The cars we loved.
When thinking about the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall, many symbols come to mind. Long lines for bread, big robust women are two things, but the tiny Trabant might be a favorite amongst Westerner’s who long for a bit of cold war nostalgia. Like long bread lines, the Trabant has been a longtime fixture in Eastern European nations. They were actually first conceived in the late fifties. A version of the Trabant called the 600 most associated with Cold War era East Germany came about in 1963. The Trabant was originally planned as
a three wheel motorcycle. The Trabant, who name means satellite or companion, was intended to be East Germany’s answer to the VW Beatle. Like the bug it would be an easy to produce low-cost peoples car.
Although we laugh at the Trabant and its many variants today, it was actually a rather advanced car when introduced. With a fully independent suspension and steel monocoque body, it was atypical of small cars from the East or West for that matter. To cut costs, many body panels were made with a kind of plastic resin that was strengthened by wool or cotton – in a way making the car “green” by some of today’s standards. Although there was nothing green about a car whose emissions were four times that of a typical Western European car. Motivation was by small two-stroke engine making about 18hp and eventually climbing to all of 25 by the dawn of the 90’s. 0 to 60 was something in the
neighborhood of 21 seconds with the 25hp engines in the late 80’s car.
The small engine, despite being unhindered with pollution controls could only manage 34 mpg. The Trabant was so simplistic that they did not have a fuel pump, so the carburetor was placed high on the engine so that fuel would flow via gravity. Such an archaic fuel delivery system required drivers to carry two-cycle engine motor oil in the car at all times mixing it with gas when filling up in the right ratios. Later, gas stations would began mixing fuel at the pump eliminating this chore. Good thing, because many Trabants did not have a way to measure how much fuel was in the tank! The cut-rate engineering made the Trabant something of a fire risk (when driving or when in a crash), but compared to many Western cars, Trabant occupants fared quite well in certain crash tests (if it did not catch on fire first).
In all, VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau sold more than 3 million Trabbi in its many forms including a two door station wagon like variant called the Universal. Amazingly, but not surprisingly for a state-run company more interested in weapons, the Trabant was left unchanged for nearly all the years it was produced. The developing post war European auto industry quickly caught up and left the Eastern Bloc’s favorite peoples car behind. In its final version called the Trabant 1.1 in 1990, a 1.0 L four-stroke engine from Volkswagen’s Polo was fitted to the Trabant, bringing it instantly into the modern age. It was not enough to save the car as citizens who got a taste of freedom were dazzled by the many slick Western cars they had to choose from. Many Trabbi made the one way journey across the border and their owners after having slipped behind the wheel of a 10-year-old Ford, VW or Opels never looked back.
The Trabant today has developed a warm spot in the heart of many auto enthusiasts and pop culture hipsters. For the world’s under employed youth, who’s lowered expectations and sarcasim have fuel a new appreciation for all things held in low esteem, the Trabant has become the new poster child (possibly replacing the Yugo). Quite the irony considering that Western generations spoiled by the robot like perfection of some of today’s cars are helping to make the Trabant popular. After being made the center piece in U2’s 1992-93 Zoo TV tour, the Trabant suddenly became chic. Later appearing at a permanent exhibit at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. The Trabant’s place in pop culture was secured.
German toy maker Herpa announced plans to build the real car as a limited release, but as a new design in much the way BMW revamped the Mini. The new car was expected to use BMW engines and cost about 50k euros. The high price may have dampened enthusiasm. In 2009 an electric version of the Trabant was shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show to gauge interest in revamping the Trabant name. With such renewed interest, the Trabant might well last another 28 plus years if they can keep it a cheap simple car like the original.