How capitalism bests socialism: the Volkswagen GTI meets the Trabant

VW GTI meets Trabant 601 Estate

The “hot hatch” 2016 Volkswagen GTI traces its roots to the VW Beetle, while the Trabant  remained almost completely the same from 1957 until 1989.

What, one might ask, does the 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI, the archetypical hot hatch and everyman’s sport compact from capitalist West Germany, have to do with the Trabant, the notorious automotive artifact of the dismal socialist economy of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik? Not much…and yet, everything.

For those not familiar with the odd little Trabant, it began as a people’s sedan developed for the good socialists of East Germany. Powered by an air-cooled two-cylinder two-stroke engine, smoky but cost-effective in materials, the Trabant had front-wheel drive combined with a steel spaceframe chassis with a cotton-and-plastic composite body. It was a clever design, built around the shortage of supplies typical of a socialist economy, in this case most notably steel. The two-stroke two-cylinder engine admittedly like that of the Saab 92, which itself was a loose copy of the pre-war DKW, though by the time the Trabant came along, Saab had already moved on to a three-cylinder two-stroke engine.

Over the border with the DDR was the German Democratic Republic (GDR)—West Germany—the people’s car was the Volkswagen Type 1, commonly known for its shape, the Beetle. Its engine was also air-cooled, but rear-mounted and the relatively clean four-stroke engine’s four-cylinders were laid out in a novel horizontally-opposed layout. It was pre-war design, but West Germany’s free capitalist economy meant that the all-steel Beetle was already more desirable than the Trabant.

Many Trabants were abandoned

Many Trabants were abandoned after 1989 (this one photographed in Leipzig, 1990)(click to enlarge); Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F086568-0046 / Kirschner, Harald / CC-BY-SA 3.0

First introduced in 1957, The Trabant would continue largely unchanged over the decades of its life, spewing hydrocarbons like a coal-fired Chinese power plant, before dying a deserved death in 1991, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Trabant changed slightly in appearance over its 34 year run, with new shapes for its cotton composite body, but underneath the same two-stroke engine and evermore archaic mechicals. East Germans still pined for one, of course, because even though VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwick, the “organization” (should we really call it a “company”?) that made the Trabant, relied on outdated technology and  labor-intensive production techniques. At the end of production, neatly corresponding with Mr. Gorbachev tearing down that wall, the two stroke engine produced 26 horsepower.

The Volkswagen Beetle ceased production for the European and North American markets in 1980, though would continue in production until 2003, though in and only for countries with less vibrant economies. But by then the Beetle, though retaining its original profile, shared no parts with the original model, the subject of continual improvement and diversification, including variants like the VW bus (with all its variants), the Karmann-Ghia two-seater, and Type 4 “Squareback” and “Slantback,” not to mention a variety of special models around the world.

We’re not done yet.  Volkswagen saw that free market competition would soon overwhelm what was becoming, regardless how updated, a more and more antiquated concept. Consequently, Toyota replaced Volkswagen as the number one import in the United States in 1975. Meanwhile, the Trabant was…well, the same old Trabant. While VW was selling millions of Beetles worldwide, Sachsenring was selling a few thousand Trabants, almost exclusively in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc socialist countries.

Volkswagen’s competition was coming from Japan–not from East Germany’s Trabant. So in 1974, VW released the first Volkswagen Golf. It was renamed the Volkswagen Rabbit and arrived soon after in the U.S. in time for the 1975 model year. It clearly superseded the Beetle, but for the East Germans, the Iron Curtain grew thicker while the Trabant still didn’t have a metal body.

2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Many generations removed and improved, the 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI is a branch of the VW Beetle’s family tree. (click to enlarge); Volkswagen photo

Then in 1976 came the Volkswagen Golf GTI…but it didn’t come here. American small car performance fans could only look wistfully across the Atlantic and curse the malaise of the ‘70s of the American car scene at home, brought on evermore restrictive anti-pollution controls and safety requirements, and a Detroit auto industry that suffered under that double yoke along with a lost sense of style and creativity.

The Golf GTI didn’t arrive in the United States until the 1983 model year, and it as an instant hit. Car and Driver called it, “the car we’ve all be waiting for.”

And it has been ever since, now into its seventh generation. We’ve outlined the history of the VW Golf GTI already, and because we’re lazy, we won’t repeat it here. We will point out, however, there was never an equivalent version from the Trabant. The socialist man has no need of such frivolity. And Germans, who typically excel at whatever technology and form of government they choose–or was imposed upon them by the Soviets–excelled in perfecting the gloom of socialism.

Of course, there’s really no such thing as the socialist man. Down deep inside, frivolity rules. And Germans, being Germans, excel at frivolity as well. Oktoberfest, anyone? Fun to drive? Indeed, that too.

The fall of the wall meant the immediate end of Trabant production and most existing Trabants were left to decay where they stopped. The few that remain in running condition are novelties, a manifestation of “oestalgia,” that longing of younger Germans for something vaguely remembered largely by those who never experienced it.

Meanwhile, the Volkswagen GTI zips through the Brandenburg Gate and past where Checkpoint Charlie once stood. So much for socialism. And thank you, capitalism, for the Volkswagen GTI.

Photo credits for lead photo: 2016 Volkswagen GTI, Volkswagen of America; White Trabant 601 Estate near the basilica at Aquileia By Charles01Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3022803;