A Car for a Dollar – The Trabant. Click image to enlarge
Article and photos by Russell Purcell
I must admit that prior to viewing this film my knowledge of the venerable Trabant was limited to the few examples of this unique little car that I had seen while visiting Europe in my youth. As a relatively homely and seemingly low-tech automobile you would be forgiven for passing one on the street without as much as a glance, but the story of this iconic car and the hardships its engineers managed to overcome to get it on the road turns out to be one of the great automotive success stories of all time.
Zweitakt Films offers car buffs an in-depth look at the Trabant with their DVD release documentary, “A Car for a Dollar” by Vancouverites Maximillian Spohr and Reiner Derdau. Despite the fact that a good portion of its content is in German, a mixture of subtitles and pleasant English narration leads you through the captivating story of this landmark automobile. The film is wonderfully edited and features a nice compilation of historical production footage, racing clips, design details, advertisements and interviews.
The Trabant, or “Trabi,” is a compact automobile formerly produced by East German auto maker VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke in the industrial town of Zwickau. The name Trabant means “traveller” or “companion,” and the car proved to be a strong seller throughout Europe as buyers were attracted to it because of its spacious cabin, surprising performance and durable body structure. It featured a front-wheel drive layout powered by a two-cycle, two-cylinder engine, and was simple enough that many owners could maintain the cars themselves. The Trabant 500 and 601 models were the most common vehicles in Eastern Germany until the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, after which a huge outflow of people (many behind the wheel of Trabis) trickled throughout Europe in search of better lives. Over three decades, the company churned out roughly three million cars.
The Russian occupation of East Germany after World War II meant that the once thriving industrial centre of Zwickau was slow to emerge from the ashes. The region’s automobile industry had been devastated by the war, as the infrastructure that had made company’s like Audi, Horch, Wanderer and DKW (the four companies that merged under the Auto Union banner) so strong prior to the conflict was left in ruin. Heavy bombing as well as the need to make reparation payments to their new Russian “bosses” stripped Zwickau of the machinery, supply lines and materials to carry on as before. Steel was next to impossible to come by due to trade embargoes placed on the region by the West, and severe bureaucratic restrictions and a poor economy made manufacturing a problematic venture throughout the nation.
As homely and odd as the Trabant may seem to Canadian auto enthusiasts, the film reveals that the company was responsible for some pretty big advancements in the development of the automobile in Europe.
The lack of a reliable and consistent supply of quality steel and a shortage of operating funds required the engineers to develop new materials with which they could build body panels. After some failed experimentation with cardboard, a young mechanical engineer by the name of Dr. Wolfgang Barthel developed Duroplast, a unique material created by applying a resin to readily available recycled cotton that would be heated and pressed into body panels in place of traditional steel. The use of a synthetic body made the car light and proved very durable. When Trabants began flooding out of East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German Automobile Association tried to have the cars deemed unworthy by conducting crash tests on them. However, it was discovered that their results were based on the damage sustained to a 30-year old car that had crashed at a speed 14% faster than the norm. Re-tests on more recent examples proved the Trabant out-performed many of the more modern rival brands. Duro-plast panels were indeed roadworthy, and gave the Trabant the distinction of being the first production car to utilize significant amounts of recycled materials for the structure of the body.
The engineers responsible for resurrecting the auto industry in East Germany often had to work in the shadows as the eyes of the secret police and the Politburo were always watching for any signs of independent success, something that was frowned upon by the communist regime. When they found themselves faced with difficulties marrying the plastic body panels to the car’s steel frame and chassis they cleverly designed and built a secret interim car called the P70 to sort out the technique. This car allowed the engineers to prove the viability of the synthetic body and after taking the risk of showing it to their bosses, it was approved for production. This would be the forebear to the two cars that would establish the Trabant name throughout Europe and eventually, the world – the Trabant 500 and the 601.
The 1969 Trabant 603 prototype represented the first European passenger car to feature a hatchback design, beating both Peugeot and Renault to the punch by three years. Unfortunately, as this car was developed secretly by the engineers, the communist officials back in Russia pulled the plug on the cars’ production as they didn’t want to see East Germany rise as an automotive power. Interestingly, the film reveals that the design for the 603 eventually saw the light of day in 1973, as the Volkswagen Golf I.
Rally racing allowed the small company to showcase the Trabant to the outside world. The car didn’t just compete, it won. Trabant 601s won seven major rallies outright, including showcase events like the Acropolis and Monte Carlo rallies (850cc class).
During the communist regime, the Trabant was in such great demand that East German buyers often had to wait as long as 14 years to take delivery. Exports took priority due to the need to acquire hard currency. This meant that the individuals lucky enough to acquire one were often able to sell their used model for enough money to purchase a new one when the time came, due to the shortage of domestic supply and the lack of viable automotive alternatives. However, with the reunification of Germany and the collapse of communism, the value of most Trabis fell to levels so low, that true fans could often snatch them up for as little as a dollar. Parts were becoming scarce and owners now had a much wider selection of transportation options outside the confines of the Berlin Wall.
The importance of the Trabant transcends its worthiness as an automobile. The intense struggle to design and produce the cars under the Communist regime shows how perseverance and a willingness to think outside the box helped a group of ambitious engineers overcome enormous hurdles and preserve their rights to free thought. Amazingly these men made significant advances in engineering despite a lack of tools, supplies and financial support. It is unfortunate that political red tape and a depressed economy hampered the further refinement of the Trabant during its thirty year production, as most see the iconic little car as a mere symbol for the failure of the communist government and its mismanaged economy.
For further information about this film and its creators visit TrabantFilm.com.