over fifty-thousand were still registered in Germany at the end of 2007.

Perhaps the Trabant will have the last laugh after all. It has become a symbol of freedom from Soviet repression and peoples’ will to carry on under adversity. The now free German City of Zwickau, where Trabants were produced, has created a Trabi Monument.

Since 1990, model-car manufacturer Herpa has produced some hundred thousand Trabis at 1:87 scale. To mark the car’s 50th birthday on November 7, 2007, the company created a modern 1:10 scale Trabi concept and displayed it at the German IAA auto show in September. Twelve thousand show visitors indicated they would like to see a new version, and plans are now underway to design a present-day Trabant. “For many people the Trabant is more than just a car”, said Herpa general manager Klaus Schindler.

A prototype is now being developed, and Herpa is negotiating with ‘real’ car manufacturers to produce a limited number of ‘NewTrabi’. That should not be too difficult, with new multi-model assembly lines now producing niche models mixed in with ‘bread and butter’ cars. During the last few years of its production run, Trabants already used a 3-cylinder engine from one of Volkswagen’s entry level models.

After road-testing an earlier version Trabant, one car magazine reported, “The two-stroke engine provides hardly any braking effect at all. Nor do the brakes.” Despite the potential consequences of that, the only cars more often targeted by thieves are Porsches.

Go Trabi, go!

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article. My favourite Trabant of all was the military style open-top version with chains instead of doors – it was the unlikeliest lesiure car ever and apparently sold under the name Tramp.

  2. Trabis really weren’t all that bad, at least by the standards of the 1950s and 1960s. Practical Classics ran an article last year about a trek across Africa and Europe to drive a Trabi at the Nurburgring. They are hardy cars and, if well maintained, will run for a very long time. And the bodies will never rust.

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