East Germany’s Iconic Trabant Turns 60
The Trabant car – the symbol of everyday life in communist East Germany – continues to fascinate, charm and amuse. Spare parts are in demand, there are hopes that prices might rise, and a new museum extension is being planned to commemorate the “Little Stinker.”
Frank Hofmann simply has to turn the key for the memories to come flooding back: The well-known rattle and the characteristic smell of the exhaust from the petrol-oil mixture could only come from a Trabant. Sixty years after the first P50 Trabi rolled off the production line in the East German city of Zwickau, the little car with the round headlamps still its fans.
“The Trabi is a car that just stands out from the rest,” says Hofmann, who drives a Bali-yellow P 601.
According to Germany’s dpa news service, some 3 million Trabants were made until production ceased in 1991, the year after German reunification. Today Hoffman owns an online spare parts mail order company from his home town of Zwickau near the border with the Czech Republic, with the parts being made in small-scale production runs.
When Hofmann, who is in his mid-40s, set up his business in 2003, few believed it would survive for long. “We were just two at the time with three boxes of parts in the basement,” he says. The business has grown. These days his range of parts runs to 1,500 items, from the tiniest screw to complete engines. Hofmann now employs a staff of eight working from three warehouses.
“The Trabant represents the opposite of the highly technical world of today,” says the enthusiast, who has felt a passion for the cars since his childhood.
He notes that only minor technical expertise is required to repair a Trabant as a consequence of its simple construction method. This was precisely the mission set out by the East German government in 1954: The small family car was to be robust, economical and inexpensive. Sheet metal was in short supply, so the designers came up with the well-known coachwork made of the synthetic Duroplast.
Trabant head engineer Werner Lang, who has since died, described the simple resources used for the car in a documentary by film-maker Eberhard Goerner that had its premiere earlier this year. The film has been shown not only to an East German audience, but also in Switzerland. There has been interest from Texas as well, Goerner says, confirming that the Trabant has fans well beyond the borders of Germany.
Hofmann delivers to Britain, Belgium, Hungary, Russia, Australia and the United States. He even recalls sending a brake cylinder to Namibia.
The two-stroke with its oily exhaust plume is to this day a symbol of socialism and the planned economy. Soon after it was launched, the state authorities put a stop to further development, until at the end of the 1980s a four-stroke engine made by Volkswagen was installed in new Trabants. But by then East Germany was on its last legs and the iconic car showing its years.
The lack of technical progress between 1958 and 1991 has made things easier for Hofmann. “I don’t need numbers from the model year, as most of the parts are the same in any case,” he says.
But production lead times have changed dramatically, he says with a wink. East Germans had to wait 12 years on average between applying for a car and delivery, whereas today’s Trabi fans have their spare parts dispatched on the same day.
Germany currently boasts 34,500 licensed Trabants, and owners are by no means confined to the eastern states. Wolfgang Kiessling is chair of the International Trabant Register, which holds all the brand and marketing rights. It also runs 20 Trabant exhibitions, including until recently a mobile exhibition. The latter had to be shut down recently for reasons of cost and his currently being housed in a Zwickau museum.
Kiessling notes the interest shown by younger people, believing this cannot be explained purely by nostalgia. The cult car is on the way to being a collectors’ item to be faithfully reconstructed to the original specifications.
The Trabant cannot yet be seen as an investment, but well restored models such as the Trabant Tramp – the civilian version of military “Kuebel” – can fetch around 10,000 euros (11,500 dollars).
Preparations are currently under way in the Trabant’s birthplace for a major exhibition of the “Little Stinker.” Zwickau’s August Horch Museum of cars is being expanded and is to open a new permanent exhibition, most of which will be devoted to the Trabant.
While the very first Trabi will not be on show, Number 57 from the first series of 150 cars will be. The earlier cars are lost, but Number 57 went straight from the production line into the museum.