The Trabant

The Trabant is an automobile formerly produced by East German auto maker VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau in Zwickau, Saxony. It was the most common vehicle in East Germany, and was also exported to countries both inside and outside the communist bloc. The main selling points were that it had room for four adults and luggage, and was compact, fast, light and durable. Despite its poor performance and smoky two-stroke engine, the car has come to be regarded with affection as a symbol of the more positive sides of former East Germany and of the fall of communism (in former West Germany, as many East Germans streamed into West Berlin and West Germany in their Trabants after the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989). For advocates of capitalism it has become a handy symbol for everything wrong with government planned economies. It was in production without any significant change for nearly 30 years.


The name Trabant means “fellow traveler” (Satellite) in Latin; the name was inspired by Soviet Sputnik. The cars are often referred to as the Trabbi or Trabi.

Since it could take years for a Trabant to be delivered from the time it was ordered, people who finally got one were very careful with it and usually became skillful in maintaining and repairing it. The lifespan of an average Trabant was 28 years. Used Trabants would often fetch a higher price than new ones, as the former were available immediately, while the latter had the aforementioned waiting period of several years.

There were two principal variants of the Trabant, the Trabant 500, also known as the Trabant P 50, produced 1957-1963; and the Trabant 601 (or Trabant P 60 series), produced from 1963 to 1989. (The Trabant 601 ended its production in 1991, after the introduction of a 1.1L VW engine in 1990 (see below)). The engine for both the Trabant 500 and 601 was a small two-stroke engine with two cylinders, giving the vehicle modest performance. At the end of production in 1989 it delivered 19 kW (26 horsepower) from a 600 cc displacement. The car took 21 seconds from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) and the top speed was 112 km/h (70 mph). There were two main problems with the engine: the smoky exhaust and the pollution it produced ó nine times the amount of hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxides of the average European car of 2007. The fuel consumption was a modest 7 liters/100†km. (34 mpg (US), 40 mpg (Imperial)).

The Trabant was a steel monocoque design with roof, bootlid, bonnet, fenders and doors in Duroplast, a form of plastic containing resin strengthened by wool or cotton. This helped the GDR to avoid expensive steel imports, but in theory did not provide much crash protection, although in crash tests it has actually proven to be superior to some modern small hatchbacks. The Trabant was the second car to use Duroplast, after the “pre-Trabant” P70 (Zwickau) model (1954-1959). The duroplast was made of recycled material, cotton waste from Russia and phenol resins from the East German dye industry making the Trabant the first car with a body made of recycled material.

More than three million Trabants were made.

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Originally planned as a three-wheeled motorcycle, the decision to build a four-wheeled car came late in the planning process. The name Trabant, Latin for “traveler” or “companion”, was chosen in an internal contest in 1957, the year of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Previous motorcycle production at Sachsenring had been under the aegis of AWZ (Auto-Werke Zwickau).

The Trabant was not a particularly advanced car when it was launched; by the late 1950s small cars in western countries mainly used cleaner and more efficient four-stroke engines, as employed in the Volkswagen.

The Trabant’s designers expected production to extend to 1967 at the latest, and East German designers and engineers created a series of more sophisticated prototypes through the years that were intended to replace the Trabi; several of these can be seen at the Dresden Transport Museum. However, each proposal for a new model was rejected by the GDR leadership for reasons of cost. As a result, the obsolete Trabant remained in production unchanged; in contrast, the Czechoslovak äkoda automobiles were continually updated and exported successfully. The Trabant’s production method, which was extremely labor-intensive, remained unchanged. In 1989, a smaller version of the Volkswagen Polo engine replaced the elderly two-stroke engine, the result of a trade agreement between the two German states. The model, known as the Trabant 1,1 also had minor improvements to the brake and signal lights, a revised grille and replaced the coach spring-suspended chassis with one using MacPherson and Chapman struts. However, by the time it entered production in May 1990, German reunification had already been agreed to. The inefficient, labor-intensive production line was kept open only because of government subsidies. Demand plummeted, as residents of the east preferred second-hand western cars. The production line closed in 1991.

Although Trabants had been exported from East Germany, they became well-known in the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall when many were abandoned by their Eastern owners after migrating westward. News reports inaccurately described them as having cardboard bodies. This is likely due to the fact that the body of the Trabant was Duroplast, a material that, in East German production, often made use of varying quantities of different fibers, such as cotton, or occasionally paper.

In the early 1990s it was possible to buy a Trabant for as little as a few marks, and many were given away. Later, as they became collectors’ items, prices recovered, but they remain very cheap cars. Green Trabants are especially popular as they are said to bring good luck.

In the late 1990s, there were plans to put the Trabant back into production in Uzbekistan as the Olimp. However, only a single model was produced.

In 1997, the Trabant was celebrated for passing the “Elchtest” (”moose test”), a 60†km/h (37†mph) swerve manoeuvre slalom, without toppling over like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class infamously did. A newspaper from Thuringia had a headline saying “Come and get us, moose! Trabi passes A-Class killer test”.

In 2007 Herpa, a miniature vehicles manufacturer in Bavaria, showed a scale model of the “New Trabi” and revealed that they planned to introduce it. They bought the rights to the name and plan to produce a series of 5000 cars. It would likely have a BMW engine and be sold for around Ä50,000.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the text!