Happy Birthday Trabant! An East German Icon Hits 50

It may be made of a cotton composite, but the East German automobile Trabant has stood the test of time. On Wednesday, the car turned 50 years old, and may be more popular than ever.

By Jürgen Pander


"Above all, an atmosphere of enthusiasm for the rapid construction of this compact car must be created in all factories." According to a 1956 article in the Zwickau daily Freie Presse, that was the primary concern of "Comrade Probsthahn," then head of the "people's automobile factory in Zwickau." Whether his wish came true wasn't reported, but on Nov. 7 of the subsequent year, the production of the Trabant began. And this week, the car that provided hundreds of thousands of East Germans with their first wheels and achieved cult status following German reunification is celebrating its 50th birthday.

A party tent is already set up in the Trabi's birthplace, ready for the festival set to take place on Thursday and Friday. An automobile museum nearby has numerous Trabant models on display, including tricked-out, racing versions. And for the owners of the 52,000 Trabis still on German roads, a special auto parts market has been arranged.

The 1950s East German government, of course, could never have imagined that many Trabant fans would make their way to Zwickau in fat, western cars. The East German cabinet resolved in 1954 to build a small family car. The specifications: The car was not to weigh more than 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds), shouldn't use more than 5.5 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers (51.4 miles per gallon) driven and shouldn't cost more than 4,000 marks. In addition, because there was a sheet metal shortage in East Germany, the car was to have a synthetic body.

Eighteen Horsepower and 90 Kilometers per Hour

The name was an homage to the Russian satellite Sputnik, shot into space in 1957 -- Trabant is German for satellite. But three years went by before the first car rolled off the assembly line -- and it didn't quite hit all the specs laid down by the Berlin government. The P50, as the first Trabant model was called, reached an average fuel efficiency of 6.8 liters per 100 kilometers (35 miles per gallon) according to brochures at the Leipzig convention where it was unveiled and, at 8,360 marks, was more than twice as expensive as foreseen. But the air-cooled, two-cylinder, two-stroke engine (with 18 horsepower and a top speed of 90 kmh -- or 60 mph) was praised as was the vehicle's sleek look.

But the body was indeed made of a synthetic material. Engineer Wolfgang Barthel developed a special material known as Duroplast -- a mixture of resin powder and cotton. The cheap material earned the Trabi, among myriad other nicknames, the moniker "cardboard racer."

In its early years, the Trabant was continually improved and changed. There was a model with chrome molding and, temporarily at least, buyers could go for a two-tone, and even three-tone, paint job. Two years after the first car rolled off the assembly line, the P500 model was introduced, complete with a 20 horsepower engine -- and also available in a station wagon model. There were 14 different colors to choose from.

Despite another new model in the 1960s, with the mini-fins on the backend that one sees on most surviving models today, it became increasingly apparent that the Trabant was rapidly falling behind the rest of the automobile world. It put East Germans on the road, but the simple car with its white cloud of exhaust was technically outdated by the 1980s, an attempt to export it to the West notwithstanding.

Go Trabi Go!

The East German leadership made one last attempt to update the Trabi -- and ordered a four-stroke model to be developed. The result was hardy convincing: 40 horsepower squeezed out of an engine licensed from Volkswagen. Customers had to fork over 19,865 east marks -- after spending years on the waiting list. Disgust with the inflated price was widespread, and was just one more factor that contributed to the 1989 collapse of the East German state. The Zwickau factory shut its doors for good on April 30, 1991, having produced 3,051,485 cars.

But is the Trabi gone forever? A few weeks ago at the International Motor Show, it looked as though the East German car might experience a rebirth. The model company Herpa showed a model of a New Trabi and asked 12,000 convention visitors what they thought of the idea. "The results were overwhelming," says Klaus Schindler, a manager at Herpa. "Ninety-three percent of those surveyed want the New Trabi." And now? "We are looking for partners, because we want to get the first prototype built by next year," Schindler says. Go Trabi go!

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