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Ten Years After -- The East German Trabant

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, most of the cars that poured westward out of East Germany were the plastic and fiberglass Trabants. The "Trabi" was a symbol of the exodus, but it quickly became an endangered species. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports on the Trabi's legacy in the town of Zwickau, where it used to be built.

Zwickau, Germany; 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The last Trabant rolled off the assembly line at the Sachsenring factory in Zwickau eight and a half years ago. The 1991 model differed relatively little from the first of the more than three million Trabants made since 1957. Made of a synthetic material called "Duroplast," it was flimsy, and it was loud.

The Trabant had a top speed of 100 kilometers an hour, and its two-stroke, 13.2 kilowatt motor sounded like it belonged to an old motorcycle rather than a car. Attempts by the East Germans to build a more powerful motor were repeatedly quashed by the Soviet Union. Within the framework of Comecon cooperation, Moscow insisted on having a monopoly on strong motors.

Long before the development of the Trabant, Zwickau was an auto-making town, home since 1904 to the Horch line of luxury cars, trucks and fire engines. The company's founder, August Horch, began manufacturing the Audi in Zwickau starting in 1910. After the Soviets occupied eastern Germany in World War II, the communists nationalized the Horch and Audi factories. Audi transferred its operations to Ingolstadt in the U.S. occupation zone. In 1957, the communists gave Horch the new name of Sachsenring, and began producing Trabis.

August Horch's original 95-year-old auto factory is now a museum with an extensive collection of pre-war Horch limousines and Audis as well as virtually every variation of the Trabant ever made, from the very first to the final, 3,096,099th.

The collapse of communist rule in East Germany in 1989 enabled the production of a Trabant with a motor more than twice as strong (30kW/1050 ccm) as the traditional two-stroke engine. But it was too late. Export markets -- chiefly Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia -- as well as the East German market, had dried up with the sudden availability of cheap imports from West Germany and the Far East. The Trabant was doomed.

In May 1990, West Germany's Volkswagenwerk launched the assembly of a new car called the Polo, at a Sachsenring facility at Mosel, 10 kilometers north of Zwickau. The deal had been reached a year before, and the intention had been to mount Polo engines in Trabants. But once the Berlin Wall was opened in November 1989, as VW-Sachsen spokesman in Mosel, Guenter Sandmann notes, the plans took on a life of their own.

"It all began with the Polo, with the idea to give the Trabant a successor. Back then, one believed that the GDR would be able to remain a sovereign, albeit market-oriented state. ...We tried to assemble the Polo here. This worked for about half a year. We quickly noticed that people who were used to driving the Trabant for 30 or 40 years really wanted to have something bigger -- like a Wartburg, a Skoda, or a Lada. But these models were either unavailable or (their import) could not be financed. People suddenly felt the need to have a classic like the Golf and not merely the Polo."

Sandmann says VW responded quickly, and in 1991, VW began producing the Golf at Mosel, initially along with the Polo but seven months later completely replacing the Polo. Today the huge plant, one of the most modern car plants in Europe, annually produces some 260,000 VW Golfs and Passats for delivery worldwide. Last July, the one millionth VW made in Zwickau-Mosel rolled off the assembly lines. But the Trabant has not been forgotten.

The mayor of Zwickau, Rainer Eichhorn, speaking in a thick Saxon accent, says the Trabant remains a popular symbol of his town.

"First of all it, of course, the Trabant today, as in the past, really is a part of our street life. And every year at the gathering of international Trabant drivers [we hold] here -- the last one attracted 30,000 visitors -- one sees that the Trabant is not about to be killed off."

The annual Trabi festival at the local airfield is intended as much for owners to show off their relics as to trade spare parts -- increasingly hard to find.

After ten years, Zwickau has finally managed to halt the outflow of residents, touched off by the westbound exodus and further stimulated by the end of Trabant production. Mayor Eichhorn credits the turnaround to a combination of urban renewal and job creation. Nevertheless, unemployment in Zwickau is nearly 20 percent.

VW-Mosel now employs 5,500 people, less than half the number of people Sachsenring employed to build the Trabant. But a portion of the Trabant workforce consisted of "guest workers" from North Vietnam. Many of them have gone home or changed jobs.

High unemployment appears to be a contributing factor to the strength of the post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which has one-quarter of the seats in Zwickau's city council, behind the Christian Democrats and just ahead of the Social Democrats.

Local officials also credit the strong PDS presence to widespread feelings that life under capitalism has become complicated and the only easy answers are offered by the former Communists. One city official likens this response to that of a zoo animal who, after being let out of his cage, wanders around town. Frightened by the traffic and lacking experience in hunting its own food, the animal eventually returns to the security of the zoo.