Not the Only Car in Town: the East German Automotive Industry Beyond the Trabant

Car enthusiasts and techies love motorised vehicles from bygone eras, including the former socialist East Germany – and so they should! After all, the GDR produced a few coveted collectors’ items. The Trabant is probably the one brand from this period that everybody remembers. But it was by no means the only one to grace East German highways and byways. Other models, such as EMW and Wartburg, have long since disappeared from view and memory. High time, we think, to celebrate them in a blog post.

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Image courtesy of Editions Atlas

The GDR’s most iconic relict: the Trabant 

The Trabant, affectionately known as “Trabi” to its many fans, is probably East Germany’s most iconic relict. Production started in 1958 at the public-owned plant in Zwickau. Celebrated as East Germany’s answer to the Beetle, the Trabant was the socialist state’s first mass-produced passenger car. The Trabant P50 prototype featured a two-stroke engine at the front and big enough for four people plus luggage. Later models were equipped with reclining seats and a folding roof for camping trips, or even a high-performance engine and 5-speed transmission suitable for motor racing.

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Trabant P50 sedan. Image courtesy of Editions Atlas

All GDR citizens above the age of 18 were eligible to apply for a brand-new Trabi at a purchase price of around 14,000 marks. Prospective buyers would be put on a waiting list, which gave them plenty of time to save up. With waiting times of twelve to 17 years, it’s no wonder that many people had ambivalent feelings towards their Trabis. Creative nicknames such as “Rennpappe” (“Cardboard Racer”), “Duroplast Bomber” and “Sachsenporsche” (“Saxonian Porsche”) are testimony to this love-hate relationship. By the time the last-ever Trabi left the factory in 2002, a total of 3.1 million vehicles had been delivered to their proud owners. Almost fifteen years later, the charismatic cars continue to delight their worldwide fanbase.

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Trabant 601 sedan. Image courtesy of Editions Atlas

Wartburg and EMW: the GDR was not a one-car nation 

Its shapely bodywork and contemporary design gave the Wartburg a definite aesthetic edge over other East German cars. Named after the eponymous castle in the Thuringian town of Eisenach, where around 1.6 million vehicles were assembled in the public-owned plant between 1956 and 1991, the Wartburg was considered a premium brand and largely reserved for an elite costumer base that included public and political figures as well as the East German police. There was also a camper van with a folding roof and rear side window extensions.

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Wartburg 311. Image courtesy of Editions Atlas

Featuring a robust and simple yet stylish design with an emblematic radiator grille and red-and-white logo at the front, the convertibles and coupés produced by the Eisenacher Motorenwerk (EMW) gave the Wartburg a run for its money. Production started in Eisenach and later moved to Dresden. The EMW 327 and 340 models were considered particularly desirable.
Beyond these three major players, the East German automotive market also included other domestic brands such as Sachsenring and Melkus as well as imports from neighbouring Eastern European countries.

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EMW 327-2 convertible. Image courtesy of Editions Atlas

East German cars: a valuable investment 

Due to low production volumes, high demand and long waiting lists, cars were prized as a valuable capital investment in East Germany. Privately sold second-hand cars fetched twice the price of a new vehicle minus 1,000 mark per year on the road. Spare parts were extremely hard to get hold of, too, which meant that owners would use their cars as little as possible to avoid accidents and wear. Popular TV programmes such as “Verkehrsmagazin”, “Verkehrskompaß” and “Fahrpause” dispensed practical advice on car-related matters including repairs and sales of second-hand cars.

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Melkus RS 1000 sports coupe. Image courtesy of Editions Atlas

Aimed at collectors rather than investors, the French model-maker Éditions Atlas recently released a GDR-themed line of model cars. Scaled at 1:43, the replicas have been designed in true-to-life detail by technical experts on the basis of extensive research. The collection features the proudest achievements of the East German automotive industry, including milestones such as the EMW 327-2 convertible, the Trabant P 50 sedan and the Wartburg 311 campervan. For more information on this unique collection, go to www.atlas-editions.de.