Motoring Memories: Trabant, 1959 early 1990s motoring memories
1969 Trabant. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, nothing quite so exemplified the backwardness of consumer technology in communist East Germany – the German Democratic Republic – as the Trabant (meaning fellow traveller) cars, those square little smudge pots that belched and smoked their way across the border.

East Germany’s most popular car, the “Trabbi,” was celebrating its 30th anniversary, but nobody noticed, or probably even cared. In the sea of low emission, smooth, efficient West German cars, it was an anachronism in every way.

The Trabant P50 was introduced in 1959, and had not advanced much since then. And even when it came out it was based on pre-Second World War technology, in this case DKW.

Following the war and the division of Germany into four zones administered by the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union, several German automobile plants, including BMW and Audi, ended up in the Soviet Communist zone. The Communist government, in true socialist style, bound several of these companies together into one nationalized conglomerate called Industrie-Verinigung Volkseigner Fahrzeugwerke, known as IFA.

IFA’s first car, the IFA F8, appeared in 1948, followed in 1950 by the larger F9. Both used pre-war DKW two-stroke technology, and both were made in Audi’s former plant in Zwickau, although F9 production soon moved to an ex-BMW plant in Eisenach.

The F9 was renamed the Wartburg in 1956, the same year the F8 was replaced by the Zwickau P70. It was this Zwickau P70 that became the Trabant in 1959, manufactured by VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerk Zwickau.

The Trabant was quite basic by Western standards, but still ingenious in some ways. Its 506 cc, inline, two-stroke, two-cylinder, air cooled engine was mounted transversely in the front. Power went to the front wheels through a four-speed manual transmission with a column shifter.

Instrumentation was limited to a speedometer. Fuel level was checked by dipping a stick into the gasoline tank located under the hood ahead of the instrument panel, the location being reminiscent of the 1928-31 Model A Ford.

The engine had no oil sump, lubrication being achieved by adding oil to the gasoline in a ratio of 50:1 at every fuel fill, just like your Lawn Boy lawnmower. This could be messy unless the Trabbi owner found a station selling pre-mixed gasoline.

The oil was burned with the fuel, accounting for the characteristic blue haze that followed Trabants. To prevent engine seizure on long downhill coasts when the cylinders weren’t getting oil for lubrication, the transmission had free-wheeling in fourth gear. Since there was no compression braking there was extra strain on the non-power assisted, four-wheel drum brakes.

The four-wheel independent suspension was uncomplicated. It used lower control arms, with a transverse leaf spring at each end acting as the upper control arms. Steering was non-power rack-and-pinion.

The unit construction steel body, clad in non-rusting fibreglass reinforced plastic, came as a two-door sedan and a station wagon, known as the Universal. A Jeep-type open four-seater was added in about 1979. Trabbis were generally limited to three colours.

The Trabant was quite small, with a 2,019 mm (79.5 in.) wheelbase, and an overall length of only 3,556 mm (140 in.). It weighed some 635 kg (1,400 lb).

Trabant performance was modest, even by 1959 small car standards. Car and Driver magazine (12/90) reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 32.2 seconds, and a top speed of 106 km/h (66 mph). This was with the 26 horsepower, 594-cc engine that was fitted from 1962 on; the original 506 cc model was even slower.

Fuel consumption was 11.8 to 8.3 L/100 km (24 to 34 mpg). To place this performance in some perspective, a 1960 Volkswagen, West Germany’s, and the world’s, most popular small car, was tested by Road @ Track (12/59). It accelerated from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 27.8 seconds, and reached a top speed of 115 (71.5).

This was hardly tire-burning performance; the VW was, after all, among the slower cars sold at that time. But it was faster than the Trabant, and VWs and others got faster as the years passed, while the Trabbi didn’t.

Not much changed with the Trabant over its three-plus decades. The main one was the noted 1962 engine capacity increase, making it the Trabant 601. But with a waiting list extending up to a dozen years for a new Trabbi, there wasn’t much pressure on Central Planning to improve it. When production ceased in the early 1990s, some three million had been built.

The Trabbi was the soul of simplicity. There was no fuel pump (gasoline flowed by gravity), no water pump, no radiator, no camshaft, cam drive, or poppet valves, no oil to change, and no brake or steering assists. Its basic construction meant it could be repaired using simple hand tools.

Because it is so far below Canadian and American emissions and safety standards, Trabbis are persona non grata with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Transport Canada. The result is that only a handful have reached North America. And those that have reportedly cannot be licensed for the road.