How One Car Factory Drove Alongside Germany’s 20th-Century Destiny

Why you should care

Zwickau’s fortunes shifted with the fall of the Berlin Wall … and now again with the fall of the traditional car.

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In the early 1990s, Rainer Pilz first saw Western cars drive on the streets around his home in East Germany’s Saxony. He knew then, he says, that they heralded the end of the Trabant, the GDR’s flagship car. 

Pilz working at the Trabi factory in 1990.

Pilz was one of hundreds of men producing the 26-horsepower Trabi, as it was endearingly nicknamed, in the industrial city of Zwickau, but at the time, he could have only dreamed of owning one himself. Despite its sluggishness, the Trabi was a status symbol.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western cars quickly superseded the Trabi. 

“The Trabi was the bread and butter of the GDR — spartan but reliable,” Pilz says. “But when I saw the first Western makes, the first VWs and Opel, it was totally clear that the Trabant had no chance.”

Trabis were so sought-after that old ones cost as much as new ones.

Western German carmaker Volkswagen took over, and Pilz started to produce cars like the VW Polo and the Golf Mk2. Today, such four-cylinder cars are suffering through a similar, though slower, fate as the Trabi: Starting this month, the factory is rolling its first electric cars off production lines. Next summer, the Zwickau factory will have fully transformed into the largest one in Europe to solely produce electric cars.

In many ways, the sweeping changes the Zwickau factory has seen throughout the decades tell the story of East Germany, the hardships of the GDR that led to its downfall, the vast economic and political changes that went hand-in-hand with the difficult reunification of Germany and its modern image as one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Pilz was there for all of it. 

The Trabi factory in 1988.

When he moved to Zwickau for a job at the VEB Sachsenring’s Trabi production line, Pilz was 25 and married, with two young kids. It was a prestigious job. The Trabi was one of the best cars produced by Communist countries at the time, an object of desire, and Zwickau was home to the only factory that produced it. 

While the pay in Zwickau was significantly better than in similar jobs, the downside was that production lines ran 24/7. Even so, demand far exceeded supply. Trabis were so sought-after that old ones cost as much as new ones, he says. “And for a new one, there was a 15-year-long waiting list,” Pilz says. With two young kids, he couldn’t wait that long to be mobile, so in 1987 he bought a 25-year-old Wartburg — another GDR car slightly less popular than the Trabi. 

Pilz at the VW factory.

Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, the watershed moment that ended the era of Communist Germany. The Iron Curtain essentially meant no movement of people and goods, and so it wasn’t until then that the first Western cars were driving on streets around Zwickau.

“Everyone wanted a better car, a VW, Opel or a Mercedes, and even second-hand Western cars were better than the Trabant. The market completely collapsed,” Pilz says. Pilz also opted for a Western car, a Golf Mk2.

In 1991, the last Trabant left the factory in Zwickau. “There’s still a nostalgic sentiment, because so much lifeblood went into this,” Pilz says.

Today, only a small part of the original Trabi factory is still being used by Volkswagen, which previously manufactured as many as 300,000 VW Golfs, Golf Variants and Passats here, says spokesperson Carsten Krebs. At the moment, more than 1,600 robots are being installed, and 8,000 workers are being trained to produce three electric cars for Volkswagen as well as two Audi and one SEAT electric car models, also under the Volkswagen umbrella. 

At the beginning, many were skeptical about the massive structural changes, but Krebs says they’ve come around. At a summer party for employees, people were queuing to test drive an electric Golf. “For people’s motivation, it’s important to have sat in an e-car, to feel the propulsion,” Krebs says. “And for us, it’s important to take our employees along on this journey into electro-mobility.” Most employees, he says, are now looking forward to the new autos. 

The original Trabi factory is still being used by Volkswagen, but now it is taking on electric cars.

By increasing the number of cars produced here by 10 percent and switching from three models to six, the factory will continue to employ about 8,000 people. Pilz, however, won’t be there for much longer. He’s preparing his colleagues for the new tasks and responsibilities that lie ahead, but at 59, he will soon retire, leaving the plant one last time in his SUV. Eventually, he plans to switch to an electric car too.