Doctor Werner Lang: Engineer who designed the Trabant car

 

On 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall was opened, tens of thousands of East Germans introduced the West to the Trabant car as they drove over the frontier. The car rapidly became recognisable as a kind of automotive liberator. The engineer behind its invention, Werner Lang, remained largely unknown.

Werner Lang was born in the village of Bermsgrün on the German-Czech frontier. He completed an apprenticeship in the neighbouring town of  Schwarzenberg and then in 1940 enrolled for an automotive engineering degree in Zwickau. This was interrupted by war service; in 1944 Lang crossed the lines and joined German comrades with the Italian anti-fascist partisans. At the end of the war he was able to return to Germany, graduating in 1949. 

In 1949 the two German republics were established and Lang decided to stay in East Germany working for Horch, part of the Auto Union. His services were recognised in 1954 when he received the National Prize of the German Democratic Republic (third class). Between 1955-58 the Horch P240, a six-cylinder car respected at the time, was produced by the nationalised firm. Lang had been appointed technical director of Horch in 1951 and was promoted to chief designer of the merged Sachsenring Kraftfahrzeug und Motorenwerks Zwickau in 1958.

The first Trabant came off the production line in Zwickau on 7 November 1957 when there were some hopes of “consumer socialism”. Its designers saw it in some ways as an answer to the Volkswagen Beetle. Lang believed the Trabant was originally seven years ahead of the Volkswagen, but that progress was prevented by policy changes in Berlin.

The first Trabant, a P 50, was powered by a smoky two-stroke generator. The “P” stood for plastic and the 50 signified its 500cc engine that used only five moving parts. To conserve expensive metal the body was made with Duroplast, a form of plastic containing resin strengthened by recycled wool or cotton. The name was inspired by Sputnik; the German word is an astronomical term to denote a moon or other natural satellite of a celestial body.

In 1966 Lang was awarded his doctorate from the Technical University of Dresden for a thesis on the problems of automobile construction. From 1970-83 he was director of science and technology at Sachsenring and, as such, was responsible for the further development of the Trabant. In 1971 Erich Honecker took over the leadership in East Germany and, once again, “consumer Socialism” was on the agenda. In 1974 Lang was awarded the National Prize (second class).

The Trabant had a simple design that could easily be maintained and repaired by its owner using a few basic tools. Most owners carried a replacement belt and sparks plugs at all times. One often overlooked advantage of the Trabi was that  in crashes it was reported to be superior to some modern small hatchbacks.

It was the most common vehicle in East Germany, and was also exported to countries inside and outside the Soviet bloc. Trabis were even stolen and then smuggled over the frontier to Poland and Czechoslovakia. The main selling points were that it had room for four adults and their luggage in a compact, light and durable shell; it was fast, when it was introduced; and it was durable. Over 3 million were produced.

Lang and his colleagues created a series of more sophisticated prototypes over the years that were intended to replace the original Trabant; however each proposal for a new model was rejected by the GDR leadership for reasons of cost. Instead subtle changes came in 1963 with the P 60 series including improved brakes and electrical systems.

In 2008 Lang was awarded the  Martin-Römer-Ehrenmedaille of Zwickau. He kept up his interest in his creation and spent his time with his wife documenting  its history; only days before his death he spoke at a rally of Trabi fans. He died at home in Zwickau from kidney failure. He would doubtless have approved of plans to build an electric model of the Trabi with solar panels on the roof.

Werner Lang, car designer: born Bermsgrün, Saxony 23 March 1922; died Zwickau 17 June 2013.

Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

** Secondary Geography Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Secondary Maths Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments