My cousin lives about an hour north of Berlin, in a cozy, 400 year farmhouse that leans a bit to one side. He has a couple of horses and keeps chickens for eggs. They roam around the enclosed yard, the cut-off top of his old Trabant their chicken coup.
All the cars are good for anymore, he tells me. Who says Germans have no sense of humor? Yet these noisy, unreliable, pollution spilling relics of the Cold War played both a practical and symbolic role in German reunification.
The first Trabant rolled off the Sachsenring assembly line in 1957, and over the next 34 years, over 3 million were produced. Intended to be the East German equivalent of the West German VW Beetle, a variety of models were produced in the decades that followed, including a station wagon, a hatchback and even a convertible.
In some ways, the first Trabants were ahead of their time. While the Big Three automakers in Detroit were coming out with behemoths of steel and chrome, the Trabant was small and light weight, with front wheel drive and a unified body. It got 34 miles to the gallon on the highway. Yet there, the innovation ended. Its two-stroke engine was loud. It belched more pollutants in three seconds as a Mercedes S class does in 30 miles. Its top speed was 70 miles per hour and it could barely manage 62 miles per hour in 21 seconds. Due to a lack of steel in Soviet Bloc countries, the body was made of a Fiberglas-like substance called Duroplast, which included cotton and other organic materials. Rat poison had to be incorporated into its construction, since the rodents had been known to gnaw at them. Due to shortages and the notorious inefficiency of Communist-run factories, East Germans had to wait more than a decade for their new Trabant to be delivered, and when it finally did arrive, they found that it often broke down.
Yet, because the Trabant was the only choice of car for most East Germans, and because it took so long to get one, the Trabant was often prized by its owners. They affectionately (or mockingly, depending on who you ask) called it the Trabi and took great care in maintaining them. This maintenance was made easy by the simplicity of its engine. Most owners could do their own repairs, and the motor was so light that a single person could lift out the engine single-handedly. As the saying went, Mitt Hammer, Zange und Draht, kommst du bis nach Leningrad. - With hammer, pliers and wire, you can get to Leningrad.
Leafing through my cousin’s photo albums from the DDR era, many of the pictures prominently display his Trabi – going on family picnics or a weekend of camping. Often, everyone is posed around the car, as if it was a member of the family.
Still, jokes abounded:
Question: When does a Trabi reach its top speed?
Answer: When it is towed away.
Question: Why do some Trabis have heated rear windows?
Answer: To keep your hands warm while pushing.
Question: How do you double the value of your Trabant?
Answer: Fill up its gas tank.
The Trabant was, in essence, the epitome of East German society – unreliable and inefficient, yet somehow managing to function, even if it was just sputtering along. The butt of jokes, but still cherished, because, after all, it was all they had.
In the fall of 1989, I sat in the living room of my Grandmother in Ravensburg, Federal Republic of Germany, and watched on TV as tens of thousands of East Germans flooded into West Germany from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Some actually walked across open fields. But many drove across the border in their cherished Trabis, packed with people and luggage, the air thick with blue exhaust as they made their way to freedom. It was the beginning of the end for the DDR. The East German government could not quash this exodus, nor could it stop the protests in the streets calling for Democracy. Weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell.
In the years that followed, many East Germans had trouble adjusting to a reunified Germany based on a free market and democracy. Unprofitable and inefficient Communist run factories were closed down and millions who had once had guaranteed work now found themselves without jobs and without the skills needed to find new ones. Like the factories that built it, the Trabant was also considered obsolete. Many East Germans abandoned them once they crossed into West Germany. They could be seen left to decompose in open fields along the roadsides, grass growing tall around them. Some were even left in what had been the No Man’s land between the two Berlins. Still more were ground up and spread across icy roads to provide traction in place of sand and salt. In 1989, a new engine was developed to try to update the car, but it was not enough. It couldn’t meet the West’s strict environmental and safety standards. Production ceased in 1991.
But just as East Germany has slowly adjusted to being part of a greater Germany, so too has the Trabant. Today, it is valued by collectors. They buy them for less than 50 dollars on internet, and then put thousands of dollars into new engines, custom paint jobs and booming stereo systems. Hundreds of web sites are maintained by its devoted fans. In 2009, a prototype electric version of the Trabi, updated to look similar to a Mini, was unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show, but is yet to see mass production.
I don’t think my cousin would be interested. Nowadays, he drives a Renault. More dependable and more luxurious. I doubt it would ever make a decent chicken coup.
What cars have impacted countries? Share your thoughts below..
By Manfred Gabriel
Want to know more about East Germany? Click here for our podcast on ex-East German leader Walter Ulbricht.