E. German cars go from spunky to junky Trabants reborn, one part at a time

November 14, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

ZWICKAU, Germany -- Yes, Werner Reichelt has heard the laughter about his life's major achievement.

The kindly old man knows that the car he helped design -- the sputtering two-cylinder Trabant -- sounds and smells like a weed whacker on wheels, only with less head room. He knows the Trabant has come to symbolize all the chintz and haplessness at the mushy core of the former East Germany. He's even heard some of the brutal jokes.

(Q. Why does a Trabant need a rear-window defroster? A. To keep your hands warm when you push it.)

What, then, does one do when one's masterwork becomes a stale national joke?

One makes money by smashing it to pieces.

Mr. Reichelt, silver-haired at 66, is presiding over the destruction of Trabants, one by one, at a recycling plant here at the birthplace of more than 3 million of the tiny cars. In doing so he has established the perfect metaphor for transition in the reunified Germany: turning the clutter of the former Communist regime into building blocks for the future.

Because that's just what the cotton-and-plastic husks of old Trabis, as they're called, are becoming -- the stuff of insulation slabs, flower pots, noise-muffling panels, park benches, road foundations and carpet backing.

"I consider it a good thing, a correct thing," Mr. Reichelt says of his new project. "It was a lot of fun to develop such a car, but it was only right under the economic conditions that existed at the time. It was totally wrong to keep producing the Trabant for years and years. In the end, you were only making antiques. That's why I was very satisfied when, in 1991, production stopped."

But forgive Mr. Reichelt for hanging on to some of his pride in the Trabi, not so much for what it became during 33 years of production with practically no modifications, but for what it once was -- an innovation in plastic auto bodies, cheap transportation for a people of little means, and a minor triumph of mass production for a nation long on socialist slogans but short on raw materials.

Or, as Mr. Reichelt likes to put it, "We had the chance to produce the right car at the right time at the right place."

The magic of plastic

Necessity was the mother of the ugly little Trabi. World War II had ended. The new state of East Germany was struggling under the weighty misnomer of the German Democratic Republic, and the people needed cars.

There was a leftover Audi plant in Zwickau, but the rights to its name and, more important, most of the remains of the German steel industry were over in West Germany.

So, Mr. Reichelt explains, "The idea was to use plastic, and I was one of the seven people who had to realize this idea."

"The Glorious Seven," he calls the old design team, half in jest and half with a twinkle of nostalgia. At age 25, he was the youngest in the bunch when they set out in 1952 to build a plastic car.

That would be the P70, a car resembling a Studebaker. Knock on its roof and you heard a thud, from the 110 thin layers of chemically treated cotton squeezed between two sheets of plastic.

But it wasn't small enough to match most East German incomes, so two years later they completed a new, more compact design, needing only a name to begin production in 1958.

That was about the time the Soviet Union fired the satellite Sputnik into orbit, beginning the space age and panicking the Western World. It was all the inspiration the Zwickau carmakers needed. They christened their baby the Trabant (Trah-BAHNT), a German word for satellite.

There were some modifications in the early years, but by 1964, the 18-horsepower Trabi was set in a mold that would never change. From then on, its fate was roughly the same as its country's -- an illusion of success built on mounting sales and production figures within a closed, captive market, although both the Trabi and the GDR were steadily sliding toward obsolescence.

Endangered species

By 1989, there were nearly 2 million Trabis on the road in East Germany -- 53 percent of the country's autos. The rest were mostly either Wartburgs, a roomier car also made in East Germany, or one of several clunky models from the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia.

But that same year, the Berlin Wall came down. And as streams of Trabis began pouring through the breach in a haze of blue exhaust, it was quickly apparent to everyone in the West how far behind the East had fallen.

On came the jokes. (Q. Why are Trabi drivers great philosophers? A. They think they own a car.)

But the Trabi's smelly exhaust was no laughing matter. In Hungary, which had imported 600,000 Trabis during its days as a faithful member of the East Bloc, the Budapest City Council concluded the car was responsible for the city's air pollution and began offering three-year public transportation passes for anyone who'd turn in his Trabi.

East Germans, free at last to buy Western cars, virtually stopped buying Trabis, and within two years, only 30 percent of the cars on the roads of the East were Trabants.

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