The Trabant resurrection

Occasionally you might spot one, its wheezing motor straining to keep up with other cars. It might be on its way to a collector, or the dump. Aside from its fading attraction as a German curiosity, the Trabant, the boxy little runaround that came to symbolise the former East Germany, is no more. The company […]

Occasionally you might spot one, its wheezing motor straining to keep up with other cars. It might be on its way to a collector, or the dump.

Aside from its fading attraction as a German curiosity, the Trabant, the boxy little runaround that came to symbolise the former East Germany, is no more. The company which used to build it, however, is on the comeback trail.

Sachsenring Automobiltechnik, as the firm is called these days, has been reborn as a components supplier mostly to its illustrious car-making counterparts, Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz and Opel.

Sachsenring was saved from terminal decline in 1994, when two West German brothers, Ulf and Ernst-Wilhelm Rittinghaus, took the dilapidated plant off the state’s hands.

Sales have boomed, and this month the company is expected to report annual profits for the first time. The company, based at Zwickau in the former East German industrial heartland, made its stock market debut in October, with the issue heavily oversubscribed.

The company is even getting back into car design. On the drawing board at Sachsenring is a prototype taxi, with aluminium frame, hybrid electric-diesel engine, and automatic transmission.

Sachsenring is talking to potential partners in Europe and the US where environmental legislation is demanding low-emission electric vehicles.

Sachsenring has registered 29 patents in four years. Last year it spent 7.6% of sales revenue on research and development, a commitment that shames even western Germany’s manufacturers.

Daimler-Benz has shown unusual faith in Sachsenring by awarding a 10-year contract to design and build a lightweight aluminium cab for its prototype E2000 rubbish truck.

Sachsenring is thumbing its nose at many of West German industry’s conventions. A 45-hour week is normal, whereas in western Germany unions are calling for 32-hour weeks. Weekend shifts are also common.

In fact Sachsenring is one of a growing number of companies in the East daring to deviate from union practices. A rift has developed between Sachsenring and engineering union IG Metall. The company pays about 10% less than its West-zone counterparts.

The pay differential is not seen as a key issue in towns like Zwickau, where unemployment has soared in recent years as the region’s industrial base has been dismantled.

Just having a job is a big bonus for local engineers and Sachsenring has almost doubled its workforce since 1994.

Stuart Penson