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The story behind East Germany’s iconic Trabant

18/09/2013 08:54 |  Comments: 

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The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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It was meant to be an East European almost-car for the masses without the money for a real one. In the end it turned out to be much better than expected. Here’s how it came to be.

Volkswagen Beetle, Citroen 2CV, the Mini, Fiat 500, Renault 4, Morris Minor. All of them cheap to produce, acceptably durable, cheerful little cars reaching out to huge masses in their own time. Now, 40-50 years after their debuts they all have a massive cult status. But there's one contender rapidly catching up with them on the maps of simple-car lovers. It's East Germany's smoke-spitting, plastic wonder – the Trabant.

Today there are huge fan clubs of this once ridiculed little car in Germany, and the same goes for almost all the countries of the former Comecon (East European) states. One would think the story stops here, since Trabbis (as they are affectionately called) had not been exported to Western countries except for Greece and, in really small numbers, to West Germany. But no, the Trabant-disease keeps on spreading. Although this car was breathtakingly simple, better to say primitive in its construction, it's got some real added value for today's enthusiasts. The short list goes like this: distinctive, noisy character, cheerful personality, dependability (sort of), a subjective liveliness, lots of history.

Most Westerners were first offended and then scared to death in an instant when they were invited to and accepted a spirited ride in a Trabant in the 70's or 80's, but when nostalgia or curiosity forced them behind the wheel decades later, many of them found the experience to be heart-lifting. People who sneered at these rolling pieces of junk machinery nowadays find deep satisfaction and get lots of fun out of using them. There are more and more people collecting these rattling specimens of Erich Honecker's Wunder Wagen around the world, and nowadays one shouldn't be really surprised to see one of the later 601 models appearing at a classic car meeting in den Haag, Manchester, Tuscaloosa or even Vancouver. Heck, there must be happy Trabbi-owners in Tokyo, too, banzai!

In fact, the Trabant was frowned upon for mostly unjustified reasons. Although I'm one of those who, in its time, really kept an arm's distance from this irksome piece of East German ingeniousness. But as years passed I started to discover more and more of this simple car's straightforward charms.

Yes, it's got an engine from a pre-war, fabric-bodied DKW poverty car, although that had been extensively modified and spruced up by the time it made its way into the Trabant's nose. But that engine drove the front wheels and was mounted transversely in a car first running three years before the Mini. It also had rack and pinion steering when the drivers of almost all other cars were struggling with heavy and vague cam and peg systems; it had independent suspension all around in the age of rigid axles, and it had as much room for four adults than a much larger bodied Volkswagen Beetle did. And, erm..., almost twice the luggage space.

While we shouldn't skimp the fact that it had its wheels suspended by transverse leaf springs, we should also note that the Lancia Fulvia Coupé that was winning international rallies fifteen years later also did so. If that's not enough, we may mention the Corvette and the Volvo 960: those had the same outlay three decades later too. And what's the problem with that plastic body? Didn't the first Lotus Elite and today's Elise have it too? What about the Corvette?

All in all, was the contemporary Citroen 2CV really a better car? I'm not so sure about that. Or was the Fiat 500 superior? Well, it looked better for sure, but otherwise... What about the BMW Isetta or the Renault Dauphine? There have been lots of easier questions to answer for the scientists experimenting with the H-bomb than this one.

Of course, you come across terrifying things in a Trabant. There's the incredible smoke and smell it produces when started from cold. One may mention the flimsy steering wheel and signal stalk that seem to break off at the touch of a hand. The position of the pedals, which seem to be located so much to the middle of the vehicle that your front passenger can probably operate the accelerator more easily than you, isn't a very lucky solution either. And there's the special character of the suspension which sometimes gives the occupants a feeling of riding a mad bull in a Texan arena.

And the worst comes last: there is a fuel tap in the right footwell located far from you, under the instrument panel (Trabbis weren't produced in right-hand drive versions, don't forget), which, if you forget to open, might cause some headaches with just a small delay. You'll probably stall the car in front of a huge truck in the middle of the rushing traffic when the float chamber on the carburetor runs dry. Now, that's not a very nice experience, but it does happen often to new Trabbi-drivers.

If you look at it one way, the Trabant is a heap of crap, a bit of evil sounding, smoke puffing, inferior, soulless, cheap machinery with a bad enough history to go with it. But if you get to know it better, you're bound to find the charm behind its miniaturized Peugeot 404-like looks. In fact a Trabbi is livelier, can reach higher speeds, go around corners faster, is easier to maintain, able to carry more and possibly lasts longer than most of its cheap-car contemporaries. Enough of defending the Trabant; the company doesn't exist anymore, so they can't pay me for promoting their forgotten product. I just tried to find the reasons why there are so many avid Trabant-fans gathering around the world.

Perhaps the biggest idea in the car is the material its outer panels are made of. The substance is called Duroplast and, contrary to common belief, it is not a plastic, nor is it paper, but a five-layer, phenol-based material with organic filling (mostly cotton) instead. Duroplast had been invented in 1954, since there was a huge shortage of steel in East Germany, the largest iron foundries having gone to the Western side of the country after the division following the war.

The first car to receive this special cladding was the P70 in 1955: a car not much bigger than the Trabant, but more complicated and outdated in its technique. It had wooden floors and the original, water-cooled version of the pre-war DKW engine with no synchronization in its gearbox. To prove how strong the new material is, they had a photograph made at the factory with fifteen workers standing and sitting on top of the P70. But it was intended from the outset to be a stop-gap model. A better car was needed, one that is cheaper to produce, easier to maintain, livelier in its manners.

The P50, as the new car was named, was first shown secretly to the party bigwigs in Zwickau, home of all Trabants. This happened on the 23rd of October, 1956, on the very day the revolution broke out in Hungary against Russian oppression. The leaders of the German Democratic Republic suddenly had some more exciting stuff to deal with than watching a new people's car being introduced.

In spite of those troubled times the first five new cars left the gates of the factory within a year to start their 100,000 km durability testing. The first official pictures and some very tight-lipped description were published about the P50 in August, 1957. Let's see some of this information they disclosed: Duroplast body panels over a unitary steel chassis, room for four adults, a 499cc two-stroke, two-cylinder, air-cooled engine with 18 PS, front wheel drive and a top speed of 90kph.

Serial production started in February, 1958, after a pre-production run of 50 cars. Looking back on those hard times and knowing that the P50 had no real alternatives on the market in the whole Eastern Bloc it really is surprising how much attention the designers paid to make the car elegant-looking. The body of the car was rounded, its doors were hinged at the front, it had all-round upholstery, the boot could be opened from the interior, it had provisions for installing a radio, and there was a glove compartment and heating, too. Later versions were even more opulent with their duo-tone paintwork, chrome strips on their sides, fully synchronized gearboxes and glare-reducing interior mirrors.

Manufacturers hadn't given up on two-stroke engine in those years yet, DKW, Auto-Union, Messerschmitt, Subaru, Suzuki, Saab, Zündapp and Vespa (with the 400 microcar) were still using such engines and the Fiat 500 was originally conceived with a two-stroker, too. The four-stroke twin that made it into the car came after a hasty change in the last year of development.

If we think with East German engineers' heads we might also arrive to the conclusion that it is wiser to develop an engine that has got the smallest amount of moving parts, the least complicated layout and can be produced at the cheapest imaginable level than one that is more refined, frugal and long-lasting. Cost considerations could also have lead to the ditching of the earlier P70's 12 volt system for the miserable 6 volt electrics of the P50. Why, there wasn't even a pump in the fuel supply system, the carburetor was fed by petrol from a tank hanging above the engine, motorcycle-style.

The very first cars weren't called Trabants at all, they just had a codename, P50. By the time production started the car had its name however, which means companion or satellite in German – don't forget that was the beginning of the space age. Production really speeded up when truck production was removed from the Zwickau plant in 1959 altogether. The station wagon – called Universal – was marketed from March 1960.Tthis version by the way, had a steel roof instead of the Duroplast item. One and a half years later came probably the most interesting Trabant of all that was produced – the Camping. This was a version of the station wagon, albeit with a canvas sunroof, fully reclining seats and unbelievably small production numbers. If you have one like this, don't shift it for pebbles.

Great technical changes were to take place in October, 1962. The fully revised engine's displacement was enlarged to 600cc, compression went up from 7.2 to 7.6:1, maximum power output soared by 3 PS to 23. Internally they were called P60's, but these cars – recognizable by the straight double chrome strips on their sides with either a grey or a red painted stripe in between - already wore a “Trabant 600” sign on their round rumps.

In fact, this last version of the round Trabant was very much the same as the 601 that became so famous afterwards. In 1964 the sedan was superseded by the new boxy version, a year later the time of the 600 Universal was over too; it was replaced by the 601 Universal.

It was easy to spot the change of times on this new generation, although in a few years even the Trabbi found some rivals within the Easter Bloc – Polski-Fiat 126p, Zaporozhetzes to name them. Gone were the chrome strips on the body sides, a few years later the duo-tone versions were ruled out of production, too.

On the old version the lid of the boot opened from the bumper making loading and unloading very simple, the new version had a small, horizontal lid only, leading to a narrow gap for packing and necessitating the lifting of all luggage that was to be put in it. But the size of this new boot – that was another matter. In a car having a length of barely 3.5 metres there was space for 420 litres (!) of baggage, putting to shame many a family car of today. And there was a real novelty too: instead of sliding windows, it had real wind-up glasswork on both of its front doors. Oh, and there was also a Hycomat version for invalids with a normal gearbox but without a clutch pedal.

The 601 later gained double leading shoe front brakes (1967), the engine's power went up from 23 to 26 PS (1969), then came a dual-circuit braking system (1980), inertia-reel belts (1982), constant velocity half-shafts, 12 volt electrics, alternator, heated rear screen and halogen front lights (1984).

The last year of two-stroke Trabant-production was 1990 – reunification of the two Germanys. The Trabant name lasted just another year longer on cars that were caricatures of the original Trabbies. Large rear lights, floor shifting, a four-cylinder, four-stroke 1.1 engine, gearbox and front suspension from the contemporary Volkswagen Polo, flared wheelarches to accommodate bigger wheels, some electronic gadgetry inside – that car was dangerously funny to drive and a real joke in its time.

Almost four million Trabants were made altogether: 240,000 of the P50's and P60's, while the rest was mostly 601's. If you get to sample a car like this, don't be afraid to try it out. I'm not promising the drive of your lifetime, but if you have an open enough mind you'll like it for sure. Just try not to be bothered by the smoke... Or the noise... Or the suspension... Oh, bollocks!

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