The Trabant Toots Its Horn A Rattletrap East German Icon Has Its Day Again

East Germany's most famous icon doesn't officially turn 50 until the autumn. But this weekend, Trabant fans from all over Europe gathered to pay homage to the beloved automobile.

By Mark Landler in Zwickau, Germany

East German flags fluttered proudly in the brisk wind. A cheerful young man showed off his black and red T-shirt, stamped with the name of the once feared spy agency, the Stasi. Lurking behind a souvenir table was a portrait of the Communist boss Erich Honecker.

And everywhere — wheezing, sputtering, and belching clouds of eye-watering smoke — were Trabants, the rattletrap cars that have become perhaps the most enduring symbols of the former East Germany.

The first “Trabi” rolled off the assembly line in this old industrial town in the fall of 1957. To celebrate the car’s 50th anniversary, about 2,000 Trabant owners converged here on Friday on a grassy field next to an airstrip, determined, for a weekend at least, to put the Berlin Wall up again.

“You can’t just sweep the past under a table,” said Roger Dietzel, 52, who recalls registering his name on a waiting list for a new Trabant in 1973 and never getting one. The wall fell, Germany was reunified, and production of the Trabant ceased in 1991 before his car was ready.

Mr. Dietzel and his family now own five Trabants, parked regally in front of their camping site. While they view the cars as mainly a hobby, the Trabis are a link to the past, and even more, a small gesture of defiance against the prosperity and plush living standards of a reunified Germany.

“In those days, we didn’t have any money,” Mr. Dietzel said, “but since there was nothing to buy, it didn’t matter.” His friend, Joachim Futter, nodded vigorously, adding: “Society was a lot closer then. You actually talked to people when you went shopping for groceries.”

Germans have a word for this: Ostalgie, or nostalgia for East Germany. (Ost means east in German.) It has been stoked in recent years by popular films — whether funny, like “Good Bye Lenin!” or dark, like “The Lives of Others” — by museum exhibits about daily life in East Germany, and by the Trabant, which, like many icons, has grown larger in death than it was in life.

This meeting of Trabant owners — the car’s name translates as “escort” or “satellite” — has drawn visitors from Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Denmark and the Netherlands. But it is eastern Germans who have an almost atavistic connection to the vehicles.

“I’m not a typical complaining Ossi, who always talks about how great everything was then,” said Uta Pleissner, one of the meeting’s organizers, using the colloquial term for East Germans. “But we treasured things in those days. The Trabant was a symbol: You had your family, you had a house, and you even had a car.”

Or at least a reasonable facsimile of one: With a body made of fiber-reinforced plastic, known as Duroplast, the Trabant really has more in common with a lawn mower than with a modern car. With its two-stroke engine, it accelerates from zero to 60 miles an hour in a leisurely 21 seconds.

Still, Mr. Dietzel points out, “When you’re driving in the city, it goes just as fast as a Mercedes S-Class.”

Moreover, unlike a Mercedes, the engine is so simple that virtually anyone can peer under the hood and make sense of it. Because East Germany produced only two main models of the Trabant over 30 years — more than three million cars in total — the parts are easy to find and interchangeable.

The car’s plastic shell led many wags to say it was made of cardboard. But Duroplast has its advantages. The Trabant is remarkably resistant to rust, as the mint-condition models gathered here attest. About 55,000 Trabants are registered in Germany, most at least two decades old, according to Remo Dietrich, who leads a local enthusiasts’ club.

“You still find people who say they wouldn’t have anything to do with a Trabant driver,” Mr. Dietrich said. “But now many young people think that owning a Trabi is a perfect first car.”

In any event, eastern Germans are less likely to apologize for the Trabant, or for anything else, these days.

While western Germany remains richer and has fewer people out of work than the east, the gap between them is no longer so stark. Comfortably ensconced in their BMWs or Volkswagens, people here are more apt to remember the Trabant as an example of romantic pluck than of Communist ineptness.

Werner Lang, the car’s chief design engineer, notes that one of the proposed models, a hatchback, predated Volkswagen’s ubiquitous Golf by years. East German authorities did not approve mass production.

“That was frustrating,” said Mr. Lang, who is 85 and something of a celebrity in the Trabant world. “It was hard to get my people excited about building new cars when we knew that they would never be produced.”

Nowadays, eastern Germany is producing stronger leaders, among them Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has put a spotlight on the region. When she gathered the leaders of the world’s richest nations for a meeting in Germany two weeks ago, she chose Heiligendamm, a Baltic Sea resort that was a summer playground for East Germans on company- or union-organized holidays.

Never mind that the resort is now a five-star hotel run by the Kempinski chain. Or that Mrs. Merkel’s guests would not have seen a Trabant anywhere near the carefully tended grounds. In Zwickau, one is more likely to spot a Range Rover than a Trabant in the well-restored town center.

“Helmut Kohl talked about ‘blossoming landscapes’ in the east, and it wasn’t true for the past 15 years,” Ms. Pleissner said of the chancellor who oversaw the reunification. “But maybe it is true now.”

The Trabant’s nostalgic appeal extends to other former Communist states, many of which imported the car. Flags from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic flew over encampments of people from those countries.

Sorin Antochi, a teacher from Romania, said he has owned Trabants for 30 years. He turned his latest one into a pink convertible, with a Pink Panther on the hood. Inside is a top-of-the-line stereo and electronic navigation system. Someone offered him $13,000 for it, he said.

Many Trabant owners were too busy haggling over spare parts to discuss the place of their car in East German history. For some, the allure of the Trabant is simple: It is a pop-culture icon. It was even celebrated by the rock band U2 in a music video.

And for a few, the love affair seems to have started by accident.

“I was a little drunk when I bought my first one,” said Peter Hoffmann, a builder from Denmark. “My friend sold it to me. Now I have 20 of them.”


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