I decided to write a 2-part story about cars from GDR, and to see if they deserve to be called "iconic" or not. In an article about Yugo, I said that this car was fueled by nostalgia and it later became a 4-wheeled legend of former Yugoslavia, despite being shite. So, is that the case here as well?
A COMPANION FOR EVERYONE
Made by a car maker called VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau, Trabant was a symbol of East Germany...and the entire collapse of the Eastern Bloc too. At the time, VEB Sachsenring wanted to build a "people's car" (East German version of the Beetle). It needed to be cheap, economical and practical, and in 1957 the first Trabant was born. In German, "trabant" is a term for a satellite, but it can also be translated to "companion".
The first Trabant was called the P50, and it was a very advanced car for its time, with its FWD, independent suspension and unitary bodywork. It came with a 500cc two-cylinder two-stroke engine with 18 HP. In 1960, the engine was upgraded to 20 HP, and in 1962 it had an output of 23 HP (this one even got a new name-the P60). Its engine was very simple...or should I say, it was pure genius. It only had 5 moving parts, and weighed 40kg. So, it was so simple to maintain, even your child could do it.
East Germany had a bit of a problem. It wasn't as wealthy as the West Germany, and the resources for production of cars were limited. So, with just a little bit of steel being available, they needed to think outside the box. The result was...well, I think you probably know it...Duroplast; a material similar to fiberglass. To get that material, workers needed to soak waste cotton in plastic resin and then squeeze it in a hot press.
You might think that this material made it awful, but it was actually good. Unlike fiberglass, Duroplast was light, strong and it would hold the color for decades.
It was also a very good recycling material, which was even proved in an episode of Scientific American Frontiers show. This show explained that, when the frame, engine and glass are removed, Duroplast is shredded and used in making cement blocks for pavement construction. Now that's brilliant!
NEW CAR, OLD ENGINE
The P50 and P60 weren't really popular, and not a lot of people remember them. But, their successor, the 601, became the most famous plastic car in history. It was introduced in 1963, and it came with the same engine 500cc engine, only this time with 25 HP, which gave it a top speed of 107 km/h. This is when Trabant became East Germany's answer to the West Germany's Beetle.
It really deserves to be called a people's car, because it was cheap, reliable, and easy to maintain. However, it still had a two-stroke engine, which was even old-fashioned in the 1960s, but that didn't stop the company to keep using them for almost 30 years.
The 601's design was very praised, because it looked very modern for its time. The production was supposed to last until 1971, but it continued until 1991. During its lifetime, the design barely changed, which caused a bad reputation to its name, but it didn't really affect the sales figures. People in the East Germany were not particularly rich, so they had to choose a cheap car. That's why Trabant was so popular, and a 10-year waiting list wasn't uncommon.
"TRABI TRAIL" AND LEGACY
In the late 1980s, as border controls were reduced, many East Germans loaded their Trabants with as many things as they could, and started to flee from the Communist regime of East Germany. Huge convoys of Trabants went on this "Trabi Trail" through Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and into West Germany. Many of them needed a special permission, because the cars didn't meet West German regulations (Trabants were polluting 4 times more than the European average).
After the unification of Germany, VW helped Trabant by providing them with Polo engines, and Trabant made a little facelift to the 601, called 1.1. However, that didn't last long, since the production stopped in 1991.
In total 3.7 million Trabants were made, and each and every one of them represents something that just can't be described easily. Richard Leiby said that that Trabant was "a symbol of the technological and social backwardness of East Germany".
But, it's actually the result of hard work and persistence of everyone who worked on it. The car just refused to die, which means that it wasn't shite as many people think. It was one of those cars, which you can just look at, and they will tell you the entire history of what they went through. Trabant is an icon and it will always be a small car with a big heart. It was cheap, reliable and everything one person needed. It wasn't really a car; it was more of a friend.