Is the Trabi, East Germany's Clunker, On the Comeback?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters

Revelers sit on top of an old East German–made Trabant during a music festival

The global rush into green technology could be setting the stage for a most unusual comeback: the foul-smelling Trabant, the oft-ridiculed symbol of communist East Germany, all but disappeared from German roadways after the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago. But now its makers are planning to introduce a climate-saving electric version of the Trabi, as it was affectionately known.

"It will be an electric car with a solar-panel roof, designed for the city and small trips," Ronald Gerschewski, head of IndiKar, the original Trabi manufacturer, told reporters.

The original Trabi was intended to be East Germany's answer to the Volkswagen Beetle, the symbol of West Germany's economic miracle and rise after World War II. But the Trabi was more a mockery. It had a plastic body and was driven by a two-stroke engine that ran on a cocktail of oil and gasoline that emitted a putrid stench as it rolled with a characteristic clackety-clack along East German roads.

The new Trabi will feature more modern comforts like connections for GPS navigation, mobile phones and even an iPod, said Gerschewski.

"We think it will appeal to drivers who want something sustainable and stylish," said Daniel Stiegler, a spokesman for Herpa Miniaturmodelle, the Bavarian company planning to stage the Trabi's comeback as a green machine.

Herpa makes the German equivalent of Matchbox cars, scale models of real cars that can fit snugly in the hands of small children. It bought the rights to the Trabi name years ago and makes a line of Trabis for tiny tots. Now, Herpa wants to market a new Trabi as a retro designer item for a green, fashion-conscious clientele. It plans to unveil a prototype next month at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt.

Just a p.r. gag or does a new electro-Trabi have a chance of rising from the cold ashes of history to rule the roads in Germany? That remains to be seen. But the dream of an electric autobahn is clearly taking hold in Germany. The German government last week unveiled a "national development plan" to put a million electric cars on the road by 2020, pledging to provide $715 million from the country's economic stimulus package toward funding for research and development. Part of the plan involves developing a network of electric filling stations along German roads, with waist-high sockets for electric-car owners to recharge their vehicles.

"Our goal is to make Germany the leading market for electro-mobility," Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg told reporters in Berlin as he unveiled the plan.

The makers of the Trabi aren't the only German car manufacturers turned on by the dream of electric cars. Volkswagen says it will launch an electric car by 2013, while Daimler, the maker of powerful gas-guzzling Mercedes-Benz limousines, has teamed up with power utility RWE for a series of electric-car tests in Berlin.

Many German commentators saw the government announcement as little more than an political p.r. gimmick. Still, the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung saw the announcement as a sign of how technology once considered a pipe dream has moved firmly into the mainstream of public debate. "Electric cars are no longer a topic for madmen but for the government. A million of these cars should be zipping along German roads by 2020. The government is instigating a revolution," the paper wrote last week.

A million electric cars may sound like a big deal considering that there are only 1,452 such vehicles on German roads today. But Germany registers more than 3.7 million new cars every year. "Even if the government reaches its goal, it would still only affect 2% of the cars on German streets," wrote the daily Berliner Zeitung. "Electric cars will, for the foreseeable future, remain a niche product. For years, huge sums have been invested in fuel cells or hydrogen-powered cars — but no viable cars have appeared on the market." The German government may be hoping its investment in research on electric vehicles will change that.