Business, Finance & Economics

The Trabant: An East German marvel makes a comeback

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NEW YORK — After the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, news footage of East Germans rolling across the border in boxy little cars was broadcast across the world.

With those grainy broadcasts, millions outside Germany were introduced to the Trabant, or “Trabi,” as it is affectionately known. A small car with a two-stroke engine and a series of identifying characteristics: a plastic body, its own specific sound — a staccato of constant misfiring — and a trail of foul-smelling, blue oil smoke.

The Trabant, a much-desired car in East Germany before unification, has often stood for East German industrial failings. After unification, as production eventually stopped, it became something of a cult symbol.

Now two German companies are hoping to tap into the tiny car's fame to bring back the Trabant, re-envisioned as an electric car.

Berlin Wall anniversary

Herpa, a model car maker, and IndiKar, a German specialty automaker, have teamed up to build a prototype of the new car with the aim of finding investors and, of course, selling some new old cars.

“There is no car in Germany imbued with so many emotions,” said Daniel Stiegler, spokesman for Herpa.

So Herpa and its partners are seeking $45 million to help get the car into production at its original factory in Zwickau, Germany. It's aiming to put the new Trabant onto the market by 2012.

The Trabant nT (standing for new Trabant) is designed to have a lithium-ion battery, solar panels on the roof and a gasoline engine for emergencies. It will have a range of 100 miles before needing a recharge and is designed to hit speeds of 75 mph. The retro design retains the look of the original Trabant, but has four doors and is a few inches longer and wider.

“The car will have no unnecessary gadgetry but it will come in plenty of colors,” Stiegler said.

Consumers in East Germany didn’t get to choose their color. The original Trabant was designed as the communist answer to Germany’s Volkswagen Beetle, and rolled off assembly lines in November 1957. The Trabant, which means “fellow traveler," was named in honor of the Soviet Union’s earth orbiting satellite “Sputnik,” which was launched the same year.

It was intended to be robust, agile and cheap, and as the slogan went, “offering lots of room for your luggage." It was none of those things, particularly in the quality control department, as this vintage YouTube video points out.

As a result of these problems the car was the butt of jokes in East and West Germany: "Why does the Trabi have a heated rear window? It keeps your hands warm while you push."

Even so, East Germans had to wait up to 15 years to get their hands on a Trabant. Some 3 million cars were made before production stopped in April 1991. Some 40,000 are still registered in Germany today.

The old Trabant had one green credential: The body was made of a material called Duroplast — a resin plastic reinforced by waste cotton from Russia — making it the first mass produced vehicle to use recycled organic materials.

So why would people buy a new and greener version, 20 years after unification? “ I would buy a new improved Trabant,” said Sabine Anton, a filmmaker, who left East Berlin two years before the Wall came down. “At least something of East Germany would survive."

There is even a word for those looking to cash in on warm feelings for the old German Democratic Republic: Ostalgie, which combines the German words for east (ost) and nostalgia (nostalgie). A recent poll showed that 20 years after unification, 57 percent of East Germans are defending the old system of the GDR, saying there was more good than bad about it.

And that may include — its investors hope, anyway — a new boxy car with a proud old name.