if, like me, you've always wanted to know more about Trabants

Just saw this in a book; thought I’d share…I know it’s kinda long, but it’s well worth it.
Auto Biographies: Trabant (From The People’s Almanac Presents The 20th Century: The Definitive Compendium of Astonishing Events, Amazing People, and Strange-But-True Facts, David Wallechinsky)
How many workers does it take to build a Trabant?
Two. One to fold and one to paste.
How can you double the value of a Trabant?
Fill it up.
If the Trabant had two tailpipes, according to a worker on the Trabant assembly line, it would make a fine wheelbarrow.
The East German Trabant inspired many jokes, mainly from its owners, during a thirty-two-year production run. Though rooted in the truth that the Trabant was cranky and obsolete, the jokes also expressed the perverse pride East Germans felt for “der Trabi.”
“The Trabi was a lot like East Germany,” said actor Wolfgang Stumph. Stumph costarred with a heroic blue Trabant in a 1991 German movie, Go Trabi Go. “It was far from perfect, but somehow it worked. You had to improvise every day to keep it going. It was small and smelly and broke down a lot, but it was what we had.”
Like a motorcycle, the Trabi’s two-stroke engine was lubricated by mixing oil with the gasoline. To East Germans fleeing westward in late 1989, this burning mixture produced “the smell of freedom.” West Germans were more unkind. “Trabi-German” became a pejorative for the stereotypical East German, and the Trabant was dubbed “the little stinker.”
The Trabant’s noisy twenty-six-horsepower engine produced as much pollution as thirty Mercedes-Benzes—probably the only comparison that will ever be made between Mercedes and Trabant. The Trabant lacked carpeting, a glove box, or even a fuel gauge. The rear windows were glued shut. Its sole passenger comfort was a primitive heater, in which a fan simply blew hot engine air into the interior—along with “the smell of freedom.”
All this might imply that the Trabant was undesirable. Far from it. The average Trabant owner waited as long as eighteen years to take delivery of a car. The price equated to a year’s salary, and black-market Trabis sold for double that amount.
The East German government began Trabant production in 1959, shortly after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. Trabant is the German equivalent of sputnik, meaning either “satellite” or “fellow traveler.”
The car was built in a dim, sooty old Horch auto plant in Zwickau. Workers often pushed Trabis down the antique assembly line, and almost all assembly was done with common hand tools such as pliers and screwdrivers.
Like its West German cousin, the VW Beetle, the Trabant was designed as a people’s car, with simplicity and economy foremost. The Trabi designers succeeded with a vengeance.
Suspension was straight out of the 1930s, using single transverse springs front and rear. The front-wheel-drive transmission was a four-speed manual, controlled by a clunky steering-column shifter.
The 600-cc, air-cooled, two-cylinder engine was a pre-World War II design. Valve adjustment was never required because the engine had no valves. This power plant could wheeze from zero to sixty miles per hour in a little more than thirty seconds, with an eventual top speed of sixty-six miles per hour.
The Trabi stopped as leisurely as it accelerated. Road-testing a Trabant in 1990, Car and Driver reported: “The engine provides no braking effect at all. Nor do the brakes.”
Overall length was 140 inches, comparable to the smallest subcompacts. Trabis came in three colors (blue, white or gray) and two body styles: the wildly misnamed Limousine sedan and the Universal, a station wagon.
From 1959 to 1990, 150,000 Trabis per year were built. As these figures imply, construction was unhurried. “The government had a slogan, ‘Socialism will last forever,'” said a machinist in the Trabant plant. “That made us think, ‘Why do we have to worry or hurry? Because if we don’t do it today, we could always do it tomorrow.'”
For the Trabi, “tomorrow” came in early 1991. The newly reunified Germany passed strict tax laws to get rid of polluting cars. The last Trabant was built in April of that year.
The Trabi is dead, but not gone. Even junked Trabants pose grave environmental dangers. The Trabant body was made of Duroplast, a mix of phenol plastic and cotton matting, which releases dioxins when burned. Dead Trabants are occasionally ground up and spread on snowy roads in winter. In 1993 [sic] the rock group U2 recycled old Trabis by using them as stage props on a world tour.
For its contribution to democracy by bringing thousands of East Germans across collapsing Communist borders, Car and Driver named the Trabant the “1990 Import Car of the Year.”
Rock star, movie star, and the conveyance that carried its fellow citizens “in from the cold” to a new life of freedom.
Maybe “der Trabi” had the last laugh after all.
-Michael S. Smith

Comments are closed.