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Trabant, historic member of the automobile family

By Fritz Burmeister
Posted May 4, 2007


The birth of the Trabant in 1957 coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. This extraordinary technological achievement prompted the East German carmaker Sachsenring, operating out of the old Horch factory in Zwickau, Saxony, to attach the name “Trabant” to his “Automotive Marvel of the German Democratic Republic”. Trabant means satellite in German and with the name “Trabbi,” as it is commonly called, it was anticipated the automobile would be circling the world market. However as history has shown, the Trabbi solely extended its orbit not far beyond the Iron Curtain.

The Trabbi was to be East Germany’s answer to West Germany’s Volkswagen (VW). While the VW succeeded in orbiting the World’s export market because of its superior performance, the Trabbi fell short of being a serious competitor. Its simple construction, a two-stroke 25 hp engine, and a body made out of Duroplast, a combination of plastics and cotton, was more of an inspiration to the joke-makers than to buyers. Wide open, it can accelerate to 60 mph, a far cry from breaking any speed record for horseless carriages. 

And yet, East German car buyers had to wait years before their order of this “slightly faster than horse and buggy vehicle” could be filled, indicating that even the supply and demand relationship was out of balance. But what were the East Germans to do? The Trabbi was a low-cost four-wheeler that offered some incentive over peddling a bike. Furthermore western European as well as Soviet built automobiles were unavailable to the general public being reserved for politcians and party leaders. 

Design improvements during the productive life of the Trabbi were few and far between. Not until 1989 was the engine replaced with a small four-stroke VW engine, through the trade agreement between the two German States. Concurrently, minor improvements were also made to the brake system, signal lights and the suspension system. However, this upgraded model, the “Trabant 1,1,” rolled off the production line in May 1990, when German Unification had already taken place. With the border now open, East Germans rushed to the West to buy used cars. Sales of the Trabbi took a nosedive and in spite of government subsidies the Trabant era had run its course. In 1991 production halted.

The Trabbi was the epitome of a cheap automobile, which may reflect negatively on East German car designers, but it was the Communist leadership in the German Democratic Republic that rejected any significant upgrades in order to keep costs at the lowest possible level. Needless to say, it kept the performance equally low. It is no wonder then, that the Trabbi became the target of the Joke makers of which still circulate today:

When does the Trabbi travel at top speed?
When it is towed.

What is the greatest ambition of a Trabbi owner?
To get a speeding ticket.

How do you double the value of a Trabbi?
Fill it up with gasoline.

In spite of the ridicule Trabbis have not disappeared. It is reported in “Der Spiegel”  that there are over 50,000 of them in Germany. They retain a certain nostalgic value among people of the former GDR. Many Trabbis have become collectors’ items. Numerous auto clubs plan to have parties, celebrating the 50th birthday of a four-wheeler that once reigned as king of the chuck-holed roads of Eastern Germany.



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