Small, boxy, and smoky, the Trabant was the people’s car in East Germany – the answer to West Germany’s Volkswagen. At eighteen horsepower with a two-stroke engine that billowed dark smoke and topping out at a whopping speed of sixty-eight miles per hour, it’s amazing anyone ever bought a Trabant. But buy them people did…for over thirty years from 1958 to 1991.
Behind the Iron Curtain, East Germans were hungry for a car, any car, to give them a little bit more freedom in the oppressive era of Communism. The wait time for a new Trabant could be up to ten to fifteen years after ordering. But people waited for them. However, it was one of the only times when a used car was worth more than a new one. Buyers were happy to pay a significantly higher price for a car they could drive immediately rather than in a decade or so.
Trabants (nicknamed the Trabi) were cheap, simple cars. Rumors and legends surround the iconic little vehicle. Tales flew through the Eastern bloc that the cars were made of cardboard. In truth, Sachsenring AG made them from duroplast, a type of plastic similar to fiberglass that is filled out with recycled cotton waste. Occasionally, when times were particularly tough, the plastic material was combined with paper. (Perhaps this is the origin of the cardboard rumor?)
Named one of the fifty worst cars of all time by Time magazine, few people miss the sputtering, slow Trabant of the Communist era. Front end collisions often resulted in fires, turn signals and brake lights often didn’t work (and sometimes didn’t even exist), and the car required three separate keys (trunk, doors, and ignition), but the Trabi fit four people, was fairly reliable, and was so simple just about anyone could fix problems that cropped up. With only a few cars to choose from, these few perks were enough for the East Germans who ordered them and cherished the cars when they finally got possession of them. When the Berlin Wall fell, many easterners drove their Trabis into the West and promptly abandoned them as they began their new lives.
Goats sometimes ate abandoned Trabants…supposedly.
If you want to get your hands on a Trabant today, you’ll have to be willing to shell out a few dollars for it. The cars have become popular in recent years conjuring up a bit of Ostalgia (nostalgia for Eastern Germany) and are something of a novelty item. Plus, the number of Trabis in existence is quickly declining.
However, their recent popularity may 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.