East Germany’s loyal socialist van still has a loyal following

Barkas’ bug-eyed van was a socialist mule. They are still 3,800 on the roads of the former East Germany, where the craze for the old-fashioned utility vehicle is strong.

The van never achieved the popularity of the hippie-renowned VW hauler, but again East Germany had little counterculture. The Barkas were above all the workhorse of the people.

Why the manufacturers decided to name their pickup truck after the former Catharginian general Hamilkar Barkus, famous for his quick victories more than 2,000 years ago, is anyone’s guess.

The Barkas 1000 had a smelly two-stroke engine like the Trabant and was available in a full range of body styles, from minibus to pickup. It was commonly used by police, fire and ambulance services.

Lucky families were able to buy second-hand versions or else they had to persuade Western relatives to loan them the 16,500 German marks needed to buy a new one for Western currency.

The Barkas was designed at a time when East German engineers were determined to show that their socialist economy could compete with the West.

Production of the B 1000 began at an IFA Collective factory in the Saxon town of Hainichen on June 14 just months before the Berlin Wall split the German capital in two (in 1961).

The van was presented at the Leipzig Motor Show in 1962. Visitors admired a modern, lightweight cargo van that met European standards in terms of low weight and self-supporting all-metal construction. It had front-wheel drive and greater cargo capacity than most vans.

Despite the primitive, smoke-breathing three-cylinder engine borrowed from the Wartburg 311, the Barka remained in production for almost 30 years.

“Internationally, the first Barka was at the top of its tree,” enthuses Siegfried Buelow, who was responsible for assembling the Barka at the end and later worked for Volkswagen and Porsche.

Unlike the comic Trabant runabout, the Barkas also found buyers overseas, and examples were sold to customers throughout the Eastern Bloc as well as in Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Former Barkas Werke engineer Juergen Rehm recalls that the factory put a lot of energy into developing the van. But unfortunately, a complete overhaul, the Barkas 1100 project, never saw the light of day.

Communist officials saw no need for modernization and only a few prototypes were built. Chemnitz University staff even offered an electrified version in 1972, but the batteries took up so much space that the vehicle had only a puny payload.

The electric Barkas would have had a range of 100 km between charges, while the top speed was limited to just 50 km/h.

Without any attempt to keep pace, the Barkas quickly fell behind their western rivals. Like the Wartburg and the Trabant, it has become the symbol of East Germany’s moribund economy.

German reunification saw Eastern European markets collapse; even a new model with a modern four-stroke engine from Volkswagen failed to save the Barkas. Demand dried up and production ceased on April 10, 1991.

A total of 175,740 Barkas vans have been manufactured and fans of the brand remain loyal to the brand. Restored examples are particularly popular at motor shows in the eastern states of Germany.

An Internet forum is aimed at enthusiasts who are trying to find spare parts. There is even an owners club in the Netherlands.

Barkas almost found a new lease of life in Russia after the tools and machinery used to make the can were exported to that country. The boxes were sent to a factory near St Petersburg, but investors ran out of money and the project was halted in 1994. – dpa/Andreas Hummel

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