Blog: Dave LeggettTrabi is 50 - hurrah! (not)

Dave Leggett | 21 February 2007

Isn't nostalgia a funny thing? Remember when the Berlin Wall came down and Communism collapsed? There were humungous traffic jams on the TV news as people in the dark, grey world of Eastern Europe took flight for the first time. The East European experiment with its version of Marxism had lasted forty years but was turning to custard before our very eyes.

And one vehicle appeared to dominate the border queues: the Trabant. It actually served as a metaphor for a lot of what was wrong with central planning. 

Trabi was the only game in town and was not exactly an engineering triumph, to put it mildly. A wheezing and dirty two-stroke engine could take the fortunate driver (because he was, there was a waiting list that lasted years) from 0-60 in about five months. A closed market with guaranteed production and 'sales' figures meant there was no need to find out what the consumer wants or look at best practice outside.

In a weird way, it was a kind of perverse closed off automotive business utopia: we produce the cars we want to make (no market-producer feedback loops to worry about), it's a pure monopoly, the patient customer waits seven years, finally takes delivery and never, ever complains.

However, Pandora's box was opened by Gorby and Trabi's charms rapidly evaporated. Consumer choice left it unloved and, when parked next to a contemporary West German automotive product it looked pretty sad. But here we are, in 2007, and there are apparently Trabi enthusiast clubs across Germany being mobilised for big five-o parties.

I guess that, just as it symbolised all that was wrong about East Germany back in 1990, some people will look back at the past through slightly rose-tinted spectacles. 'At least we had full employment...' etc. And the Trabi will be a part of that jolly little nostalgia outing, perhaps.

Was Eastern Europe all bad under what is called Communism? No, of course not, but where would you have wanted to live - the old West Germany or East Germany? Not a hard one that. And was Trabi all bad? Of course not (and maybe even from an engineering perspective there are some laudable low-cost elements). It did a job. But it did it poorly and, given the choice and readies, you would much rather have had a late-1980s' vintage Volkswagen Polo wouldn't you?

Of the tired old Trabi jokes doing the rounds again, this one is by far the best:  

The Trabant factory rings a lucky East German on the Trabi waiting list: “Comrade Schulz, you will get delivery of a Trabant in ten years' time, on February 21, 1997.”

Schulz: “Morning or afternoon? I have the plumber coming in the morning.”

Top marks for persistence


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