AFTER 40 years in the slow lane, many East Germans are putting the pedal to the metal and shifting into overdrive. Since the arrival of West German deutsche marks July 1, more than a quarter of German Democratic Republic households have purchased new or used cars. Evidence of the arrival of Western automobile culture can be seen in towns and villages throughout East Germany.
Used car dealerships have popped up like mushrooms. They range from the mom and pop variety with a handful of cars in a front yard to the full-blown, pinwheel spinning, brightly lit dealership next to a busy intersection. The pent-up demand for automobiles in East Germany - drivers formerly had to endure waiting lists of 10 to 12 years for a new car - has created a boomtown atmosphere. Outdoor showrooms
On weekends in Leipzig and other cities, public parking lots become huge open air auto markets. Some of the sellers simply have one old car for sale. Other sellers, representing large dealerships in West Germany, drive display and test models into town for the weekend, take orders from interested customers, and then deliver cars the next week.
Even branches of dealerships from the Netherlands are competing here. ``There's no market for used cars in Holland,'' says Ybe Martens, explaining why foreign dealers bring their cars to East Germany.
But native wheeler-dealers such as Rolf Weegmann of Leipzig are getting a piece of the action, too. Mr. Weegmann's business card advertises new and used car sales, auto rentals, a car wash, and towing service. The whole operation is run from an office in a tidy white camping trailer. His showroom is a city-owned parking area on which he has positioned 20 to 30 cars. Most of them are used cars obtained through a partnership with a West German automobile dealer.
``Most of the market has already been eaten up,'' Weegmann says, reflecting a sentiment that appears to be universal among car salesmen in East Germany. He blames too many dealers and a slackening of demand. Normalizing may be a better way to characterize the market. Salesmen are nostalgic about the heady days of early July, just after the economic merger with West Germany.
Customers today appear more cautious. They talk about rising prices and higher rents and expensive utility bills. Many worry that they may soon be unemployed. But they continue to buy cars and take out auto loans.
Approximately half of all personal loans made by West German banks in East Germany since July have been for automobiles, says Peter Pietsch, an economist with Commerzbank in Frankfurt.
Autobahn speed demons
The influx of hundreds of thousands of cars in less than three months has created rush-hour traffic jams and parking shortages seemingly overnight. The formerly sedate East German autobahns are experiencing marked changes too.
Less than a year ago, drivers of pokey little Trabants rarely exceeded the speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour). With their new, faster cars, East German drivers are challenging their Western cousins for the title of ``king of the road.''
``Officially, the speed limit is still 100 k.p.h., but people are driving faster,'' says Wolfgang Wuthe, spokesman for ADAC, West Germany's largest automobile club. The poor condition of many of the roads - some of which are still paved with cobblestones - has prompted officials to keep the old limits for safety.
Crumpled, burned-out, and junked autos can be spotted along even major highways. Mr. Wuthe attributes some of these wrecks to the poor quality of some of the used Western cars sold to East German drivers.
In East Germany, the number of car accidents is 70 percent higher than last year. And some East Germans talk of the arrival of an uglier side of Western car culture - insurance fraud. In the past, with the long wait for another car, few people would consider totaling their ``Trabbi'' for the insurance money.
Wuthe says the East German police are failing to slow traffic or tow wrecked hulks because, after years of being viewed as watchdogs for the communists, they do not want to be seen as bad guys by the public. ``The poor boys just don't know what to do,'' he says. And no one is exactly sure if it is legal to tow away someone else's property.
Next month's reunification with West Germany may clear up that uncertainty, but traffic here will never be the same.