By Ronan Glon
Tuesday, Jun 25th, 2013 @ 2:30 am
 
Dr. Werner Lang, the engineer behind the iconic Trabant 601, has died of a heart attack in his home in Zwickau, Germany. He was 91-years old.

Lang started his career in the automotive industry in 1949 when he accepted a job at Horch. He was promoted to technical director in 1951 and became Chief Engineer when Horch joined forces with Automobilwerk Zwickau (born from the rubbles of Auto Union's East German operations) under the name Sachsenring in 1958. He played a major role in designing the Trabant 601, a small two-door sedan powered by a two-stroke, 600cc two-cylinder engine that spun the front wheels. The car was an evolution of the original P50 Trabant that was introduced in 1958.

A trade embargo imposed by western countries made sheet metal difficult to find on the other side of the iron curtain so Lang and his team built the car out of a light and durable fiber-reinforced plastic. Although slow and noisy, the 601 quickly became East Germany's people's car after its introduction in 1964.

An instant hit, the Trabant stayed in production until 1991, much longer than expected. It changed very little during that time but it gained a four-stroke 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine borrowed from the Volkswagen Polo hatchback in 1989. Lang worked at Sachsenring until well into the 1980s and he often tried to convince management to replace the Trabant with a more modern vehicle capable of taking on rivals from the west but his requests were repeatedly shot down. The company's top brass pointed out that the car sold very well in its home country, where buyers sometimes had to wait years before their car was delivered, so spending money to modernize it was useless.

After he retired, Lang devoted his life to preserving the Trabant's heritage. In spite of his old age, he regularly traveled to conventions in Germany and abroad to tell the car's story.

"Earlier this month, Lang and I went to a Trabant meet and talked about the old times," said Werner Reichelt, one of Lang's former colleagues. "I lost a good friend."

Lang's family will release the details of a public memorial before the end of the week.

Photos by Ronan Glon.