Production of the Trabant car began in 1957 in the state-owned Zwickau Sachsenring works in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The Trabant had a plastic chassis (owing to a shortage of metal in the GDR) with two doors and four seats and a two-stroke, two-cylinder engine with a five-hundred centimeter capacity and seventeen horsepower. The remodeled version produced from 1964 on, the P 601, had an engine with a six-hundred centimeter capacity delivering twenty-six horsepower; it remained unchanged until 1989 and almost three million were produced, 20 percent of which were station wagons. Together with the Wartburg series from the Eisenach plant (1.2 million produced since 1966), it was the only car the GDR produced for individual use. Only a very small number of imported cars were available on the East German market. (In addition to the Trabant and Wartburg, the GDR produced small buses, trucks, and motorcycles.)
East German car production reached more than one hundred thousand per year only in 1965 and more than two hundred thousand only in 1984 (compared to almost four million in West Germany in 1988) and remained significantly below domestic demand. The 1964 version of the Trabant would have been competitive with low-priced models on the international market, but due to the communist dogma of the moral superiority of collective over individual consumption the Trabi, as it was called, quickly became technically and aesthetically outdated until it came to be seen as the epitome of the socialist economy's structural dysfunctions. Individual mobility through the ownership of private cars had a low priority in the state planned economy, ranking behind collective forms of consumption. Therefore car production remained unsubsidized, in stark contrast to other items of daily consumption.
Car production was also not highly valued as a source of export revenue, and car exports remained limited to the unprofitable exchange obligations within the Eastern bloc, even though after 1945 East Germany's industrial traditions and skilled labor were comparable to or even better than West Germany's. Output was low and production costs extremely high, leading to high prices. Nevertheless, some room had to be made for consumerism in the GDR in order to compete with the image of affluent West Germany. After the introduction of the 1964 Trabant, however, the Communist Party bureaucracy would tolerate no further investments to keep up with international standards. The cheapest Trabant model in 1989 cost about 12,000 marks, which was equal to fifteen months' average pay. The principle of egalitarian distribution at fixed prices led to endemic shortages, which were dealt with by creating a bureaucratic system of waiting lists of between thirteen and sixteen years. Places on this waiting list could be legally transferred within families but sold only informally to other persons and at high prices. This resulted in the massive spread of illegal car ownership. Used cars came to have higher prices than new cars from the waiting list. Although the state tried to regulate the used car market, the private trading of cars and of spare parts, which were rare, became an integral part of black and gray markets.
The depth of the 1989 economic crisis became evident when the waiting list for a Trabant stretched to forty years. The fall of the Berlin wall opened the GDR to the international car market and the Trabi started a second career as a symbol of the fall of communism: TV news all over the globe showed thousands of East German cars invading the streets of West German cities. Soon most East German car owners replaced their Trabants and Wartburgs with West European cars. Trabant production ended in 1991 and the plant was turned to the production of Volkswagens.
After it went out of production, the Trabi took on a new life as one of the prized objects of East German nostalgia for the GDR. As early as 1990,Go, Trabi, Go, a turbulent road movie about an East German family and its first trip to Italy, set the tone. Since then, the Trabi has become the object of a full-fledged cult, which includes festivals, fan clubs, fanzines, Web sites, and a memorabilia industry. Carefully maintained Trabants can still be seen on the streets of the former East Germany's and in other countries of the former Eastern bloc.
Kirchberg, Peter. Plaste, Blech, und Planwirtschaft: Die Geschichte des Automobilbaus in der DDR. Berlin, 2000.
Trabantforum.de. Available at http://www.trabi.de.
Trabiversum. Available at http://www.trabiversum.de.
Zatlin, Jonathan R. "The Vehicle of Desire: The Trabant, the Wartburg, and the End of the GDR." German History 15 (1997): 358–380.