Here at TLCB we usually feature vehicles that are powerful, fast, and highly desirable. The East-German Trabant was… er, none of those things.
Built between 1957 and 1991 the Trabant was almost the only car available to the East Germans trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Powered by a two cylinder two-stroke engine originally designed by DKW (who would later go on to form Audi) it was slow, uncomfortable and horrendously polluting, but engine aside the Trabant was actually quite an advanced design.
Front-wheel-drive, independent suspension, and unibody construction were all unusual for the time, but alas so was using gravity to get the fuel into the engine, rather than pumping it. This of course meant that the fuel tank had to be mounted above the engine, and that made a crashing a Trabant an often fiery experience.
Further ‘innovative’ thinking was evident in the Trabant’s bodywork, which was constructed from a material called Duroplast. Made from recycled cotton, Duroplast was chosen as metal in the Eastern Bloc was scarce and expensive. This had the side benefit of giving the Trabant incredible longevity; whilst its West German counterparts from Volkswagen, Opel, and Mercedes had rusted their way into scrapyards, the Trabant could go on and on, immune to oxidisation.
Being the sole car available to the people of East Germany the waiting list for a new Trabant stretched between one and two decades, depending on where you lived, and the design was pretty much unchanged during its entire 40 year production run.
What started as a flawed, but nevertheless reasonable little car in the late ’50s became increasingly outdated in the ’60s, and by the 1970s the Trabant was an unfunny joke, and it still had almost a 20 year monopoly remaining. No car demonstrates the folly, and ultimately the cruelty, of Communism better than this one.
East and West Germany were re-unified when the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, and the Trabant’s monopoly on the new car market in the East collapsed overnight. Up against the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Opel Astra, Ford Escort and countless others, Trabant production ceased just a year later.
Around 3.7 million Trabants were produced in sedan and – as pictured here – station wagon forms. Following the collapse of East German Communism in 1989 thousands of families loaded their Trabants with as much as they could carry and made the long drive (which became known as the ‘Trabi Trail’) via Czechoslovakia or Hungary to reach Western Germany and a new life.
Many then abandoned the little car that brought them, buying a used Volkswagen or Opel instead, but Flickr’s Vilém Šustr remembers the vehicle that, even if under the oppression of Communism, mobilised a country. There’s more to see of his wonderful Model Team recreation of the Trabant 601 Combi on Flickr – join the Trabi Trail by clicking the link above.