Trabi, Wartburg, and an SL dream sports car: Back to the future

When people in Germany think of the year 1989, one thing more than anything else comes to mind immediately: The fall of the Berlin Wall. But what kind of cars moved people back then? Together, we look back at a chapter of automotive history.

It’s the year 1989 and Germany is still a divided country. No one can imagine that Germany will be reunited within a year and that Berlin will take center stage in the German media due to the collapse of its Wall. It’s also beyond anyone’s imagination that people will soon be hugging each other with joy and that convoys of East German Trabants (Trabis) will cross the borders to West Berlin and West Germany.

One thing is clear, however: Regardless of where one might have been in Germany in that year, the automobile had long since become a symbol of personal freedom and independence a little more than one hundred years after being invented.

Trabis all the way

When a German thinks about the German Democratic Republic (GDR), one automobile almost invariably comes to mind: The Trabant 601. Affectionately known as the “Trabi,” the vehicle with the two-stroke, two-cylinder engine was manufactured from 1964 to 1990 at the Sachsenring automotive plant in Zwickau. The Trabi was not only well known as a symbol of the GDR; it also had the highest production volume of any vehicle manufactured in the country. At the time of its production launch, the Trabant was equipped with a 23-hp (17 kW) engine. A Trabi with an engine output of 26 hp (19 kW) then became available in 1969. The Trabant was produced as a three-door station wagon, a sedan, and a light military vehicle for use by the East German army. Although it’s impossible to imagine today, the Trabant was manufactured with a body made entirely of Duroplast (a special composite plastic) throughout its entire production run. Despite the fact that its body and technical equipment remained unchanged throughout the decades, the Trabant was always very much in demand, and customers had to wait as long as 15 years in some cases for delivery.

Old Wartburg vintage car from the former GDR

The Wartburg 353, a two-stroke vehicle manufactured by the Eisenach automotive plant, made families’ dreams come true in the GDR. The vehicle, which was produced between 1966 and 1989 under the Wartburg brand (named after a famous old castle in Eisenach), was manufactured as a sedan, station wagon, and light military vehicle. With an engine output of 50 hp (37 kW), the Wartburg 535 was not only more powerful than the Trabant; it was also, and most importantly, bigger than the latter. Indeed, it was a spacious wonder that could accommodate the whole family and anything they needed to bring along. It was the perfect car for a trip to the Baltic Sea or to a countryside dacha (weekend house) — once it was finally delivered after a long waiting period, of course. The wait in this case was mainly due to the fact that most Wartburgs were exported, in particular to England, where the vehicle was known as the “Wartburg Knight.”

Many people probably don’t know that the GDR also built small vans along with passenger cars, the most prominent example here being the Barkas B 1000. One reason for this lack of knowledge may be that the van, which was manufactured at the Volkseigener Betrieb (Publicly Owned Enterprise) Barkas in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), was in short supply in the GDR. The van, which was equipped with a two-stroke engine and was built between 1961 and 1990, could only be purchased as a used vehicle after being taken out of service by an industrial or delivery company — and even then, it could only be purchased by large families. Because the GDR automotive industry was looking to standardize its components, many parts and assemblies in the Barkas B 1000 were taken from the Wartburg. This includes the Wartburg two-stroke, three-cylinder engine, which originally had an output of 43 hp but was later upgraded to 46 hp, giving the van a top speed of 100 km/h.

1989: Many new models unveiled by Mercedes-Benz

The Mercedes-Benz SL of the R 129 model series premiered 30 years ago.

“The safety to drive better” — that was the Mercedes-Benz advertising slogan in 1989, when the new SL from the R 129 series was presented to the public at the Geneva International Motor Show. The model marked the launch of the fourth generation of the SL-Class since the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing from 1954. It made a big splash from the beginning, as with it Mercedes-Benz expanded its product portfolio to include not only a sporty, comfortable, and powerful roadster but also a vehicle loaded with new technology. The new SL brought Mercedes-Benz innovations such as an automatic roll bar, integral seats, and the Adaptive Damping System (ADS) into a production vehicle. The vehicle, which was designed by Mercedes-Benz’ Chief Designer at the time, Bruno Sacco, was available in a wide range of engine variants. Engine output extended from 140 kW/190 hp in the 300 SL to 386 kW/525 hp in the SL 73 AMG, which was equipped with a high-power, high-displacement V 12 engine.

Mercedes-Benz T 1 “Bremer Transporter” from 1989 (from left: pickup, panel van, bus).

There were also several new developments in vans back in 1989: In January of that year, for example, the updated vans from the T 1 series celebrated their premiere at the European Road Transport Show in Brussels. With a slightly modified exterior and more environmentally friendly engines, the TN series continued its success story, which ended only with its replacement by the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in 1995.

The 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine used in the series had an output of 55 kW, while a new 2.9-liter, five-cylinder engine boasted output of 70 kW. Rated engine speed was lowered from 4,400 to 3,800 rpm, and the weight of the engines was reduced as well. However, the Mercedes-Benz engineers who designed the “Bremer Transporter,” as it was known due to its former production location in Bremen, also optimized the exterior in order to improve the van’s aerodynamic properties. The T 1 was produced for 18 years, until the last van — the 969,751st example of the successful series — rolled off the line in 1995.

The premiere race of the new Mercedes-Benz DTM touring car 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution (W 201) ends with a victory for Roland Asch.

Motor sports: Successful then, successful now

In 1982, or seven years before German reunification, the Mercedes-Benz 190 E from the 201 series was unveiled. The model quickly captured the hearts of many automobile enthusiasts, especially with its nickname: “Baby-Benz.” Over the years, the “Little Benz,” as the model was also known, even earned itself a reputation as a compact sports car. Then, in 1983, the 190 E 2.3-16 appeared — a sporty variant equipped with an engine boasting an output of 185 hp (136 kW). This engine accelerated the vehicle from 0 to 100 km/h in 7.5 seconds and gave it a top speed of 230 km/h. The model was initially used by private teams in the French production car championship series and, starting in 1987, in the German Touring Car Masters (DTM) series as well. These activities laid the foundation for the further development of the sports car, and in 1989 a street-legal, type-approved (homologation) version was unveiled: The 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution I. Engine output remained the same here, but the chassis was modified for circuit racing, and in this regard it served as the basis for a DTM race car. Exactly 502 units were produced in order to obtain the approval needed for the vehicle to participate in racing events. As the demands of DTM racing continued to increase, a more powerful “Evo” was eventually needed. This came in the form of the 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution II, which was presented in March 1990 at the Geneva Motor Show.

The Sauber-Mercedes C 9 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1989. With starting number 63, the winning vehicle of Jochen Mass/Manuel Reuter/Stanley Dickens. With starting number 62, the team of Jean-Louis Schlesser/Jean-Pierre Jabouille/Alain Cudini, which ended in fifth place.

Mercedes-Benz also made motorsports history at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1989, when it returned to circuit racing with the Silver Arrows — and the Sauber-Mercedes C 9 cars recorded first, second, and fifth-place finishes. The car, which was developed by the Sauber racing team from Switzerland, first appeared in the Group C racing series in 1987 and ended up winning the Supercup Group C season finale at the Nürburgring with Jean-Louis Schlesser at the wheel. The Sauber-Mercedes cars then went on to win a total of eight races in the 1988 season. The year 1989 saw the introduction of a new V8 biturbo engine whose technical systems were based on the successful eight-cylinder unit used in production cars at the time, such as the SL, E-Class, and S-Class. With a displacement of 4,973 cubic centimeters and four-valve technology, the engine in the C 9, which now had a new silver paint job, delivered output of around 720 hp (530 kW). The C 9 thus became the dominant car of that racing season and the first victorious Silver Arrow since 1955. Jean-Louis Schlesser ended up winning seven of eight races and the World Drivers’ Championship in 1989, while Jochen Mass finished second and Sauber-Mercedes captured the World Constructors’ Championship. That’s just what Silver Arrows do.

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