As prices of new cars continue to rise, the search is on for an affordable car for the local market. Now a company is proposing that they build a version of the East German Trabant in South Africa. But would anyone buy it?

As prices of new cars continue to rise, the search is on for an affordable car for the local market. Now a company is proposing that they build a version of the East German Trabant in South Africa. But would anyone buy it?

The issue of an affordable car has risen a number of times as car prices continue to rocket. Ronnie Watson, the Wesbank boss, recently called for a summit meeting between automotive manufacturers, the finance sector and government to discuss the crisis of affordability in the retail motor car sector.

"Affordability, overall, still remains a very big challenge," said Watson. "In spite of people having to make bigger deposits when they purchase a vehicle, average instalment payments have gone up 40 per cent from an average of R2 385 in January 2001 to R3 333 in March 2002."

Recently, the SA Bureau of Standards and research group CSIR proposed that a South African car be built to further establish the local motor industry in the global market. Hoffie Maree, the director of manufacturing materials at CSIR, said it would show the ability of the local market.

“We can make leather seats and exhaust catalytic converters, but how many other examples of parts that we need to put a whole car together are available?” Maree asked. ”What are our niche strengths? Is it engine technology or casting technology, and can we make use of our low-cost energy and competitive labour?”

reported on Thursday that Sachsenring Fahrzeugtechnik, a subsidiary of the now-insolvent successor to the communist-era manufacturers, is planning an easy-to-repair version of the Trabant for developing countries. They are proposing that it be called the Africar.

The company is doing a feasibility study. "We're not trying to revive the Trabant," said Roman Winkler, director of development. He added that the idea behind the Africar would be the same as the Trabant, "low-tech, not hi-tech".

The Trabant was East Germany’s answer to the Volkswagen. It was supposed to be economical, convenient and available in huge numbers. But it proved to be a lemon and had production problems, which saw many consumers waiting nine years for their vehicle. The car was mainly plastic, and many of the parts were made using hand-operated systems. About 3,3-million Trabants were built at Zwickau in south-east Germany between 1957 and 1991 and it is still a common sight in the former East Germany.

One of the first cars with the Trabant badge was called the P50 (P for plastic and 50 for the displacement). It had a two-cylinder, two-stroke, 500 cc engine and had a maximum speed of about 100 km/h. A three-speed synchronised gearbox was fitted which transmitted the power to the front wheels. The name of the plastic material used to build it was Duroplast and contained resin, strengthened by wool.

In 1964 the new P601 débuted. It had a 594 cc, 19 kW engine derived from the P50. It had new cylinders, new cylinder-heads and exhaust system.

But would a similar car work in South Africa? CAR magazine editor John Wright says “absolutely not”.

“The Trabant was very badly made, not safe, cost effective or reliable. It worked in East Germany because they did not have access to other cars.

“It did not meet the dimensional accuracy of build required to assemble a modern car quickly, which helps keep costs down. The factory was so inefficient that in the modern world it could only function as a protected industry,” said Wright.

“The best way to produce an affordable car would be to lock into a volume 'people's car' project, such as those in China or India. Once a car is built in very high volumes the unit cost of components comes down dramatically. South African companies could participate in such a project by producing and exporting some of the components while building a localised version of the car here. Our local volumes are simply too low to go it alone.

“But there is still no guarantee that South Africans would buy such a car. Experience has shown that local buyers want safety features, performance and a high spec, which would not be economically feasible for this type of vehicle,” said Wright.

What do you think?