(First published November 2014, revised and expanded here) Today sees the 30th anniversary of perhaps the most momentous event in Europe’s history since 1945 – the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the opening of the Iron Curtain. It led to democratic freedoms for hundreds of millions of people from Berlin to Siberia, from the Baltic to the Black Sea; nothing in my lifetime comes close (yes, including Brexit). With it came the introduction to the people of Western Europe of the daily life and life styles of the people trapped behind the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, and few things show the contrast more clearly than the Eastern Bloc cars, that were either interesting, or to be popularly derided. Perhaps the best known of these is the East German Trabant.
In December 1990, my wife and I were in Berlin, where the differences between West Berlin and East Berlin were still very, very marked, and not just by the wide strip of wasteland between them. Everything, from the streetlamps to the trains and trams to any air of affluence was so contrasted between the two parts of the city. We rode on trains still bearing the colours of the DDR, with wooden slat seats, walked round streets not rebuilt after wartime bombing, saw many, many Trabants, Wartburgs and Soviet trucks, and bought some of the wall (western side shown).
Every car building country in Europe has one or more clearly identifiable and affordable cars highly regarded in the public esteem and memory, even if the car does stand up to the full rigours of hindsight and the competition. Think of the Morris Minor, the Mini, the Citroen 2CV, the Renault 4, the Fiat 500 or Fiat 124, the DAF 33, the Volvo PV444 and, of course, the VW Beetle. East Germany had one too – the Trabant, of which the 601-S was the ultimate.
The Trabant was the East German entry level car from 1957 to the fall of the wall in 1989, and production continued until 1991. Key to the Trabant were two things – the division of Germany in 1945 and what we might refer to as the competitive tension between them, and into which part of Germany the pre-war industrial infrastructure assets emerged. Of course, Mercedes-Benz, BMW (at least most of it), Opel and Ford were in the west, as was the then new but badly bombed Volkswagen works in Wolfsburg.
But East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (the GDR or DDR), had access to some of the facilities of the Auto Union group, specifically the former Horch and Audi factories in Zwickau, which was building the DKW F8. After the war, the newly created IFA continued to build the F8, and they also put into production the very advanced F9, based on DKW’s pre-war F9 that never got into production before the war started. These were of course all FWD two-stroke cars, as DKWs had all been since almost its beginning (DKW history here). With very few exceptions, all postwar DDR vehicles followed the principles laid down by previous DKWs, and especially the advanced F9, which evolved into the Wartburg 311.
Perhaps the best known car to come out of Zwickau was the Wartburg 353 Knight, with a 2-stroke engine from 1966 to 1989, and finally with a VW four-stroke four. Few of these cars made it to the west in anything other nominal quantities, with the exception of the Wartburg which was sold in various European markets, including the UK throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.
But given the very modest income and purchasing powers of the East Germans, the Wartburg was too expensive except for the relatively few. So in 1954 the Politburo decreed that a smaller and cheaper car be developed, to be the counterpart to the madly successful West German VW.
Conceptually, the new Trabant was inspired by the West German FWD two-stroke Lloyd P300, which dated from 1950. But the Trabant was to be somewhat larger, in order to be a full-fledged four seater, in the standards of the time. The Lloyd’s bodywork was covered in vinyl, or something close to that, and the Trabant would also wear a non-steel body.
Compared to contemporary western European standards and practices, there were many more striking things about the Trabant. Popular memories centre on the 2-stroke engine and the Duraplast bodywork, and tend to overlook some other features which could be seen as more positive. The car was front wheel drive with a transverse engine, and in production two years ahead of the (four cylinder) Mini.
Of course, other two stroke cars had transverse engines even earlier, one of which was the 1949 Saab 92. For that matter, DKWs had FWD transverse engines going back to the F7 of 1937, the mother of the whole lineage of these cars.
The Trabant’s gearbox was a fully synchronised four speed unit, operated by a dash mounted lever, visually half way between a column shift and a Citroen 2CV-type lever that sprouted from the dash like an umbrella handle.
Suspension was independent, using transverse leaf springs, and rack and pinion steering. It was a light and low power car, and quite roomy for its overall size. It had more usable luggage space than a VW Beetle and the styling was more contemporary as well, at least in 1957.
But there were significant negatives. The two-stroke engine was noisy; the exhaust fumes copious, and by even 1970s standards the quantity of noxious elements within them was high. As the Berlin Wall came down, West Germany granted a specific exemption to East German Trabants in respect of pollution regulations.
The interior ergonomics were perhaps beyond belief – the passenger could just as easily operate the throttle pedal as the driver, the steering wheel had a unique feeling of flimsiness and vulnerability to it, the column stalk was even worse, and there was no fuel gauge, just a dipstick in the tank. The ride, despite the independent suspension, was mediocre, largely due to totally inadequate damping. Top speed was a maximum of 68 mph in the later version, like most two-strokes, it was not very efficient either.
Perhaps the best-known feature of the Trabant was its bodywork. Although it was built on a steel monocoque structure, the visible panels were made of Duroplast. East Germany had a large chemical industry, one of the causes of its chronic pollution and environmental issues, but very little steel industry, as the pre-war German steel industry was centred on the Ruhr in the west. Duroplast was part of the solution to this – it is a composite thermosetting plastic, not dissimilar to Bakelite and Formica. It was set in heated presses, not unlike a steel panel press, around a core of cotton or wool, usually from the Soviet Union, and the resulting panel had a high stiffness and, of course, was corrosion proof, as well as light.
That corrosion resistance has meant that the Trabant, at least in the form of an abandoned bodyshell, has lived on. Duraplast won’t corrode and can’t be burnt, and the only use found for it has been to shred it and use it as an aggregate in a building material.
But there was a major downside to using this composite: it was very inefficient to produce on a mass scale. Each body panel had to be heated for several minutes; in the same time, dozens of steel body panels could have been pressed.
Perhaps the most worrying part of the Trabant was the fuel system. There was no electric fuel pump, as the engine was gravity fed, like a motorcycle (or lawnmower). Consequently, the fuel tank was under the bonnet, just ahead of the windscreen, so care was needed when fuelling with the petrol – oil mix. There was also a fuel tap under the dash, and if this was shut, an unpleasant surprise awaited, as the carburettor ran dry.
The first Trabant, which means Satellite in German, linking it nicely to then contemporary Russian Sputnik, was the P50. This was powered by a 499cc, 17 bhp 2-stroke built in the VEB Barkas-Werken in Karl-Marz-Stadt, now Chemnitz (again) and assembled in Zwickau by VEB Autombilwerk Zwickau (known as AWZ, and seen on the original badging). AWZ was later re-named VEB Sachsenring Autombilwerk Zwickau, VEB indicating it was publicly (or government) owned corporation and was part of the Industrieverband Fahrzeugbau (IFA) group of east German vehicle manufacturers.
This was succeeded in 1959 by the Trabant P50-1, with revised front and rear styling and two tone paint, and looking a bit less austere. Engine output was upped to 20bhp now, and the price rose to 8200 Ost-Mark, or around 4000 DM. There was also an Estate version, known as the Trabant P50-1 Universal, costing around 10% more. Of course, the price information is a bit academic, as it was all but impossible to convert Ost-Marks into dollars or pounds (going the other way, well, just don’t get caught), and there was a long waiting list anyway, often stretching to several, even up to ten years.
The Trabant P50 was 11 ft long and weighed in at around 1400 lbs, and could reach just 55mph. Over 3 years, around 160,00 were produced. In 1961 came the Trabant Camping, with folding seats and a fabric sunroof, for 9500 Ost-Mark, girls not included. The P50-2 came in 1962, produced for less than a year, with 23 bhp and a genuine 100km/h, or 62 mph capability.
This was followed by the Trabant P60, with a 595cc engine, and then the most familiar of all, the Trabant 601, which endured to 1990. This was the pinnacle of the Trabant, with the 595cc engine, revised styling losing the mini-Hillman Minx/Simca Aronde look for something much more akin to a DAF 33.
By 1968, 500,000 had been built, and by 1974 the millionth Trabbi showed its power by being able to tear the banner celebrating the occasion. The picture may confuse, but it is of a variant introduced in 1968 and was still in production when the 1,000,000 milestone was reached.
The last entry for the Trabant, except for the last VW engined version of 1990, in one of my reference sources DDR-Fahrzeuge von AWO bis Wartburg (Vehicles of the German Democratic Republic, from AWO to Wartburg – and a very interesting read it is too) is for 1974, when rear coil springs and a 12v electrical system were added.
Sales were almost exclusively to the DDR and other eastern bloc countries, and the car little was not well known or understood in western Europe. Those Soviet Bloc cars that were sold in western Europe, such as the Wartburg, the Lada, the Polski-Fiats and the Skoda, were mostly based on old western designs (Wartburg excepted) and sold exclusively on price. The Wartburg was at the lowest end of this group, so anything lesser than a Wartburg would have been severely exposed to ridicule, even assuming it could meet legal requirements. VEB Sachsensring didn’t try.
In 1988, VEB were able to secure a licence for manufacture of the VW Polo’s 1100cc SOHC cylinder engine, and the car was updated with Macpherson strut front suspension, rear mounted fuel tank and larger rear lights, seen on these cars and also showing the full colour range. The Trabant 1.1 entered production in May 1990, after the agreement on the reunification of Germany, but it was clear that the Trabant had had its run, as the population of eastern Germany preferred to buy a used Polo or Golf instead. Production finally ceased in 1991.
In the early 1990s, a small industry built up to import and support Trabants in western Europe. It could be seen as a really cheap and dependable car, or more usually a novelty piece. The feature car is a 1984 601-S, used thirty years later as a daily driver. And, yes, he is a very tall.
But the Trabant came to western Europe on 1989, being welcomed in numbers, and became a huge symbol of the new freedoms of the East Germans. From November 9th, 1989, Trabants, Wartburgs, Ladas and Skodas came freely through Checkpoint Charlie as east Germans exercised their new freedom, into West Berlin and then into the rest of West Germany for all sorts of reasons, from just seeing the West, to a holiday, or to see Granny again after 44 years. Never has the sight of so many smoking, inadequate cars been so exciting, and momentous.
In June 1990, my wife and I were on holiday in the Black Forest area of (then still West) Germany, in a UK registered Austin Metro, and we were blown away by the sheer number of Trabbies (everyone calls them that), and Wartburgs and Ladas, with East German plates, each as excited to wave a greeting or flash headlights to us as we were to them. What they made of the RHD Metro we’ll never know, but they were certainly enjoying their freedom. The world seemed a better place.
And, it is interesting to note, the Trabbie outsold the Austin Metro by almost 2 to 1 – yes, Sachsenring built over 3 million Trabbies. That’s a lot of cars for a country of 17 million people, and it’s no wonder East Germans have such great memories of them. It became an iconic symbol; both of the limitations of those many years behind the Wall, as well as the vehicle that provided the means to escape it.
Fast forward 30 years, and the people of eastern Germany still have a huge fondness for their Trabbies. Few will declare them to have been a good car in purely objective terms, but symbolically its significance is huge. It represented East German technical ability, the ability to travel without much of the usual hindrance and oversight, as well as being the route to the final national destination. It is defended almost universally by eastern Germans in a way that even the Mini, 2CV, Fiat 500 or Renault 4 are not elsewhere, or even the Beetle is not by West Germans. Few East Germans will hear a word against it. Imagine your favourite of all the cars Dad had when you were young, and repeat that on a national scale, and you get the idea. Google did.
Even now, there are close to 40,000 on Germany’s roads, no German museum is complete without at least one and it has taken its place as a proud counterpoint to the VW Beetle, as well as the novelty slot shared with the 2CV, Fiat 500 and DAF 33.
East Germany missed out on the Beetle – unification came too late for that car to be part of it – but it has adopted the VW Golf, perhaps Germany’s second Peoples’ Car. Or should that be the third?
And the VEB (ad)venture is still going on. The Zwickau plant is now part of the VW Group’s German manufacturing network, and production is now starting of the VW ID3, VW’s family electric car and the electric car that feels like it is taking us to the tipping point, the critical mass, of the popular adoption of electric mobility. It’s replacing the Golf on the production lines at Zwickau, but not Wolfsburg.
Perhaps the second German people’s car is passing the mantle on to the fourth.