Trabant joined the wave of simple and cheap cars that were supposed to put Europe on wheels. He was born on November 7, 1957 in Zwickau, an East Germany that was still recovering from the horrors of the war while being plagued by a Western embargo and a communist centrally planned economy.
There was a shortage of practically everything, so designers had to save and experiment. The previous P70 model still had a wooden body frame, but of course it didn’t last much. For the classic Trabant, they therefore tried modern plastic – a mixture of phenolic resin filtered out during the distillation of lignite tar and waste cotton from the Soviet Union, all pressed in twelve layers and suspended on a steel skeleton of a self-supporting body.
The light, strong and non-rusting plastic body (albeit on a steel chassis that rusts very willingly) was truly innovative at the time, and the concept with a transverse front engine, front-wheel drive and a four-speed synchronized gearbox with shifting under the steering wheel was also ahead of its time.
Thanks to the fact that the Trabant weighed only 600 kilos (the plastic body was even only 30 kg!), a modest half-liter two-stroke two-cylinder engine with a power of around 20 hp was enough to drive it (the improved version of the 601 got a 600 with a dizzying power of 26 hp!). Well, that was enough – the maximum speed of 90 km/h could only be reached when driving downhill and with the wind at your back, and acceleration was measured not by a stopwatch, but by a calendar.
However, speed was not the only thing the Trabant lacked. In its simplicity, it did not have a rear pair of doors (limousine and station wagon were only two-door, alongside them there was also an open military/utility version of the Kübel), the cabin lacked practically everything except the steering wheel, seats and a rather useless speedometer.
Instead of a box in front of the passenger, there is an open shelf for books across the entire width of the deck, you had to pump the windshield washer yourself, the interior rear-view mirror was darkened by simply turning it, and gasoline was measured by inserting a plastic dipstick directly into the tank (usually not while driving) located under the hood and mainly directly above the carburettor, which eliminated the need to install a fuel pump. And then there was the notorious (poor) production quality, which is perfectly captured by this video from the Internet’s golden pool.
All these economical solutions made it possible to put a truly popular price tag on the Trabant – in the 1960s it cost some 27,000 in communist Czechoslovakia, while the Škoda 1000 MB started at 45,000. But the average salary at that time was a ridiculous 1,500 CZK, so even the most affordable car was only available to the luckiest. Even so, there was a waiting list for him, in which people waited for more than ten years.
Thanks to unceasing interest (there wasn’t much else to buy) and the lack of funds to develop a successor, the Trabant lasted in production not only until 1971, as originally planned, but incredibly until 1991! That’s when the fall of the iron curtain definitively revealed just how crappy and desperately outdated the car was.
Today, only true fans drive the Trabant, and others remember it with nostalgic tears. Which means that the prices quickly rise to the point of nonsense – for a worse piece you will pay some 30 thousand and more for renovation, maintained Trabants are only starting at 100 thousand. However, this does not change the fact that the Trabant is an automotive misery. And yet, in its own twisted way, it’s fun to drive because it’s completely unlike anything else on the road today.
Give him a thumbs up if you ever meet him. A bit of nostalgia and a bit of reward for his brave driver, because he seriously deserves it. Nothing describes the nature of the Trabant better than this joke:
This is how an American argues with a Czech whether a Trabant is a car or not. The Czech gets angry, sits down, slams the door, drives forward, drives backwards, does a few circles and then drives off. Amík says:
“Okay, I believe you now, it’s a car, it runs, but what were those maneuvers at the beginning supposed to mean?”
“But I slammed a dandelion into my door, it wouldn’t budge, so I had to tame it.”