I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Trabant was a car that was supposed to highlight the genius of Communist engineering. It was likely the worst automobile ever made and became the butt of many jokes.
The People’s Car
Between 1945 and 1989, East Germany was under the control of the Soviet Union and the Communist puppet leaders it appointed to run the country.
The population was kept passive and obedient by the Stasi secret police. The organization brutally crushed dissidents and was ably assisted by the Soviet KGB. One of KGB officers in the country was a Major Vladimir Putin, now President of Russia.
In the mid-1950s, somewhere in the bureaucratic machinery of the state, a plan was hatched to make a “people’s car.” The result was the Trabant, a vehicle that was originally going to be a three-wheeled motorcycle.
The cars were built in Zwickau by a dispirited workforce in a factory that was badly managed. Although, given that the engineers had very little money and almost no access to traditional car-manufacturing materials, it’s a small miracle the car was even built.
The Communist Party propaganda machine churned out the following: “Creativity combined with boldness and the revolutionary will of a working class that has been freed from exploitation have given birth to this inconspicuous and yet sensational car.”
By modern standards, it was a ghastly vehicle. By the standards of the time in which it was designed and built, it was also a terrible vehicle.
The Trabant Engine
The mighty Trabant was equipped with a 500 cc two-stroke engine. Some people called the motor that produced just 18 horsepower “a spark plug with a roof.”
The top speed of the P50 model was a tad over 60 mph. But, most drivers kept to a more sedate 40 to 50 mph because, at higher speeds, the body panels had a tendency to fly off.
A two-stroke engine runs on a mixture of oil and gasoline, the result was that each car belched a cloud of blue exhaust smoke behind it. According to Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear Fame an “S-class Mercedes produces the same amount of toxic waste over 30 miles that a Trabant chucks out in three seconds.”
Another refinement of the Trabi engine was the absence of an oil pump or a gas pump, so a fill up had to include both going into the fuel tank. The tank itself was perched on top of the engine to provide for a gravity feed to the carburetor. Fire hazard? What fire hazard?
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The hood had to be lifted for a fill up. And the driver could only tell if it was time for more fuel by using a dipstick because there was no fuel gauge on the dashboard.
Other Trabant Features
East Germany in the 1950s was short of everything―food, cement, clothing, steel. The last mentioned made building a car difficult, so the Trabant engineers improvised.
The body was made out of a material called Duraplast, a combination of cotton waste and phenol resin. Basically, the Trabant was plastic.
The chassis on the first cars was wooden because the engineers didn’t know how to attach plastic to steel. That problem was solved later.
The car had four forward gears and the shift lever was mounted on the steering column. A bit of a downside was that there was no graphic to tell the driver which position to put the shift in for which gear. Novices might easily select reverse instead of any of the forward gears. Ooops.
There was a speedometer, but no tachometer. Also there was no turn signal indicator or brake lights. The driver’s side door could only be locked from the outside and the passenger side door could only be locked from the inside. But, the early models did have three ashtrays.
New and Improved Trabants
Engineers and designers tried to add much-needed fine-tuning to the basic model but these were almost always denied on the grounds of cost.
The engine was upgraded to 600 cc which enabled the vehicle to accelerate to its top speed of a little over 60 mph in a scorching 21 seconds. Seat belts were added, but not for back-seat passengers.
Despite its awfulness the Trabant was popular, largely due to the fact that it was the only car available to East Germans. After placing an order, customers had to wait between 10 and 13 years―repeat, years―for delivery.
Officially, the car cost 7,450 East German Marks, which roughly (very roughly) is the equivalent of around $700, or about a year’s salary. Because of the long waiting time for delivery, a second-hand Trabi could fetch twice its original price.
But, the Trabant could not survive the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the reunification of Germany. East Germans could now buy Western vehicles that were vastly superior to the Trabi. Production ceased in 1991 after building more than three million cars. Volkswagen took over the factory, retooled it, and now makes some Golfs and Passats there.
There have been attempts to resurrect the vehicle mostly recently in the form of the Trabant nT. This is a concept vehicle that is looking for investors. That news snippet comes from 2009 and it doesn’t look as though people with money are rushing to bring back the brand from the obscurity it so richly deserves.
- In 1961, the East German government erected the infamous Berlin Wall to stop people from escaping to West Germany as three million had already done, many of them queuing up at border crossings in what were called “Trabi Trails.”
- The Trabant gained something of a cult following, and American enthusiasts bring their cars to Washington each November. They attend an event sponsored by the International Spy Museum and Parade of Trabants is held.
- After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East Germans flocked into West Berlin in their Trabants choking the city with their exhaust fumes that were called “the perfume of freedom.”
- Trabants currently command a price of about £2,500 or $3,100.
- “10 Worst Cars of the 20th Century.” Kristen Hall-Geisler, auto.howstuffworks.com, undated.
- “The 10 Worst Cars Ever Made.” Coolmaterial.com, undated.
- “Clarkson on: the Trabant.” Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear, August 5, 2001.
- “History of the Trabant Classic German Automobile.” Tony and Michele Hamer, liveabout.com, May 23, 2019.
- “Trabi Jokes.” History Extra, July 6, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor