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Whole lotta love for Trabi

She’s slow; she has breakdowns. But people love her. The Trabant, the once-infamous East German car, has become a cult object.

She’s slow; she has breakdowns. But people love her. The Trabant, the once-infamous East German car, has become a cult object.

“The government told us ‘make a car without metal,’” recalls Dr. Werner Lang, the former technical director of the Trabant factory. “At that time the GDR didn’t have any steel production, and the government wanted to make a car without imported materials.”

In 1957 the Trabant made its debut. “We kept improving it, and in the ’60s we even built a successor car that we could export to Western Europe,” explains Lang. “But the government stopped the idea. They thought the Trabant was good enough.”

It was good enough for East Germans, for most of whom the Trabant was the only available car. Demand was so huge that people sometimes had to wait for 14 years for theirs.

“The beginning of the ’70s was the Trabant’s peak,” notes Konrad Naumann, president of the fan-club Internationales Trabant-Register. “After that it couldn’t keep up with other cars from the East bloc.” Until it closed in 1991, the Trabant factory, in Zwickau, built over three million cars.

When the Berlin Wall fell, many East Germans quickly got rid of their much-ridiculed “Trabis.”

“People were stupid giving up their Trabants in favor of rusty Western cars”, says Lang. “The Trabant is a good car that you can travel far with and that you can fix and fidget with yourself. It’s a sweet victory that Trabant has become so popular since the end of the GDR.” Indeed it has. Today there are close to 200 Trabi fan-clubs around the world; in 2007, over 20,000 fans gathered in Zwickau to celebrate the car’s 50th anniversary. “When the Trabant was built, it was leading within its category,” says Lang.

Though often derided as “the cardboard car,” the Trabant is, in fact, made of cotton and plastic. “We had to make the shell from materials that were plentiful in the GDR,” explains Dr. Werner Reichelt, who was in charge Trabant’s shell design.

“The problem is that for 27 years it remained virtually unchanged. But I’d say it has achieved cult status like no other car, except maybe the VW Beetle and the Renault 2CV.”

 
 
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