Return of the Unloved Trabant?

The much-ridiculed, boxy East German auto could ride again, if a Bavarian model-car maker has its way

Between BMW's new Mini, the Volkswagen Bug, and the recently announced comeback of the Fiat 500, the market for underpowered classics from the past has never been hotter. But is it hot enough to bring back the most-mocked, least-loved car to ever grace the autobahns of Germany?

A model manufacturer in Bavaria thinks the answer may be yes. Herpa, better known for its 1:87 scale models of sports cars and classic autos, is hoping to take advantage of the trend with an unlikely entry: a full-sized car based on the boxy East German Trabant.

Herpa has sold more than 100,000 palm-sized "Trabis" to curiosity-seeking Westerners and nostalgic East Germans alike since 1990. Since the Trabant factory in Zwickau in the eastern German state of Saxony went out of business in 1991, Trabi lovers have had to content themselves with either the tiny Herpa models or increasingly decrepit second-hand cars.

With the East German classic's 50th anniversary coming up next month, Herpa has begun pushing for something a little more ambitious. "We're a model manufacturer, but we've started the initiative to bring a new Trabant back on the road," Herpa marketing manager Daniel Stiegler told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Almost everyone we talk to thinks it's a great idea."

To that end, Herpa has bought the rights to the Trabant trademark. In September, they unveiled a 1:10 model of a streamlined, redesigned Trabi at the Frankfurt International Auto Show. And on Tuesday, they presented the model in Zwickau, where three million Trabants were produced between 1957 and 1991.

"When I first heard about it, I thought it was a publicity stunt," Zwickau Mayor Dietmar Vettermann told the news agency DPA. Now convinced of Herpa's sincerity, Vettermann has pledged his support. "Like a lot of Zwickauers, I'm fascinated by the idea," he says.

Herpa's Stiegler says it's no stunt. "We don't have any contracts signed yet, but we're talking to a number of producers," he says. The model manufacturer has no plans to build the car themselves. Instead, they're working to cut a deal with someone specializing in small production runs to turn out several hundred prototypes. Funke und Will, which makes the Yes! Roadster in a converted airplane hangar near Dresden, is one possibility. Small-scale success could lead to a deal with a larger manufacturer and series production.

The original Trabi's two-stroke engine had a top speed of 112 km per hour (70 mph) and took a leisurely 21 seconds to go from 0 to 100 km per hour. Its body panels were plastic, mixed with cotton or wool for strength. Besides a smoother look, the New Trabant would presumably have modern safety features and a bit more under the hood: a repurposed BMW engine is one possibility.

One thing's for sure: anyone looking for a bargain would be better off sticking with the scale model. The estimated sticker price for the New Trabant is in the €30,000 range -- the cost of two new Minis.

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