The cars we loved.
It seems like Westerners love reflecting on the 80’s Cold War era. When thinking about the Iron Curtain, long lines for bread and big robust peasant women come to mind. Aside from huge missles and tanks lined up in parades, one of the most enduring mechanical symbols might be the tiny Trabant peoples car. Like bread lines and armed guards the Trabant has been a long time fixture in Eastern European nations. They were actually first concived in the late fifties. The version we associate heavily with East Germany came about in 1963. It was originally planned as a three wheel motorcycle. The Trabant, who name means satellite or compainion was intended to be East Germany’s answer to the VW Beatle in in since that it would be a easy to produce low cost peoples car.
Although we laugh at the Trabant and it’s 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 Easy or West for that matter. To cut costs, many body panels were made with a kind of plastic resin that was strengthen by wool or cotton – in a way making the car close to nature in its use of non-refined materials involved in construction. 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. Its been documented that the typical Trabuant put out four times the emissions of a standard Western car. The Trabuant was so simplistic that they did not have a fuel pump, so the carburators were placed high on the engine so that fuel would flow via gravety. Such a archaic system menat that drivers would have to carry two cycle motor oil in the car at all times and make not to get the mixyure correct when filling up. Later gas stations would began mixing fuel in the gas at the right raito to eliminate this problem. Good thing, because many Trabuants did not have a way to measure how nuch fuel was in the tank! The cut rate engineering meant that the Trabuant was something of a fire risk (when driving or when in a crash), but compaired to many Western cars,Trabuant occupants faired quite well in crash tests (if it did not catch on fire).
In all, VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau sold more than 3 million Trabbi in its many forms including a two door station wagon like varant called the Universal. Amazingly, but not surprisingly for a government run company more interested in the production of weapons, the Trabuant was left unchanged for nearly all the years it was produced. In time the industry caught up and left the Eastern Bloc’s favorite peoples car behind. In it’s final variation called the Trabant 1.1 in 1990, a 1.0 L four stroke engine from Volkswagen’s Polo was fitted to the Trabuant, 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 slick Western options. Many Trabuants made the one way journet across the boarder and their owners after having slipped behinf the wheel of a 20 year old Ford, VW or Opel never looked back.
Trabuants today have a warm spot in the heart of many auto enthusatshs. After being made the center piece in U2’s Zoo TV tour, the Trabuant suddenly became chic. Later appearing at a permanent exhibt at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, the Trabuant’s place in pop culture was secured. 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. In 2009 an electric version of the Trabuant was shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show to guage interest in revamping the Trabuant name. With such renewed interest, the Trabuant might well last another 28 plus years.