Dr. Werner Lang, the engineer and mastermind behind the iconic Trabant 601 sedan (which would become a symbol of East German communism and horrible Eastern Bloc cars) has died due to a heart attack that occurred at his home in Zwickau, Germany. He was 91 years old.Lang studied mechanical engineering in his hometown of Zwickau, but his studies in this field were put on hold due to the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent needs of the German war effort. Shortly after the war ended, Lang would begin his career in the recovering German automotive industry when he accepted an opening with the Horch company in 1949. A few years later in 1951, he was promoted to the post of technical director and held this position until the merger of Horch and Automobilwerk Zwickau in 1958 which created HQM Sachensring GmbH. It was during this time that Lang would cement his legacy by playing a key role in designing and engineering the Trabant 601 two door sedan.
An evolution of the original Trabant P50 which first made its debut in 1957, the 601 introduced crank operated windows (a welcome change over the P50’s sliding panel system), a small parcel shelf located under the dashboard, and special wind deflectors which promised better ventilation. Performance for the 601 came from a slow and noisy 600 cc two stroke, two cylinder engine which was detested by many in neighboring West Germany due to the high levels of pollution it generated. A challenge that Lang and his team had to overcome when creating the 601 was the effects of a trade embargo put into place by western countries that made materials for basic sheet metal difficult to find. To solve this problem, Lang and his team made most of the body out of a special plastic that was reinforced with fiber. Known as Duroplast, this material allowed the body to remain very durable while also being recyclable at the same time. Despite its pathetic performance numbers, the Trabant 601 was a sales success and quickly became the “peoples car” of East Germany after its debut in 1964.
Over time Lang would begin work on several updated Trabant prototypes but these efforts made very little progress thanks to the interference of the East German government, which thought that any further development on the car was wasteful due to a massive backlog of parts, as well as its lengthy 18 year waiting list for buyers looking to buy one new off the showroom. As a result, the Trabant changed very little during its life and despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, stayed in production with minimal updates until 1991. A key change that occurred in 1990-91 was the much welcomed replacement of the antiquated and reviled two cylinder with a cleaner Volkswagen-derived unit that also delivered slightly better performance.
After his retirement from Sachensring, Lang devoted the rest of his life to preserving the legacy of his masterpiece and (despite his advanced age) traveled the world to tell the car’s intriguing life story. As for the Trabant itself, it is still a popular vehicle in Germany due to its relatively low cost of upkeep which is good for budget minded families, as well as its prominent place in Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany) with prices greatly increasing as a result of this phenomenon.