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.