Business, Sci-Tech

Return of the Trabi

By Branko Brkic 16 December 2009

Plastic body and top-speed of 112km/h notwithstanding, the East Germans loved their Trabants – mostly because it could take as long as 15 years to get one. Hold your breath, then, for 2012’s electric-motor retro version.

Even today in the eastern parts of Berlin, if one is spotted at a traffic light, preferably next to a Porsche, you can bet someone on the street is telling his mate a joke. “How do you measure the acceleration of a Trabi?” Dieter might say to Klaus. Klaus, who’s heard the line a thousand times before, will pretend ignorance.  “How?” he’ll ask. “With a diary.” The men will laugh, and watch as the little vehicle splutters across the intersection, it’s fragile body shaken by the exhaust fumes of the sports car.

It’s in these jokes that the former citizens of East Germany express their abiding affection for a car that was once the most common sight on their roads. The Trabant, produced by East German automaker VEB Sachsenring, had one major thing going for it when it was released in 1958 – space for four adults and luggage. This was a serious luxury in the communist bloc, and the advocates of capitalism often pointed to the Trabant as symbolic of centralised planning’s failure, because to fill the tank you needed to lift the hood, pour two-stroke engine oil in with petrol, and shake the car around to mix.

But the East Germans didn’t much care what the capitalists were saying. Since it could take up to 15 years from the date of ordering to finally receive a Trabant, the hour of delivery was cause for wild family celebration. Most owners became exceptionally skilled in the car’s upkeep, and were intimate with every inch of its duroplast body (a form of plastic containing resin strengthened by wool or cotton), its two-stroke engine (which accelerated from zero to 100km/h in 21 seconds), and its independent all-around suspension (which was quite advanced for the time, even by capitalist standards).

The Trabant’s labour-intensive production methods remained unchanged until 1989, when a licensed Volkswagen Polo engine replaced the smoky old two-stroke, a result of a trade agreement between the two German states. Following unification shortly thereafter, however, demand for the car plummeted due to the availability of cheap and reliable second-hand cars in the West. The Trabant production line shut down in 1991.


Now, it appears, the Trabant’s coming back – as an eco car with a retro selling point. Herpa and Indikar have built a prototype of the Trabant NT, a remodeling of the old classic very much in the mould of VW’s new Beetle or BMW’s new Mini (which, admittedly, aren’t so new anymore). Gone is the duroplast body and the two-stroke engine; in its stead is a much safer shell and a 45kW asynchrous electric motor with an expected top speed of 130km/h and a battery range of 160km.

Photos courtesy of the great Australian car site, Car Advice.

Designed by former VW man Nils Poschwatta, the Trabant NT is mooted for production in 2012, at a price of around £7,000. Like all contemporary cars with retro designs, its appeal should be found in the way it brings together nostalgia and modern technology. Which unfortunately means the old Trabant jokes aren’t going to fly anymore.

Q: How many workers does it take to build a Trabi?

A: Two, one to fold and one to paste.

By Kevin Bloom

Read more: Retro To Go, Car Advice 

Main photo: Old Trabant (Reuters)


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