Classic Projects: Trabant 601 automobile
Image credit: Dreamstime
In the days of the Iron Curtain, the Trabant 601 was seen as a symbol of East German backwardness, but today these small cars have become collectables.
According to Time magazine, the Trabant 601 was one of the worst cars of all time. While it is true that the ‘Trabi’ as it was affectionately known, with its two-stroke engine, was indeed noisy, smelly, uncomfortable and slow, it has also achieved cult status, largely as a symbol of the Eastern Bloc prior to the demise of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In fact, the German Democratic Republic or East Germany’s answer to the free West’s people’s car – the Volkswagen Beetle – never really recovered from the unification of Germany, and went out of production in 1991, having undergone virtually no design changes since its introduction in 1963. One commentator called the car: “a symbol of the technological and social backwardness of the East German state”.
As with so many cult designs, the Trabant 601 is surrounded by myth, the most enduring of which is that it was constructed from canvas. There is a grain of truth in this, insofar as the body panels were made of a curious material called Duroplast. This was essentially a compound containing recycled phenol resins and other waste by-products from the textile dyeing and cotton manufacturing industries in East Germany and the Soviet Union. The further notion that it was made from cardboard came from one of the car’s many nicknames – ‘Zwickauer Rennpappe’, which translates as Zwickau (the location of the factory producing the Trabi) and ‘racing paper’. It was also dubbed ‘the spark plug with a roof’.
Duroplast, for all its pioneering environmental credentials, offered little in the way of impact protection, while the interior of the car notoriously carried the odour of fibreglass and the invariably damp horsehair used in the upholstery.
Yet there were plenty of innovative engineering features to the cars, of which the 601 was by far the most sustained in terms of numbers made. Its engine was transverse-mounted, while the plastic body was attached to a monocoque steel chassis (which dispels another myth that Trabants don’t rust). The car also had independent suspension and was front-wheel driven, all of which design features were cutting edge.
However, the main drawback was the engine – a pollution inducing two-stroke that had been included in response to budgetary restrictions and raw materials shortages behind the Iron Curtain at the time. While cars in the West, from manufacturers such as Renault, benefitted from the cleaner and more efficient four-stroke engine, units rolling off the production line at VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau were incorporating obsolete technology with a mere 600cc capacity. The obsolescence of the engine became glaringly apparent after German reunification as Western technologies became more available.
Order fulfilment was literally a joke. ‘What does 601 stand for?’ The answer was that for every 600 customers wanting to buy a Trabi, only one would ever see delivery. Potential purchasers could expect to wait 10 years, leading to an absurd supply-and-demand paradox that meant a second-hand model, if you could find one for sale, would cost far more than a new one. When the wall came down, users who could afford it traded in their Trabis for a VW Beetle, or kept their now worthless 601 for sentimental value. How do you double the value of a Trabant, went another joke at the time. Fill it with petrol.
Yet the Trabant 601 has been called by Classic Motoring magazine “the East German Rolls-Royce and Ferrari all rolled into one”, which goes to show that for a mere £500 you can buy yourself a classic.
Trabant 601 facts and figures
Designer: Dr Werner Lang
Cost: (1981) 8,500 East German marks, today upward of £500
Green models are popular with collectors as they are said to bring good luck
2,818,547 units manufactured
The average lifespan of a Trabant was 28 years
Inspired the German road movie ‘Go Trabi Go’
Featured in the 2016 video game ‘Jalopy’
A Trabant featured in the stage set of U2’s Zoo tour
World’s first production car made from recycled materials
Production ceased in 1991, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall
The Slavic word ‘Trabant’ has the same meaning as the Russian ‘Sputnik’. In English, ‘companion’.
The 601’s successor, the 1100, was powered by a VW Polo engine
Body panels made of Duroplast
Two-stroke air cooled engine in front
2-door limousine model
Engine: P6x (Otto, 594.5cm3, 19.1 kW)
Kerb weight: 615kg