Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Car of Love and Hate

It was the people's car but the people supposedly hated it. It smelled awful, emitted blue smoke and made horrible noises. It was listed in Time as one of the worst cars of all time. Time also called it the car that gave communism a bad name, although one wonders if communism had a good name to begin with, especially during the Stalinist era when it was developed. The car in question was the Trabant, nicknamed the Trabi.

First designed to be a motorcycle, the Trabant was converted to a car in the final stages of incubation. It would fulfill the Stalinist dream of a "people's car" and be the Communist response to the Volkswagen.

The Trabant body was a masterpiece of recycling. It was constructed of Duroplast, a type of plastic manufactured from various recycled materials such as wool, cotton waste, and phenol resins from the dye industry. The manufacturing process however, was always labor intensive and East Germany had to import guest workers from Vietnam to staff their production facility.

The first Trabant manufactured, the P50, was equipped with a small, lightweight, two-cylinder, two-stroke engine with a maximum speed of 65 mph. The P-50 was followed by the P-60, which had a 25 hp engine.

Then in 1964, the engine was upgraded again. Some modifications were also made to the electrical system and the interior. The result was the Trabant 601, which continued in production until 1991 when the company ceased operations.

The blue smoke, which streamed out of the exhaust pipe, was loaded with air pollutants. And due to the fact it was a two-stroke engine, the exhaust had a most unpleasant odor that resembled burnt oil. The engine was also extremely noisy. And like Ford's famous Model T, customers had no choice of color.

In spite of its faults, however, the Trabant did appeal to certain people, especially the film and music industry.

It was a car star in the German film "Go, Trabi, Go" in which an East German family tours Europe in a Trabant. It appeared once again in "Goodbye, Lenin," a film about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Another film, "Driving Me Crazy" was about the development and theft of a Trabant that could be fueled by turnips, instead of gasoline. And the 1996 Czech film, Kolja, stars a protagonist who is overjoyed at receiving a Trabant.

The Trabant also made its mark in the music world. The Serbian rock group, Atheist Rap, recorded a song entitled, "Blue Trabant." U2, another rock group, used Trabants for props on their Zoo IV Tour. These now hang from the ceiling in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Almost four million Trabants were produced before the company folded. Today, there are about 52,000 registered Trabants in Germany where it has acquired the status of a cult car. A well-restored Trabant might sell for the Euro equivalent of almost $21,000. On the net, there are 130 Trabant fan clubs, scattered throughout Germany, Europe and the United States.

Moreover, it has now been scheduled for a comeback. The German company, IndiKar is developing a new version of the GDR economy car. However, there will be a vast difference between the new and the old. Although retro styled with a sky blue body and white roof, the "New Trabi" will comply with European safety and emission standards. The "New Trabi" is scheduled for introduction to the public at the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show.