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Germany

The Trabi, East Germany's VW Beetle Offers Clunky Nostalgia

A Trabant 601S in Bucharest
A Trabant 601S in Bucharest
Stefan Anker

BERLIN - Anyone who owns a Trabant — or "Trabi" as the East German cars are called these days, often with a mixture of affection and amused derision — really wants to own one. But probably not as a financial investment, because even a beautifully maintained Trabant P601 fetches no more than 3,000 euros. Instead, Trabi owners are motivated by the nostalgia their cars inspire. Production ended in 1989, and anyone who maintains a Trabi is preserving a clunky little piece of history.

According to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority, there were still 32,485 Trabants on German roads as of Jan. 1 of this year, 488 fewer than the previous year. But the phenomenal decline in Trabant numbers witnessed after the re-unification of Germany has essentially halted, and the Trabant has become a cult hit that has captured the imagination of collectors and sentimentalists.

There are reams of jokes and anecdotes Trabant owners love retelling. ("Why does the deluxe Trabant have an electrically heated rear window? So your hands don't get cold when you’re pushing it.") They also love to discuss how ingenious some of the car's technical solutions were for back in the day.

And in 1957, that may have been true. But with each passing year, the Trabant’s loud two-stroke engine (26 horsepower, 600 cc) became more and more outdated, as did its Duroplast body, especially compared to Western cars, which constantly had to improve to deal with intense competition from abroad.

What’s more, Trabants took a long time to produce, and they were certainly not rust-proof: Many a Trabi frame rusted away.

So over the years Trabis became the stuff of caricature, particularly in the West where there was no emotional tie to it.

What spoke most for the Trabant — whose creator, Werner Lang, recently died at age 91 — was that it existed at all. "We were able to go all over with it," is what former East Germans unfailingly remember about the car. Wait a minute, isn’t that the point of a car? Yes, but East Germans didn’t have any other cars. All they had was the Trabant.

As a symbol of mass motorization the Trabant was to East Germany what the Volkswagon Beetle was in the West, but with one crucial distinction: Though more than three million of them were built, the Trabant was never able to meet the huge demand for the cars. The production shortages became additional fodder for the jokes that are now just as much a part of the cult of the Trabant as the vehicles themselves.

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