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© Christine Till - CT-Graphics
In the late '50s a vehicle emerged from the socialist part of Germany (GDR): The Trabant - East Germany's answer to West Germany's VW Beetle. It became the symbol of Eastern transportation and the epitome of socialism: Bad, not capable of doing too many things, not too efficient but still working somehow.
The Trabant (the word means companion or satellite) was intended to be the representative of the intermediate car category: A 2+2 seater vehicle with a small, easy-to-repair engine, lightweight construction with a little boot at the back. It was powered by a two-stroke (V2) pollution generator that maxed out at an ear-splitting 18-hp (or 26-hp "Luxe" model), and made of fiberglass-like Duroplast, reinforced with recycled fibers like cotton and wood. It's said that goats sometimes ate abandoned Trabants. Its max speed was 60 mph (more than enough for the bad roads in Eastern Europe), and it came in some pretty odd colors, such as diarrhea brown or traffic-light green.
Notoriously unreliable, Trabants smoked like an Iraqi oil fire and often lacked even the most basic of amenities, like brake lights or turn signals. The fuel was gravity-fed to the carburetor (no fuel pump). To keep it running one had to manually add oil to the fuel (like to an old lawnmower). Since there was no fuel gage the car had a dipstick with liter-marks that one could dip in the gas tank to see how much gas there is. The engine was air-cooled (no need for radiator, antifreeze or waterpump), and it had a direct ignition system (no need for distributor cap/rotor, etc.). Front end collisions often resulted in fires.
Nevertheless, Trabants were to be the perfect means of transportation for the whole family - a "people's car," as if the people didn't have enough to worry about.
They had to enter a lottery for the opportunity to purchase one of these cars; not to win a car, but to be allowed to pay approximately a year's salary for one. But since there was not much else to buy in the country, it didn't matter. If they won, the waiting time for their new Trabant was ten to fifteen years after ordering. Those who registered their name on the waiting list and paid for a new Trabant in 1973 never got one. Before their car was ready the Berlin Wall fell, Germany was reunified (in 1989), and production of the Trabant ceased in 1991.
But due to the long waiting period between ordering a Trabant and actually getting it, people who finally received one treated the car gently and were meticulous in maintaining and repairing it. The lifespan of an average Trabant was 28 years! Used Trabants would often fetch a higher price than new ones, as the former were available immediately, while the latter required the infamous long wait.
When the Berlin Wall fell thousands of East Germans drove their Trabants accross the border. Once in the West, the not-too-sentimental 'Ostdeutschen' immediately abandoned their Trabis, and re-united Germany's biggest issue with Trabants was how to get rid of them. The long-lasting and rustproof plastic car bodies are an environmental disaster. They do not decay nor are they in any way recyclable, and burning they release toxic pollutants in the air. In the early 1990s scientists were even searching for a couple of years for a type of microbe that might eat the cars, which were stacked up in junkyards.
But one man's trash is another's treasure, and history has been kind to the Trabi. Like many icons, it has grown larger in death than it was in life. The wheezing, sputtering, clouds of eye-watering belching smoke car is now a pop-culture icon. Germans have a word for this: Ostalgie ("ost" means "east" in German). Trabis show up at car shows right next to bright red Ferraris, but in the US the fellows who are clustered around a Ferrari avoid to ask questions about the weird little East German car they've never seen before. The car's recent popularity may even bring a new version of the Trabi back to the market. The Trabant nT made its debut in 2009 as a concept for an electric car. So, perhaps, in a few years used Trabi nT's will be on the market, we'll just have to wait and see.
June 21st, 2012
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