From a laughing stock to cult status

The last of the GDR’s most widely sold car, the Trabant, left the production line 25 years ago.

People in the former GDR often jokingly said “from zero to a hundred on the same day” when referring to the Trabi. Hardly any other car experienced so much scorn and derision as the Trabant. But when the last Trabi left the assembly line in Zwickau 25 years ago on 30 April 1991, the mechanics were closer to tears than to laughter. They had grown very fond of the little car.

A two-stroke engine encased in plastic

The first Trabis left the production line in 1958 at the state-owned car plant in Zwickau. A total of more than three million were manufactured. But even more were needed. As so often happened in the GDR, demand was much higher than the supply. Many people who put in orders had to wait for more than ten years until they could finally take to the road. The Trabant typically had two main technical features. The first was the outer casing. It was made of thermoset plastic (Duroplast) instead of metal. This saved both weight and costs. In the socialist economy steel was simply too valuable. The Duroplast was produced by using inexpensive cotton fibre imported from the Soviet Union, soaking it in plastic and pressing it into the desired shape. The result was, and still is, very robust. The Trabi’s second essential feature is the two-stroke engine which discharges exhaust fumes that are extremely harmful to the environment. When the engine is running, it constantly releases small amounts of unburnt fuel and oil. This results in the characteristic smell that signals the presence of a Trabant, sometimes as far away as a few hundred metres.

Meanwhile, the Trabant has acquired cult status, partly because of its quirky features. There are still around 30,000 vehicles throughout the world, and about 250 of them have even made it to the USA. In Zwickau the International Trabi Association cultivates the cultural heritage of the Trabant and maintains its own museum with original special models, such as the convertible and the rally versions. In addition to this, the association keeps an international Trabant register. There are also more than 150 Trabi fan clubs and numerous Trabi drivers meetings.