15th October 2019

Trabant: the people’s underdog

The automotive symbol of East Germany and an icon of the Eastern Bloc movement, few cars have garnered infamy quite as successfully as the Trabant. However, the derision of the motoring press when new rather missed the point. Built by the state-owned VEB Sachsenring, the Trabant represented the bare bones of motoring: cheap, private automated transport and nothing more. Just what did road-testers expect?

Built from 1957 until 1991, perhaps unsurprisingly the Trabant underwent very few revisions during its production. The first iteration, the P50, went into production for 5 years from 1957 before being replaced by the 600. After a limited run, the 601 came in during 1963 and ran almost unchanged until 1990. The final year of production saw arguably the most radical update, which we’ll detail in a moment.   

For its time, the Trabant is hugely innovative. Shunning convention, it featured front-wheel drive, advanced independent suspension and a steel chassis with a duroplast body. Plus, of course, a fabled two-stroke engine that did an incredibly efficient job of turning two-stroke oil, petrol and air into noise and smoke. Speed? Not so much. The advancement of 1990-91 saw the introduction of a VW Polo-based 1.1-litre four-cylinder, four-stroke engine, albeit it ‘worked on’ in-house to iron out some of that decadent VW efficiency.

Duroplast was an advanced material for its time: a recycled resin that used fibre reinforcement such as cotton, it provided a rust-free shell for the Trabant that was barely altered in 30 years.

The list of standard equipment is short. Don’t expect to see a rev-counter or rear seat belts and visual tell-tales are few and far between: earlier cars had no visual tell for having the lights on, or even a fuel gauge. Drivers would have to stop the car when they suspected it to be getting low on fuel, open the bonnet, remove the screwcap for the underbonnet fuel tank (fuel is gravity-fed) and unfurl their dipstick to check the fuel level. Of course, if this was low, they’d then need to perfect their 2-stroke and gasoline mix before carrying on the journey.

These journeys weren’t as easy to make as you may think. That’s nothing to do with the column-shift manual gearbox or 25bhp, but the difficulty of actually buying the car in East Germany. Waiting lists for a new Trabant could be over a decade long and were directly linked to how close to or far away from Berlin you lived. Move closer and there’s a good chance you’d be bumped up the list. Fancied a second-hand one? That would cost roughly double the cost of new.

What you do get with a Trabant is charm. That, and the feeling of being pushed down a hill inside a washing machine. They have a massive following today and an increasing number of Trabants are finding their way to shows throughout the UK. Whether it’s their political associations, simple engineering or two-stroke power, we’d love to hear what you think of the Communists’ champion. Or, if you own a Trabant why not see what our classic car insurance can do for you? 

I own three Trabant’s and have done since 2012. They are great fun to drive, turn heads and easy to maintain. We are looking forward to driving to Berlin in November in the Trabant to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

Von Trabi , 16/10/2019

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