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
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.
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
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
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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