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Trabi Turns 50

Kyle James (tt)May 19, 2007

Looking like a cross between a golf cart and an amusement park bumper car, the Trabant -- a sluggish two-cylinder vehicle from East Germany -- was arguably the most venerated object of desire behind the Iron Curtain.

No other car in the world is such a powerful symbol of a bygone eraImage: AP

The Trabants, or Trabis for short, were in production in the German Democratic Republic without any significant change for more than three decades. And although the last new Trabi hit the roads in 1991, the vehicle -- which turns 50 this year -- has gained cult status in Germany.

Datsche in Ostdeutschland mit Trabant
Trabis evoke memories of living in the GDRImage: lpb

"I love my car, it's like a child to me," said Christian Marotz, board member of the Trabant Club Berlin, a group that devotes a good deal of time and personal finance investment into all things Trabant.

"It symbolizes a simpler life from earlier, in the East… Oh, and insurance is cheap too, because they aren't stolen very often!"

Accidentally, a car

The first Trabi rolled off the factory floor in 1957. It was actually never really intended to be a car, but was planned as a three-wheeled motorcycle. And even though the designers only expected production to last about 10 years, it ended up lasting 34.

Der letzte Trabbi
The last Trabant left the assembly line on April 30, 1991Image: AP

The name Trabant means "fellow traveler," or satellite, and was inspired by the Russian satellite Sputnik, which went into space the year went on sale.

Television ads by the Trabant's maker, the Sachsenring Automobile Works in East Germany, praised the Trabi for offering "a lot of room for your luggage" and for being "agile," "fast," "long-lasting" and "robust," but in reality the car left much to be desired.

At the time the Trabi was launched, Western countries already used cars with cleaner and more efficient engines. The Trabi's own motor was a two-stroke affair with just two cylinders. It delivered all of 25 horsepower, and took a full 21 seconds to get from 0 to 100 kilometers (60 miles) per hour. Its top speed was all of 112 kilometers per hour.

An entirely different perspective

The Trabi's a little thing. Just under 360 cm (140 inches) long, about 150 cm wide and 146 cm tall. In today's world of Hummers and other SUVs, it's a real shrimp.

Trabant 500 Ausstellung Ostmobile
She's a real beauty!Image: AP

While it had a steel frame, the body was made of something called Duroplast -- a form of hardened plastic made of cotton waste from Russia and resins from the East German dye industry.

"It was the average car people would have in East Germany," said Johannes Drexler, who is a tour guide for Trabi Safari, a company in Berlin that allows people to see Berlin's sites from the vantage point of this micro car.

"Everyone tried to afford a Trabant during the East German times. You had to have yourself put on a list and you had to wait for the car between 11 and 15 years," Drexler said.

The 11 or 15 years was for those lucky enough to be living in Berlin, which enjoyed some advantages over other parts of East Germany. Those in other places could wait up to 18 years to get their car.

Pure luxury

Bunter Pop-Art Trabant
Trabis were never this colorful before the fall of the Berlin WallImage: Bilderbox

The Trabi was probably one of the only cars that was more expensive to buy used than it was new. A new Trabi would set you back between 8,500 and 12,500 East German marks. For a used car, which you could get much faster, you could pay as much as 4,000 more.

"To have a car in East Germany was considered to be pure luxury," Drexler said.

The Trabi plant in the city of Zwickau churned out around 3.7 million of the cars in 34 years. Some were exported to other communist countries. Today, there are still about 58,000 Trabis in use in Germany, about 85 percent of them in the former East.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Trabi was still produced for two more years. But many easterners wanted flashier western cars at the time, so the market dried up. Numerous Trabi jokes, however, have survived to this day.

How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill up its gas tank. Why does the Trabi have a heated rear window? It keeps your hands warm while you push it.

Environmental concerns

What finally might spell the end of the Trabi -- at least on the roads -- is not ridicule, or even a lack of replacement parts. It could be growing concerns about the environment.

Trabi Duft, die Luft des Ostens
Trabi exhaust fumes can even be bought in cans as Trabi FragranceImage: www.osthits.de

Trabis are not the "greenest" cars going. They weren't built with pollution-reducing catalytic converters. One study found that they spew about nine times as many hydrocarbons and five times as much carbon monoxide as most other cars in western Europe.

In several cities in Germany, restrictions are being put in place that will prohibit cars from entering city centers if they don't meet certain environmental standards. And those standards are getting tougher.

At the moment, the German government makes an exception for Trabants to be on the road, because they aren't being made anymore. But that could end, especially if EU rules begin to supercede German ones. In the next few months, many vintage car fans will be holding protests to champion their cars as cultural artifacts which should be given a dispensation to stay on the streets and not just be relegated to garages or museums.

"Well, you have to stay optimistic in order to get your point across, but in reality, it doesn't look so good for us." Marotz said.