The Trabant. Labelled “the worst car ever made”, ” the cardboard car” or the “the two-stroke terror” but whatever insult you decide to throw at East Germany’s most infamous automobile, one thing you cannot take away from it, is its iconic role in transporting the thousands of East Germans from the isolation of the communist state to the freedom of the West.

And as we commemorate the fall of Berlin wall, we take a look at a car that still manages to set the tone for both nostalgia and hatred of the state once known as the German Democratic Republic (DDR).

The name Trabant originates from the word drabant which means,”satellite” or “companion” and was inspired apparently by the Soviet satellite programme of the late 1950’s. In three decades, over three million units were produced but despite this, long waiting lists of up to twelve years were still normal for owners. Buying second hand was not an option either as the price was more than double than a new one due to the high desirability. Build quality was appalling anyway with the entire body being manufactured with a martial known as duroplast, which was a hard plastic made from recycled cotton waste. Safety was non existent by modem standards although seat belts were included. The engine was a two stoke design which was run on a combination of oil and petrol, making it noisy and a very high source of pollution. Over the majority of its production life, the Trabant saw little or no engineering improvements and was ridiculed by many as the symbol of a failing state system.

So by 1989, it seemed that this horrible little icon of East German communism would be buried along with all the other nasty stuff that people had to work with for the period of the DDR’s existence.

Or would it?

Almost immediately after the fall of the wall, it looked like the “Trabi” as it was known was beginning to become anti hero in itself as it scampered first across the borders of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and then into West Germany throughout the year of 1989 and later in 1990. It was through the news reports that the homes in the West first got a glimpse of these strange little cars making their way full of people looking for freedom from communism. Almost overnight, the Trabi became a fast ticket out, a chariot to freedom as the people, joyful to be out, hung from the car doors greeting others as they passed though borders, open for the first time in decades.

And while it was true that many cars were actually left abandoned at the side of roads, having completed their final and probably most important task, the history of the Trabi was not quite over.

The surviving cars began to become collectors items with many ending up around the world in private and public collections. The lure of nostalgia was also evident as car enthusiasts, many immigrants from countries that would have seen the Trabis frequently used, set up clubs around the world in far flung paces such as Japan and the USA. Pop culture was also a magnet for the Trabi with acts like the Irish rock band U2 adopting the Trabi as a mascot for their 1990 album Achtung Baby. The band decided on using the car because they felt that it symbolised a changing Europe at the time.

Even today, Berlin can still be the place for the odd Trabant but it’s mostly a result of sightseeing tours in which you get to take a trip around the city in your very own Trabi. You might be lucky enough to find one still on the roads in Europe listed as a classic car which is wonderful thing considering its small but significant part in the history of German reunification.

There was a plan to resurrect the Trabant  with a design proposal in 2007 which would have been powered by an electric motor but alas, it didn’t get sufficient support and as of now, it’s still in development hell but given the recent cravings for retro classics such as the VW Beetle, Fiat 500 and Mini, maybe there would be a market for retro Trabi?

Was it the worst car ever made? Who knows? Who cares really? The fact is that now, Trabi’s place in automotive history is more than secure because it allowed the people of East Germany to become mobile just when they needed to be. They may have walked, took a train or used a bike but many may never had made it to the west had it not been for their little cardboard car. Whatever we may think of the Trabant, we should not underestimate its role in history of German renunciation as a chariot of freedom.

Ken Sweeney
Committed to idea of supporting aspiring writers and journalists. Serial podcaster.

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