Ever since the Hungarian government opened its borders in the late summer of 1989, and tens of thousands of East German citizens streamed westward across it, the car that the vast majority were driving has been a symbol for the failure of the communist government and its mismanaged economy.
That's a pity, really; because the Sachsenring Trabant is interesting in its own right.
Don't look to auto critics to hail it as a really rather clever transportation device; to hold it up as a tribute to human ingenuity. Most every correspondent looking to make a name for themselves has at some point produced the obligatory list of Worst Cars in the WorldTM, placing the Trabant near the top. Belaboring Trabi shortcomings is a surefire, if cheap, way to get attention.
In one such list for Time magazine, it was written that the Trabant maxed out at eighteen horsepower; that it was "a virtual antique" when it was designed in the 1950s, and that it "often lacked even the most basic of amenities, like brake lights or turn signals."
Would it surprise you to learn that all three of these assertions are incorrect?
As a typifying symbol of the ironically named German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR in German), the Trabant is an easy target. Few cars so capture their era.
Between 1957 and 1989, every second car in the DDR was a Trabant. The factory workers at the Sachsenring car factory built slightly less than six hundred cars per day, on average; and, with that, met only half the demand. It was a real "people's car" - easy to repair, and easy to own. If that sounds more than a little left-wing, consider that, like Porsche's 911 (whose fan belt cooling system was very similar), the Trabant took its inspiration from that Western icon, the Volkswagen Beetle, a "people's car" that sold more than any other.
Like the Beetle, it was air-cooled. But unlike the Beetle, the Trabant drove its front wheels. That made it a roomier car, in a smaller footprint. Trabant had front-wheel drive ten years before European cars began adapting it en masse, and almost a quarter-century before the layout became common among smaller American cars.
The material which made up the Trabant's body was ingenious. As the New York Times put it, "While (Swedish) Saabs were 'born from jets,' and Jaguars were 'born to perform,' Trabants were born out of desperation." Zwickau's automobile industry had been devastated by World War II. Heavy bombing, as well as the need to make reparation payments to their new Russian bosses, stripped Zwickau of the machinery, supply lines, and materials required to build cars. Steel was next to impossible to come by due to trade embargoes placed on the region by the West. The solution proposed by East German engineers was Duroplast.
Similar to Bakelite, the resin-based bioplastic was far from the "corrugated cardboard" described in Western enthusiast publications. Duroplast was stronger than steel, cheap, light, and durable. Unlike fiberglass, it could be pressed in conventional presses.
With its recycled panels, front-wheel drive, A-arm independent front suspension, and capacious trunk, Trabant was, at just 1,355 pounds, light, robust, roomy, and surprisingly modern when introduced. Compare a 1958 Trabant to a ‘58 VW Beetle, or ‘58 Fiat 500. They all seat four. The Trabi has a bigger trunk. There is no gas gauge in the Trabi - but there is none in the ‘58 VW either - and the Trabi's body material wouldn't rust.
The problem was not the original design; but, rather, how long they stuck with it.
From the perspective of the central planners in charge of East Germany's communist economy, an automobile was a means of transportation, not an extension of one's personality. The many luxury features found in Western cars were deemed unnecessary. Functionality was what mattered.
More seriously, even at the Trabant's launch, Western cars were using cleaner and more efficient four-stroke engines. And those Duroplast pieces were formed by workers running hand-operated presses. This extremely labor-intensive production method combined with resource shortfalls to fail entirely at meeting demand. East Germans famously waited for up to 10 years to get one. Export customers were better served, due to the need to earn hard currency.
That Sachsenring built effectively the same car for almost 30 years (much like some Western automakers we could name) was not for lack of trying. At least twenty prototypes were created, and rumors persist that one of them was surreptitiously sold to Volkswagen, influencing the Golf.
Inevitably, political red tape and a separate set of priorities hampered the further refinement of the Trabant during its long production run.
But to raise the myriad issues with East Germany's people's car is to miss the point, for the importance of the Trabant transcends its worthiness as an automobile. The intense struggle to design and turn out these cars in a country so paranoid to have built a wall at its border, shows how perseverance and a willingness to think outside the box helped a group of ambitious engineers overcome enormous hurdles and preserve their right to free thought.
Rallying between 1960 and 1990, for instance, allowed Sachsenring to showcase the Trabant to the outside world. The car didn't just compete. With 55 horsepower, 800 cc, and a 5-speed gearbox, the 650 kg Trabant 601 RS won seven major rallies outright, including showcase events like the Acropolis and Monte Carlo rallies (850cc class). In the 1985 1000 Lakes rally, the East German works team finished 47th overall - not bad for a two-stroke runabout.
Indeed, the Trabant broke through the proverbial wall long before it crossed into West Berlin. Not only was its body built of recycled materials, but it could run on whiskey, cooking oil, or virtually whatever else could burn. A shade-tree mechanic could, alone, lift out its engine block and swap it within twenty minutes. Many did. Since it could take years for a car to be delivered from the time it was ordered, people who finally got one were very careful with it and usually achieved skill in maintaining and repairing it. Though it required attention more regularly than the cars of today, keeping a Trabant running was easy. The saying went that you could get all the way to Leningrad in a Trabant as long as you took a hammer, pliers, and wire along with you.
In April 1991, production of the final three models - sedan, kombi, and Tramp - ceased for good after 3.7 million made. Volkswagen, eager for Sachsenring's 450-strong dealer network and access to more than twenty million people hungry for new cars, bought the Trabant factory and switched it to production of VW engines.
A reunified Germany found that disposing of Trabants was not easy, owing to the sturdiness of Duroplast and to its toxicity when burned.
In the 1990s, German insurance company Allianz crash-tested a Trabant at 55 km/h. Allianz was concerned about the sheer number of Trabants it was, following German reunification, now forced to insure. In the hope of deeming the car unworthy, the company commissioned a Germany technical inspection company to crash a 30-year-old Trabant into a wall at 62 km/h.
The Trabant came out safer than a modern Fiat Cinquecento and, in some respects, even beat a larger, modern Opel; not bad for a ‘50s design.
Allianz need not have worried. By the mid '90s, most East Germans had ditched their Trabants for Volkswagens.
Several years later, when Mercedes-Benz's new A-class tipped over in a Swedish "elchtest" (moose-avoidance test), a Trabant was run through the same ordeal and passed with flying colors.
1989 Sachsenring Trabant 601
Today, this quintessentially Cold War automobile has a unique allure. "Ostensibly, there's not a whole lot to love about a car that creaks like an out-of-warranty pirate ship and spews more smoke than a Winston Churchill/ Fidel Casto summit," wrote Towle Tompkins for the New York Times in 2008, before confessing a certain predilection for the Trabi. The car's undeniable charm is in large part down to the pop-popping sound of the two-stroke engine, and the distinctive, smiling front grille.
Visitors to Berlin in Germany, and Budapest in Hungary, can participate in Trabant Rallies.
Stateside, Trabants start at about $5,000 and sometimes sell for well over that figure. Rarity drives prices upward even in the face of the socialist ideal that says an object cannot be worth more than the labor and materials that go into making it. Although it was estimated ten years ago that three quarters of a million Trabants survived in Europe, no more than a hundred had found their way across the Atlantic.
In 2007, in Bath, England, Larkhall councillor and Trabant enthusiast Bryan Chalker helped resurrect a Trabant that had sat untouched in a barn for more than a decade. The seized engine was restarted with a few hours' work. "I think Trabants are great," said Councillor Chalker, who nicknamed the car, "Herman," promising to donate his own Trabant, "German George," to a motor museum.
"They are so reliable.
"People look at me like I'm a nutter, but wouldn't you be a nutter if your car didn't break down?"