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The Trabant, the low-tech Eastern European icon, could revolutionise motoring in the developing world, if a German firm’s bold vision becomes a reality.
Car manufacturer Sachsenring is launching a new version of the legendary fibre-reinforced vehicle in Frankfurt and plans to promote it in Africa as the AfriCar.
The idea is to make it the cheapest car on the African market, selling for around £2,100. Some lightly modified versions of the car will also be suitable for moving farm goods or building materials, the firm says.
South Africa would reportedly be the initial focus but the firm may target other countries if the cold war’s cult car proves popular.
Environmentalists may be alarmed at the notion of the dirty, noisy vehicle being taken up by large numbers of people in developing countries. However, Sachsenring says that the car it is cheap to run, is very simple with few moving parts and is almost unbreakable.
The firm’s director of the development, Roman Winkler, told the Times: “”This is not really about bringing the Trabant back from the dead – it’s about a logical preference for low-tech over hi-tech.””
Trabants are certainly low-tech. The cars are made from a blend of phenol and a compressed cotton named Duroplast. The engine is two-stroke and its top speed is 60mph.
Chris Murphy, treasurer of the Wartburg Trabant IFA Club UK, a British-based fan club devoted to East European cars, said the car, nicknamed the “”Trabi”” could be a winner in Africa.
He told Guardian Unlimited: “”If they use the same suspension as the old one it should be all right because they were designed for East German country road, so the terrain would not be a problem.””
However, he warned that the old version’s rubber insulation, which was prone to melting and “”leaking like a sieve””, could be a problem in the African sun. But Mr Murphy conceded that the car was designed for “”any roadside mechanic to fix””.
He added: “”I think it’s great news though – after all, they have started making Morris Minors again in Sri Lanka and they still make VW Beatles in Mexico.””
The new version’s manufacturers, Sachsenring, filed for bankruptcy last May and is pinning its hopes on this African adventure to reverse its fortunes. Success will depend on the car being genuinely affordable to less well-off Africans, as their wealthier compatriots are likely to go for a more modern motor.
The car was first built by the state-owned East German firm IFA in 1949 and its early manifestations were called the F8 Saloon. The Trabant name was first used for the 1957 model.
The 60s version of the car, the P601, hardly changed over the next 30 years until the end of the cold war. More than 3 million Trabants were constructed – although East German drivers faced infamous waiting lists which lasted up to 14 years. Production stopped in 1991, two years after the Berlin wall came down.
After the car first motored into the western consciousness following the fall of the wall many treated it as a joke, although the car soon developed a certain cult status.
Irish rock band U2 helped in all this, using the car in videos during the band’s Zoo TV tour in the 90s. Bono and co even took to the stage with used Trabants hanging above them, the headlights shining down onto the band.
Although many Germans still retain a soft spot for the car, there around 80 nostalgic clubs in the country devoted to the Trabant, Mr Murphy accuses the authorities of legislating against the car because road taxes are so much higher for vehicles which can not have a catalytic converter fitted. He adds that there are around 200 Trabants in the UK and says it is still used as an “”everyday car”” in Hungary, Poland and Romania.
Many of the Trabants on the road in eastern Europe today have been converted into open-top sports cars or vans but if Sachsenring has its way, the car will again regain its mass appeal – but this time in Durban, not Dresden.
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