East Germans take pride in their 'little stinker'

Trabant cars, long an object of ridicule, have become a symbol of

After two days of almost incessant rain, the airfield in Zwickau, in west Saxony, has become a gigantic mud pit.

It may not have been the best time or place for a car festival, especially when the vehicle in question is reputed to be made out of cardboard. But the roughly 30,000 fans at the sixth annual Trabant Meet don't seem to mind.

"We're cold, we're wet, we're dirty, but we're happy," says university student Matthias Tetzel.

After all, making the most of adversity is something Trabant owners know all about. The car has no radiator, no oil filter or pump, and the tank is above the engine, meaning no need for a fuel pump. Its body is made of Duroplast, a synthetic mix of resin and fortified wool, earning it the nickname "cardboard racer," although with its two-stroke, 26-horsepower engine, it is seldom able to exceed 70 miles per hour.

Once the butt of jokes - "How do you double a Trabant's value?" "Fill it with gas," went one - owners have turned the Trabant, or Trabi as it is affectionately known, into a symbol of resourcefulness. Their devotion could be likened to that of American fans of Harley-Davidson motorcycles or that other German car, the old-style Volkswagen Beetle. Stickers pasted on back windows contain messages such as: "Only men of steel drive cars of cardboard."

Only a few years ago, the Trabi was thought to be headed for the history books, like the state in which it was produced, communist East Germany. Manufactured in Zwickau, the Trabant first rolled off the assembly line in 1957 and was the only car available to most East Germans. After reunification, many ditched their sputtering Trabis for the flashy BMWs and Mercedes. But more than eight years since the last one rolled off the assembly line in April, 1991, the Trabi has achieved near-cult status. According to meet organizers, there are still 308,000 of them prowling Germany's roads.

The comeback is largely attributed to ostalgia, an east German longing for things familiar during communist times and an effort to reassert their identity. "In this background, the Trabant has become a symbol," says Wolfgang Kaschuba of the European Ethnology Institute at Berlin's Humboldt University.

Festival visitor Harold Erpol from east Berlin says, "People grew up with this car. They drove it from home to work, and spent weekends with friends working on it." The Trabant is the only car he has ever owned, he adds.

Younger easterners also identify with the Trabant and are in many ways the driving force behind its underground hit status. Price is one reason: Even well-maintained Trabis can be had for as little as $500.

"It is also just plain fun. You can do a lot of things to it yourself," says Tom Starke.

THE roughly 8,000 Trabants that descended on the airfield for the recent show sported a rainbow of airbrush paint jobs. Scores were outfitted with spoilers, chrome bumpers, and tinted windows, and many flew the old East German flag from their antennas.

Some owners had converted their Trabants to cabriolets or jeeps, while others had put two or three together to build Trabant limousines. One owner replaced his engine system with that of a bicycle, creating sort of a Fred Flintstone Trabant.

"You would never do things like that to a BMW," observes Mr. Tetzel, the student.

Although the Trabi's stronghold is clearly east Germany, it has gained fans abroad, including some from France, Holland, and Hungary who made the pilgrimage to Zwickau. Sacramento, Calif. native Ninette Brintz says she has wanted one since 1991. After moving to Germany last year, she got her wish. "They're so cute," she says.

While Trabants may be cute, they are also environmental hazards. Studies have shown that the "little stinker," as they are also known, produces almost 10 times the hydrocarbons and five times as much carbon monoxide as cars in the West, making it the target of some politicians and environmental groups.

Given efforts to take it off the road and the finite supply of parts, the Trabi's days seem numbered. Nevertheless, many fans are convinced otherwise: "The Trabi will stay forever," declares Jan Felber.

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