Electric Trabant sparks nostalgic revival

WATCH OUT, BMW, a new German rival is on the scene: The sputtering, yet lovable Trabant is getting an electric makeover 25 years after the country’s reunification.

A power company is refitting the plucky little car built for the communist East’s proletariat with an electric motor, giving the vehicle an emission-free range almost equivalent to BMW’s high-tech i3 electric.

Technology firm ReeVOLT says it’s created the e-Trabant to show the environmental virtues of retrofitting existing vehicles with electric motors. It also sells electric versions of vehicles such as the Fiat 500 and Ford Ka. Driving the 38-horsepower electric Trabi, with no power steering and weak brakes, is a little like taking a bumper car onto the open road and stepping on the gas.

“This is a lot quieter than my old Trabi used to be,” said Helmut Lettow, a 61-year-old resident of Bremerhaven, as he wrestled the creaking car onto the road heading north out of Binz, a town on the German island of Ruegen in the Baltic Sea. “It accelerates a lot faster.”

Lettow bought a Trabant back in 1973 when he was a teenager growing up in the West. East Germany exported some of the 3.1 million Trabis it produced to get hard currency and sold the car for less than half what Volkswagen AG charged at the time for the Beetle.

More than 40 years later, Lettow paid €29 euros to drive the electric version for a 2½-hour nostalgia tour. Ruegen’s tourism agency, which started the programme in April in partnership with ReeVOLT, has painted its e-Trabis bright orange with the island’s decals on the sides.

The car was made famous in the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall as East Germans clogged the roads. U2 filmed a version of the music video to ‘One’ with a Trabant, after falling in love with the car while recording the album Achtung Baby in Berlin. Classic styling — round headlamps, a smiling front grille and a huggable, stubby body — has helped make it a collector’s item.

In its heyday, the Trabant filled the streets of communist countries such as Poland, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia. Made from a shell of resin and cotton waste, the vehicle cost the equivalent of an average worker’s annual salary, and people often waited more than a decade to get one.

An e-Trabi costs about €15,000 — €12,000 for the ReeVOLT kit, €2,000 for a Trabant and €1,000 for labour — or about half the price of BMW’s i3, according to Andre Schmidt, a ReeVOLT spokesman.

The e-Trabi, with a flat-screen display to show how much energy it’s used and produced, has traded the distinctive thwack-thwack of the two-stroke motor - think lawnmower - for electric-driven silence.

Other changes to the car are minimal. There’s barely space for two adults to squeeze into the rear bench seat, and safety features such as rear seat belts and front headrests are missing.

Of course, the Trabi also won’t network with a driver’s phone or beep if it gets too close to surrounding vehicles. Still, the car boasts a 130-km range, compared to 160 kms for the BMW, and charges in about 5½ hours from a household socket.

The top speed is 110 kilometers per hour (69 miles per hour), Schmidt said. That’s to give the sluggish brakes a chance to stand up against the immediate pickup of the electric engine.

“It takes off like a rocket,” he said. “You could build a real race Trabant, but of course we wanted it to be sensible.”

Lettow’s e-Trabi convoy stopped at Prora, a Nazi-era resort designed to house 20,000 vacationers in 4½ kilometers of identical hotel blocks, and parked above the port that once received goods from the Soviet Union and now gets mostly Swedish tourists.

When the tour later dropped in on Sassnitz, a village that draws tourists for fish sandwiches, some passers-by took pictures and asked for a peek under the hood.

Nostalgia aside, Lettow wasn’t sure he’d actually buy an e-Trabi of his own. Insurance is a lot more expensive now than when he was driving two cars and a motorcycle around northern Germany at age 19.

“It was just an idea I had when I was young,” he said. “It was a bit silly.”


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