Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In search of a lowly Trabant

I've had some busy days lately, since our class met Monday and Tuesday of this week at the BMW-Leipzig factory, and then today we had a full day of class-time. Whenever I do get time alone in a city I am visiting, however, I like to walk the streets, on the look-out for interesting cars. Some cities have interesting cars parked on virtually every block, like San Francisco. In Vienna, it was a bit more difficult to locate cars that I like -- generally unrestored older vehicles with "patina"-- but I must confess that Leipzig has to be one of the toughest urban areas to uncover almost anything that vaguely resembles a car that merits my attention.

The folks of Leipzig have had a time digging out from the legacy of communism, and so over the past 20 years, they have slowly emerged with more wealth and the ability to buy better cars. One can definitely find newer Mercedes or BMWs, but Porsches are still rare, and collectible cars are almost non-existent. And the majority of cars parked in my neighborhood, the "Sud-Vorstadt," are basic, utilitarian VWs, Renaults, Fiats, Kias and Opels. Volvos seem to be popular as well, but my neighborhood is considered "trendy" and popular with folks who move here from Western Germany. At any rate, the mix of cars is quite unlike what you would find in a Western Germany city like Manneheim, Stuttgart, or Munich.

During one of my first days of wanderings through the neighborhood, I came across a Trabant 601 wagon, made between 1963 and 1991. I am including a few photos of this preserved "driveable classic," precisely because it is the ONLY one I have found in my neighborhood. Yet more than 3 million of these vehicles were made between 1959 and 1991!

They were slow, made of plastic (duroplast, made from recycled cotton waste and phenolic resins), propelled by a two-cycle engine that polluted the environment beyond anything comparable for its cubic inch displacement then or now (like a Lawnboy mower engine on its last legs), yet its average lifespan in the GDR was 28 years, and the usual waiting time to get one was 15 years.

Folks in eastern Germany collect them now, and swap engines and tune them in some instances.

The bigger question about the Trabant transcends its place and time, however. The Trabant was the result of centralized state planning at its worst. Yet the GDR was the one place where Marxism had the best chance to succeed. Given how the federal government in the U.S. is currently moving towards an automobile industry with strong controls over what will be made for our consumption, will the U.S. end up with its own "Traveler," or Trabant, this time featuring a plug-in electric configuration?
For an excellent article on the Trabant and the GDR, see Jonathan R. Zatlin, "The Vehicle of Desire," German History, 15 (1997), 358-80.

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