Tales from Eastern Europe: The Trabant

Rusty, crusty but always trusty

37w ago

Being born in Romania meant that I was pretty familiar with a good number of Eastern European cars both from that time and from the Communist era. I had seen everything from Dacias to Wartburgs, Moskvitches, Ladas and everything in between. There was one car, however, that I was even more familiar with than the rest: my grandpa's Trabant 601.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with what I'm talking about, let me take you back to Eastern Europe. The Trabant 601 was an East German car made to compete with West Germany's Beetle. It was supposed to be the "People's Car" but as you might guess, it did not exactly have the same impact. The two-stroke engine ran on a mixture of fuel and oil that needed to be pre-mixed and smoked like a chimney on Christmas. East Germany had so little technological resources that the 601 was made from 1963 to 1990 which made it the longest production Trabant model in the car's history.

The story is that my grandpa bought the base model Trabant brand new, imported from its homeland in Germany. His son told him that he should buy a Dacia instead; the engine was better and parts were much easier to find since they were made locally just a few hours away from where they lived. My grandpa, of course, decided that he was the wiser one in the story and that if he bought the Trabant new, that would somehow help with parts in the future. It didn't make sense back then and it still doesn't.

My first memory of the Trabant might sound like something out of a history book to people who lived in the West but it was actually in the early 2000s believe it or not. It was winter and my parents had dropped me off at my grandparents' house to get me out of the house for a bit. I can't blame them. That day, my grandparents decided that we would drive into town to buy a landline phone; absolute peak technology I know. I remember sitting in the back of the Trabant and listening to that two-stroke engine sound like an enraged moped going uphill. This was after the Dacia from my previous story and by comparison, this thing was ancient. The plain dash, the column mounted shifter and its small size all seemed so out of place compared to the Dacia I was used to. And of course, I can't forget the smell. That old, musty smell that one gets in a classic car or from sniffing an old book always gives me a wave of nostalgia whenever I encounter it. Looking back, the Trabant might have been what started my love for old cars.

Image courtesy of YouTube user OldStuff

Image courtesy of YouTube user OldStuff

I don't think I ever rode in the Trabant again. As the car got older, things started breaking down. Lo and behold, my uncle was right and parts for the Trabant were not easy to find nor were they cheap. For the rest of its life with my grandparents, the Trabant rested under an awning in the yard. I remember always looking at it and just finding it so strange looking. I wanted to know more about it like how it worked and where it came from but I was always too afraid to ask. This lack of knowledge about it made it seem very mysterious to me and I was almost intimidated to go near it in a way.

Eventually my grandpa sold it and much like the Dacia, I was kind of sad about it. Not in tears as I didn't have as much of an attachment to the Trabant, but still sad. It had been around for as long as I was alive and seeing the empty spot where the Trabant was made me feel like I had lost a family member. It was my grandpa's pride and joy and even if it was pretty much useless towards the end of its life, it was still a sad parting. It started up on the coldest of days and took us anywhere we needed to go and at the end of the day, what more can you ask from a car?

The next car he got was, predictably a Dacia but it was nothing special. Much like the Renault in my previous story, it was just a car he bought from someone else. It had no history and my young self had no attachment to it so I didn't care much.

Much like the Dacia, the Trabant now lives on as a memory. It lives on as the small plastic car that would putt-putt around with plumes of smoke trailing behind it because caring about the environment is overrated. So long little Trabant, may you rest well in Car Heaven and may the car gods feed you that fuel and oil mixture you love so much.

I'd love to hear from people with similar Eastern European car experiences so tell your own story in the comments below! I always make sure to read every single one :).

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Comments (62)

  • Fantastic story!

      8 months ago
  • Liked the story, Gabriel!

    I have a question. In 1991 I visited Belarus to document the effects of Chernobyl with a World Health Organization mission. We started in Minsk and were driven everywhere in a set of vans that were air-cooled, engine in the rear, with what looked like horizontal fan shrouds. Why do I know where the engine was, and what it looked like? It BROKE DOWN every 5 minutes. Hammers were hammered, belts were tightened, parts were allowed to cool, etc. There was a LOT of cursing in Russian that I didn't understand.

    Question, can anyone tell me what model/make were vans likely were? I can probably dig up a picture given enough time. All of the vans were white, and the KGB followed us everywhere in Trabant sedans (also white).

      8 months ago
    • That sounds interesting, I'd love to see a pic

        8 months ago
    • I'll do my best to dig one up - I was shooting video on the trip, not stills but I may be able to pull a still from an old video. do you think these were Trabant vans?

        8 months ago
  • A great read, it puts me back into my childhood aswell.

    The P601 was THE car for the people in the GDR, so yes, essentially the Beetle / Golf of the eira.

    And, as still very lively rumors go, the whole design & Specs of the (sadly never produced) Trabant P602 where smuggled or even sold to Wolfsburg to become the Volkswagen Golf Mk1. You could say the Golf I was essentially GDR-made.

    Order2delivery time for a P601....pah...18 years.

    The Mix was largely 1:33 and later on 1:50. Some Italian Boffin even made Pistons which where able to use 1:100 mixes.

    My grandad had a Polski Fiat, a rare 4-stroke Car in the former german democratic republic. How I loved it. And my dad had a Wartburg 311 called "Julius". In the Winter of 1984 - 1985 we had -23°C but Julius just needed a few turns and sprung to life - with the help of a lot of Choke...

    Everything back then was tendered & cared for. Since delibirate lack of material in the economy, the Blackmarket and "one hand washes another" where common pratice to get spare parts.

      8 months ago
  • I love the old Trabbie! I even wrote an article about it too! drivetribe.com/p/the-real-volkswagen-FV1aOzPRTVmxSrFP_aa1ow?iid=IWW9L_WMQ_iKacYagjf0OQ

      8 months ago
  • GREAT read Gabriel!!! Fantastic. Keep up the writing. Love your work.

      8 months ago