Communism For Car Lovers: The Trabant: Engineering The East German Way (Part One)

In 1988 I bought my first car, a Volkswagen Diesel Rabbit that I purchased for $750 from a family friend. It had a four-speed transmission with a sixty-horsepower engine with 160,000 miles on the odometer. The Rabbit was not exactly rapid, especially during the winter when it took quite an effort just to get it started. It could do zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 20 seconds when going downhill. The tailpipe expunged sooty fumes, leaving a charcoal like residue floating in its wake. Despite such drawbacks, I loved that Rabbit, but not enough to take care of it properly. I was sixteen years old, without a thought on how to properly maintain an automobile. As the years have passed, my fondness for it has grown. It might not have been much, but it was my first car. Like first loves, first cars stay with us forever. It was a statement of who I was or more to the point who I wanted to be.

I was the proud owner of a car made possible by German engineering. The Rabbit made me feel connected to that proud legacy. It may not have been anyone’s idea of a first-class automobile, but considering its German lineage, I could have done much worse. Particularly if I had not been living in the western world. If a citizen of East Germany had been able to own my Volkswagen Rabbit, they would have felt a gratitude that I lacked at the time. A comparison of the Rabbit with the only car East Germans could own at the time would have been an unfair comparison. I did not know how much better I had it, until I learned what people in East Germany were forced to drive. On the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, another subcompact German designed car was sputtering down the rutted roadways of East Germany and a few other unlucky countries. This was the Trabant. I first learned about this abomination of an automobile after the Berlin Wall fell. Now beloved as a symbol of communist kitsch and failed industrial policy, from 1957 – 1991, East Germans, Hungarians and a few other unlucky Eastern Europeans satisfied themselves with these less than stellar specimens of Marxist materialism.

Ready for action - Trabant 601 was the most popular model

Ready for action – Trabant 601 was the most popular model (Credit:

Spark Plug With A Roof  – Wonderfully Bizarre, Truly Awful
The first time I saw a Trabant was in the city where they were made most famous, Berlin. I was waiting at a crosswalk in a section of the city that two decades earlier had been part of communist East Berlin. At the time, I was touring the city by foot and public transport. There were other options such as paying an exorbitant fee to take a Trabant out for a spin around the city. I was glad to have declined that option after I saw a young lady trying to navigate an intersection while doing her best to keep the Trabant from stalling out.  The engine sounded like a cross between a weed eater, an old tractor and my Diesel Volkswagen Rabbit. The woman trying to drive the Trabant looked terrified. I stood on the sidewalk with a rather bemused look on my face, wondering why anyone would pay to drive such a contraption. It must have been an unforgettable experience for her. Maybe it was worth the bother, but certainly not the price.

There has been no other car comparable to the Trabant in the American experience. The closest to it was the Yugo, a vehicle synonymous for its notoriously bad engineering and lack of style. It was the lone Eastern European automobile to make it onto American soil for sale. The Yugo was consistently rated as a terrible car by Consumer Reports, but it was a Rolls-Royce when compared to the Trabant. There are bad cars and then there was the Trabant. It is hard for anyone in a car centric culture such as the United States to conceive just how wonderfully bizarre and truly awful the Trabant was from an engineering standpoint. The most popular version of the car had a 26-horsepower engine. The first Trabant< manufactured back in the late 1950’s, had a tepid engine only half that powerful. Put another way, the Trabant’s engine had the same amount of horsepower as many lawnmowers. Its reputation was no better than its engine, giving rise to such nicknames for the Trabant as a “spark plug with a roof”.

Power outage - The Trabant's two-stroke engine

Power outage – The Trabant’s two-stroke engine (Credit: Asterion)

Instant Climate Change – The Little Stinker
Despite its engine’s limited output or perhaps because of it, the Trabant was a world class polluter. By one measurement, it produced pollution equal to thirty Mercedes. Germans are usually known for their thrift and ingenuity, communism turned that upside down. The Trabant became a byword for all the worst excesses of communist manufacturing and industry. It was the environmental equivalent of a smoke stack on four wheels, leading to another descriptive nickname, “the little stinker.” The Trabant would not have stood a chance in the west, among its more obvious faults was the poisonous fumes it belched out poisonous fumes with frightening consistency. It did not come close to meeting West German emissions standards and managed to exceed the average European standard at the time by a factor of four. That hardly mattered until after the Berlin Wall fell.

The Trabant was the best car East Germany could manufacture.  One area where it did excel was in fuel efficiency (40 kpg, 24 mpg). The car ran on an oil and gas mixture, akin to what motorcycles use. The fuel was available at stations in Eastern Bloc countries. This mixture was a novel and dangerous idea. The Trabant had neither a fuel or oil pump. The upshot was that the fuel tank had to be placed above the motor.  The fuel would then be fed by gravity to the motor. In the event of a crash involving the front hood area, its design could lead to explosive consequences. Fortunately for Trabant owners, there was little chance of getting involved in fender benders, since owning a car was a rare privilege for most.

On the road - A Trabant on the road in western Hungary

On the road – A Trabant on the road in western Hungary (Credit

Marxist Materialism – Worth The Bother
One would think that East Germans would have avoided the Trabant at all costs. On the contrary these cars were highly coveted. A status symbol for what might be called the middle or upper classes of East Germany. It took an average wait of 18 years to get one. Those who lived near East Berlin had better chances of being selected to own a Trabant because this was the epicenter of power in East Germany. Communism was never known for choice or catering to consumers. The Trabant lived down to this low standard. Prospective owners had one model and three lackluster colors to choose from. No one dare complain, lest their rights to a Trabant be taken away. Trabant owners were just glad to have an opportunity to own one.

Click here for: Going Off Course – The Trabant: End Of The East German Road (Part Two)

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