Trabbi prices on a high 60 years after cult East German car was born

BERLIN: Foreign visitors to communist East Berlin used to smile at the smelly little Trabant cars that later came to symbolise the fall of the Berlin Wall. But enthusiasts are now paying out large sums of money to buy one.

"The average price of a well-kept Trabbi 601 has risen to around €7,300 (RM37,486)," said expert Gerd Heinemann from the consultancy firm BBE Automotive "and they just keep going up in value".

It is a remarkable turnaround for a fragile car which was once a global laughing stock for its puny two-stroke engine and the clouds of smelly blue exhaust fumes it belched forth.

The Trabant 601 became an icon to Germans in 1989 when hundreds of the cars started rolling across the border between what was then East and West Germany in 1989.

Many car enthusiasts will perhaps find it hard to work up much enthusiasm for the Trabbi, with its 23hp, air cooling, a heady top speed of 100kph and a body made of plastic instead of sheet metal.

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Yet the appeal lies in the two big, round headlights which give it a cheeky, cartoonish look compared to large SUVs and complex modern cars.

Metal was in short supply so the makers opted for a plastic called Duroplast which is similar to Bakelite. It is made of recycled material such as cotton waste and phenol resins.

In early March 1964, the VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke presented the Trabant 601 to an international public for the first time at the Leipzig Spring Fair.

It was a revamped version of the more rounded version Trabbi which first rolled off the production line in 1957.

The Trabbi 601 went on to sell more than 2.8 million units and was produced until 1991. In typical pastel blue, polar white or green it could be seen in action from East Berlin to the northern island of Rügen. One even made it to the North Pole.

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There have also been movies about the car, where it is shown as an underdog in races and when holidaying abroad with little-travelled East Germans enjoying their new-found freedom – rather like the US movies about "Herbie" the striped Volkswagen Beetle.

Figures from Germany's Motor Transport Authority show that the number of registered Trabant 601s has been rising for around 10 years.

There were a good 32,300 in 2014, the 40,000 mark was broken last year - just under 32,000 of them in the East and a good 8,300 in the West.

The fact that there are more Trabants in Germany again is also due to re-imports, explains expert Heinemann. Many of the cars have been brought back from former communist countries like Poland and Hungary where they were also once common.

Above all, the design appeals today to home mechanics and those nostalgic for the days of simpler motoring.

The car can be easily fixed and a good set of tools will suffice to cope with anything that breaks.

Frank Hofmann runs the company Trabantwelt (World of Trabant) in Zwickau. He opens the door of a garage container to reveal a gleaming Trabant 601 estate in Panama green.

"My son rebuilt it almost completely and then drove it to his college graduation ball."

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Not everyone shares the enthusiasm shown by Trabant fans. The German environmental organisation Deutsche Umwelthilfe is concerned about the exhaust fumes from two-stroke engines.

The car runs on an environmentally unfriendly mixture of oil and petrol and has defied attempts by environmentalists to ban it. It has no catayltic converter to burn off harmful emissions.

The main issues are incompletely burnt hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. "We are calling for a driving ban on both old and new vehicles without effective exhaust gas purification," the organisation said in a statement.

This is because drivers of Trabants and other classic cars registered as historic vehicles can also drive in low emission zones in large cities where normally strict air purity regulations apply.

This is not justifiable, "as they contribute to air pollution and thus to health hazards," criticises the environmental organisation.

Meanwhile shoals of Trabbis can also be regularly seen in the streets of modern Berlin where a rental company in the centre near the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing rents them out to tourists.

A brief spin recalls those heady reunification days in November 1989 when the cars and their astounded owners were warmly welcomed throughout western Germany.

The Berlin Wall came down amid clouds of acrid smoke puff out of the finger-thin exhaust pipe and the "Reng-Teng-Teng" of the tiny engine.
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