“Teacher you can drive my car!” – the GDR’s “Volkswagen”, the Trabant

A Trabant P601, the most popular model of the vehicle (photo: D. Currie).

A Trabant P601, the most popular model of the vehicle (photo: D. Currie).

One of the icons of the GDR is undoubtedly the Trabant, a four-seat car with a two-stroke engine that was the country’s own “Volkswagen” and with which East Germans had a strange love/hate relationship. Over 3.7 million of these vehicles were produced in the Saxon city of Zwickau between the mid-1950s and 1991 and most of these found a home with a GDR family. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, images of long lines of Trabis waiting at border crossings helped make this strange looking automobile famous the world over.

The Distinctive Characteristics of the Trabant
Trabi - 500 with cop

A pre-1964 model Trabant, the 500, with a traffic cop clad in authentic GDR-era uniform (photo: D. Currie).

Trabis were available in a myriad of rather odd colours ranging from eggshell to beige through to “dolphin grey”. They ran on a two-stroke engine powered by a peculiar mixture of oil and gas which, when burned, created a noxious-smelling cloud of blue smoke. Indeed, this scent remains an evocative one for many Germans of a certain age! Amongst the Trabants‘ other distinctive characteristics was its fibreglass chassis, an innovation which arose out of necessity as the GDR was unable to afford the costs of producing a metal version. This creative solution, however, created a significant problem as forming the chassis in the press required eight minutes, a fact that effectively capped the number of vehicles that could be produced. As a result, supply and demand for the vehicle was never in alignment and the waiting list for Trabis only grew worse with the passage of time with waits of more than ten years common by the end of the 80s. Given this situation, applying for permission to buy a Trabi was often one of the first acts of a young GDR citizen upon reaching legal adult age.

A special model of Trabant was produced for use by border troops patrolling the inner-German border. This was version of the 601 known as the “Bucket”.

The Trabant 601 "Bucket" (photo: author).

The Trabant 601 “Bucket” after losing its original olive green colour (photo: author).

Trabants post-1989

As mentioned above, East Germans had an ambivalent relationship with the Trabant. One the one hand, it was the country’s primary personal passenger car and one within the reach of most drivers (eventually anyways). In its early years, the Trabi was considered a real achievement for the GDR as it combined a relatively high level of comfort and efficiency, however, the vehicle’s design was not updated substantially from the 1960s onward and so soon became a symbol of the country’s stagnation and inability to provide its citizens with the quality of life to which they aspired. (For a brief overview – in English – of the fascinating history of East German passenger automobiles in general and the  Trabi in particular, click here.)

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, many East Germans quickly jettisoned their Trabis in favour of used West German cars. In the first decade or so after unification, Trabants were still present on the streets, but in recent years they have become quite rare. There is a lively community of Trabant enthusiasts who are dedicated to keeping their vehicles in top shape and a subculture focused on “tricking out” their Trabis has even emerged throughout Central Europe.

Trabis and Me

I am not much of a car person, but I have to admit having some fascination with the humble Trabi. During my time working in Leipzig and region in the late 90s, they were still around but few enough in number to evince a feeling of nostalgia when you did see one. While teaching in a  government-run re-training centre for long-term unemployed in a small Saxon town, I frequently saw Trabis out and about and a group of Nazi skinheads (ah, rural eastern Germany!) who were taking some vocation training in another part of the building used to arrive in their “marble white” model every morning. One day during recess, I learned that one of my students drove hers to class every day. Intrigued, I asked whether I might be able to take a ride and she readily agreed, even giving me the chance to drive! That day at lunch, we drove out to a deserted road and I got my tutorial. Trabis had a standard transmission with the gear shift installed on the right side of the steering wheel column. Once I got used to that, the only other peculiarity was the vehicle’s tendency, appropriate when you think about it, to “pull left”. Max speed was about 100 km/h but with the suspension being what it was, the temptation to crank things up was minimal!

Author before his "test drive" of a Trabant in Hartha, Saxony in May 1999 (author's photo).

Author before his “test drive” of a Trabant in Hartha, Saxony in May 1999 (author’s photo).

A couple of years later, while visiting Winnipeg, I caught a glimpse of a distinctive shade of blue as we raced down a service road. I had the driver pull over and went to investigate only to discover a “Pastel Blue” Trabant P601 deposited in the corner of a used car lot. Apparently the owner of the business was of German heritage and he’d raced back to his homeland as soon as the Wall fell, buying a Trabi as a souvenir of this trip. Once back in Canada, however, he was at a loss as to what to do with the car and so it remained parked off in a corner. I think of that Trabi often and plan to try and track the owner down when I head out West this summer . . .

Trabant as Object of Ridicule

Given its unusual design, the long wait requied to purchase one and it many “unconventional” features, the Trabant was, and remains, the object of much ridicule. A lovely example of this is this clip is from the German satire show “Kaikofes Mattscheibe” (roughly translated as “Kaikofes Boob Tube”). It aired in the mid-90s and is based on piece originally aired on GDR TV’s show “Verkehrsmagazin” (“Traffic Magazine”). In this, the new model of the Trabant 601 is taken for a test drive. Hilarity ensues.

The Trabis’ Rich Cousin – The Wartburg

For those East Germans with deeper pockets, typically doctors, professors and Party types, the next step up the ladder in terms of cars was the Wartburg. Produced in Eisenach between 1956 and 1991, this car had a metal chassis and three-cylinder and was earmarked initially for export to Western countries as a means of procuring hard currency. When the product failed to be warmly embraced, the production was then made available within the East Bloc. As in the case of the Trabant, wait times for a Wartburg soon climbed to a decade or more.

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4 comments
  1. Do you know the movie A Car For A Dollar/Ein Auto für eine Mark? It is a 2005 documentary about the Trabi. It is pretty awesome. I can lend you a copy.

    • Not familiar with that film, but would be interested in seeing it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

      jpk

  2. Six months before the Berlin Wall came down, “Car and Driver” featured a vicious “Motor Trend” parody in which the Trabant was named “Automobile of the Year.” (All the “ads” were for Trabant, including copy saying that the car was so tough, “you will look forward to accidents!”)

    • Hi Damian,
      Thanks for this. I’m going to see if I can dig up a copy of that issue as it sounds quite lovely. Appreciate the tip!
      John Paul

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