JOKES ASIDE, 'TRABI' STINKS, EXPERTS SAY

JOKES ASIDE, 'TRABI' STINKS, EXPERTS SAY

One of the East European markets U.S. automakers are targeting is home to what may be the world's most ridiculed car: the East German Trabant.

To Germans on both sides of the border, it's known as the "Trabi."A typical joke goes, "How do you double the value of a Trabi?" Answer: ''Fill it with gas."

Another gag asks, "How many people do you need to build a Trabi?" Answer: "Three. One cuts, one folds and one glues."

The tiny, gas-guzzling, polluting automobile has been the butt of endless jokes.

The West German daily Die Welt received more than 200 responses when it asked readers to send in their favorite Trabi jokes. The car is a regular target of West Germans when they gather in their neighborhood beer gardens for a little relaxation.

"How can you tell the difference between the sport version of a Trabi and the normal version?" another joke goes. Answer: "In the sport version, there's a pair of sneakers in the trunk."

Or, "A Trabi and a donkey meet at a crossway. The Trabi says, 'Guten Tag. I'm a car." The donkey says, "Guten Tag. I'm a horse."

Yet for all the humor, some West Germans don't find the little Trabis the least bit funny. The cars stink, literally, and the West German Environment Ministry wants to do something about it.

The ministry has announced a pilot project with East Germany to help clean up emissions from the Trabi by equipping each car with a catalytic converter. The goal is to fit the Trabis and another East German model called the Wartburg with a non-regulated catalytic converter.

But first the converter must be developed. Several firms and research centers, including the Battelle Institut, a Frankfurt-based research institute that's part of a similarly named Ohio-based organization, are developing Trabi catalytic converters. The Federal Office for Ecology in West Berlin is

directing the project.

Hans Juergen Nantke, a spokesman for the office, explained that for the converter to work, East German cars must use lead-free gasoline. This is a major problem in East Germany, where lead-free gas is available at only 41 gas stations, and only for hard currency.

A second problem is temperature. Converters function best under high temperatures, but the Trabi emissions, which include large amounts of hydrocarbons, are very cold.

Under current conditions, a converter would have a useful life of about three months, Mr. Nantke said.

Researchers profess to be undaunted, however, and work on a Trabi converter continues. But one has to wonder if the little car that could will be around for long.

With reunification and the likely buildup of the East German economy, many Trabi drivers may opt to "trade up" to cleaner cars.