While West Germany was churning out Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen cars by the million and also exporting them in massive quantities, in East Germany the private car was not quite as common or approachable. From the sometimes dire economic reality of post-war communist Germany, another legend rose: the Trabant.
In 1953 the order to design a small passenger car was sent to the Zwickau Automobile Works. Two years later the P70 made its first appearance in East Germany. It had a two-stroke, 22 horsepower engine and its body, due to a shortage of sheet metal, was made of plastic as much as was practical. This vehicle would become the forebear of the culture icon known as the Trabant. The vehicle commissioned by the East German government to succeed the P70 was named Trabant (satellite) in the enthusiasm that followed the successful launch of Sputnik I in October 1957. The first vehicle rolled off the production line on 1957-11-07 and was a P50 model with a 500cc engine, 18HP, front-wheel drive and a maximum velocity of 90 km/h.
By the end of 1957 only fifty P50s had been built and production during the next few years wasn't much faster. Some updates were made after its debut and it was first upgraded to include a four-speed gearbox and the engine's output was raised to 20HP. In 1962 the P50 was replaced by the P60 which boasted 23HP and a 600cc engine.
The Trabant 601 that would become a permanent fixture on East German roads was first built in 1964 when the first of approximately three million vehicles rolled off the same Zwickau assembly line. It was really just an update to the P50 and not a new model but you did get to choose its colour which could be light blue, light green, light brown, off-white or silvery-grey. At the time it was not just affordable but rivalled the compact cars built in the West and was in fact exported.
The 601 was far from perfect. It was a high-maintenance vehicle. On the other hand maintaining it 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. A story related to me by a friend was that his party, while driving through East Germany, had helped out a stranded Trabant driver with a fanbelt from their VW Beetle. Since some of them had as many actual VW parts as their owners could afford and as was mechanically possible, the Trabant really wasn't fussy; the driver was a lot more nervous since he really didn't like the idea of being quizzed by the cops about his dark roadside dealings with westerners. Like its ancestor, the P70, and other Trabant models before it, the 601's body was plastic and therefore rustproof.
Some variants were made including a station wagon, a coupe and even a bucket seat vehicle for personnel transport for the East German army. The latter was also the only Trabant with an all-metal chassis. Not that the model made much difference to the average consumer since the waiting list to get a Trabant was miles long and it could take 10-15 years from order to delivery. Surely one of the worst ever examples of communist-era bureaucracy and inefficient production methods. When it was finally delivered though it became an item of reverence and was religiously maintained by its owner to the extent that you sometimes couldn't tell a 15-year old Trabant from a brand new one.
Of course, as West German technology progressed and development in the East stagnated, the "Trabi" became less and less appealing to westerners and its presence was confined to the East. In the west it became the butt of jokes... here are a few:
-What does the designation "601" stand for?
-600 people order it, one gets it.
A cop stops a Trabant motorist and looks at him suspiciously: "Citizen, you have no speedometer. How do you expect to follow the speed limit?" To which the motorist replies: "Comrade Officer, I can do that without a speedometer. When I'm driving 20 km/h the windshield vibrates. At 30 the seats shake; at 50 the doors rattle and at 80 my teeth."
-How do you double the value of a Trabant?
-Fill the tank.
The 601, with minor enhancements, continued until 1989 when it was superseded by the 1.1. The 1.1 was hardly a miracle of technology. It had a 38HP VW Golf engine and was a technological relic even before it was built. Fewer than 40000 were built before the last ever Trabi rolled off the line on 1991-04-30, another victim of reunification in which East German technology was simply too inferior and production methods too uneconomic for it to continue alongside, let alone compete with West German advancement.
Long after the last Trabant was made, the car enjoys cult status in Germany and is the subject of numerous enthusiast clubs and gatherings, mainly in the East. Eventually, and unless it's given special status as a classic, its emissions could force it off the road. Oil-burning two-stroke engines are no longer in fashion like they were in the 1950s and reducing the fuel to oil ratio to 50:1 isn't quite the achievement it was in the 1960s. One thing that can be said for the Trabi even today: Coming off a red light its ultra-light build allows for impressive pick-up that will leave most heavier and faster vehicles looking at your tail lights.
Transitional Man tells me that the US edition of Car & Driver magazine once conducted a driving test of the Trabant. In order to get the car into the country they had to promise to destroy it afterwards and never use it on a public road ("The engine provides no braking effect at all. Nor do the brakes"). Since then (1990) the Trabant has become legal as a collector vehicle, though you might have to do some fast talking to get around local emissions requirements if you want to drive it on the road. In the US there's even a sort of dealership in the form of a Minneapolis outfit that will sell you a reconditioned car off a lot, starting at around $6000. Since 2007 the Germany Embassy in D.C. has included the Trabant on the list of iconic German things and sponsors an annual Trabi parade as part of the reunification festivities.
Compiled using information from several German Trabant owner clubs