I remember the first time I saw one: it was in Leipzig, behind a restaurant that also owned a GDR airplane. The airplane was now an event location, but somewhere behind the buildings, covered knee-high in grass, was a forgotten piece of GDR history: a Barkas, the VW Transporter van of East-Germany. I instantly fell in love with it, but soon enough it became clear that this van was no longer drivable. Ever since, I’ve been dreaming about owning a Barkas van – because they might be even more charming than the Trabant.
Ambulance, fire truck, military vehicle, transit van and lorry: the Barkas B1000 was all of this and more. Even the secret police Stasi famously used the Barkas to transport prisoners. To conceal their actual purpose, the vans were labelled ‘Fresh fish’ or ‘Fruit and vegetables’. Both the Stasi prison and the Stasi Museum own an original Barkas that shows how several prisoners could be transported inside the van, each person within its own sound- and lightproof miniature cell.
Stasi Barkas. Image courtesy By Rob H (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Better than the VW Transporter
Over 175,000 Barkas vans were sold in the GDR, all made in the same factory in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) that employed more than 2,000 people. This all started in 1961, when the first B1000 was produced. With its 42 HP, maximum speed of 100 km/h and weight of 1,200 kg, the Barkas could easily compete with the VW Transporters and Ford Transits of those days. The 4.5 meter long and 1.8 meter wide bus was first presented to an international audience at the Leipzig spring fair in 1962.
Small amendments were carried out over the next decades: from 1975 the driver’s seat was fitted with a seat belt, from 1978 so was the passenger seat. A sliding door replaced the back door in 1987. The factory had an R&D department that in 1968 started working on an improved version, the Barkas B1100. Four years later, however, the GDR government ordered them to destroy anything to do with their new prototypes. There was no more money for the next generation of Barkas.
Barkas Vans Were Everywhere
It didn’t take long before the Barkas was no longer able to compete with Western transporters. The motor became a bit stronger, but was incredibly loud and built in between the driver’s and passenger’s seat. In other words: a car radio would have been a waste of money. Still, Barkas vans were everywhere, although the majority of consumers could only dream of owning one. The reason: there were no alternatives, the Barkas B1000 was the one and only van in the GDR.
Around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, autumn 1989, a successor to the B1000 was completed at last. A four-stroke Volkswagen engine was supposed to make Barkas fit for the future. 1,961 units of the B1000-1 were produced before the factory closed its doors forever on the 10 April 1991. After a thorough update of the machines, the factory workers packed them, documented the production process and translated everything into Russian. It cost about 4 million DM, but the plan was to transport everything to Russia and continue production there.
The 40 wholesale containers were ready for transport, but soon it became clear that none of the interested inventors were able to pay the transportation costs. By that time, 2,300 former employees had already lost their jobs. It took until 10 January 1994 before the trust decided the project had failed and that no-one would ever make Barkas vans again. Without further ado, all inventory was scrapped.
Although no new Barkas have been built since then, this doesn’t mean that the GDR van disappeared. Thousands were still driving around and even though some of them are rusting away behind restaurants, there’s more and more interest in these vans that have at least as much charm as an old VW Transporter. Prices are rising, but a fire truck from 1979 would cost you a little less than 5,000 euro – although some sellers on eBay ask as much as 20,000 for their Barkas. One thing is for sure: you have to hurry up if you still want one, because it won’t be long before everyone discovers this charismatic fellow.