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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003