Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Fifty years of Trabants

Tomorrow is the fiftieth birthday of the former German Democratic Republic's most famous automotive product, the Trabant. This gives us a useful reminder that while capitalism isn't perfect, it at least provides us with an enormous choice of excellent cars at reasonable prices. Imagine being a car enthusiast in the GDR and having to wait years - or even decades - for the privilege of handing over your life savings for a piece of crap like the Trabant.

That said, it should also be borne in mind that the makers and designers of cars in the old planned economies of Eastern Europe operated under severe constraints. Access to certain materials and mainstream western parts suppliers was limited, while funding was restricted to what could be squeezed from the latest five or seven year plan in a system that emphasised the collective and communal over the sort of individual aspiration and ambition represented by car ownership. I still think that the Skoda Favorit, for example, which appeared in the then Czechoslovakia in 1987, and in western markets from 1989, was a remarkable achievement, given that it was close to being competitive with western cars of the time, despite being developed under these limitations. Certainly, it was good enough to get Volkswagen interested in the company, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, what made the Trabant famous wasn't its qualities as a car but its starring role in the film footage of the night the Berlin Wall came down - celebrated in this commemorative model, which I am sad to say, still sits on my mantelpiece gathering dust almost twenty years after the event.

Nevertheless, it's a pity that the grotty Trabant got the limelight when there were so many more interesting GDR vehicles - nothing you'd actually want to to have owned at the time, of course, but more interesting nevertheless. The Wartburg 353 for example, wasn't too bad when it was introduced in the mid-sixties, although it was hobbled by its two-stroke engine. The Barkas van occupied the same popular role in the GDR as the Ford Transit in the UK or the VW 'Bulli' van in West Germany, while East German trucks such as the IFA W50 and the smaller Robur were widely used not only in the domestic 'market' but in the Third World as well. The only East German brand that wasn't absorbed or closed after the Berlin Wall came down was Multicar, a manufacturer of very small vehicles for municipal use such as street sweeping. Anyway, more on some of this interesting stuff another time.

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