On November 9, 1989, in a momentous event known as the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communist government of East Germany opened the country’s borders and allowed its citizens to travel freely to the West for the first time. Thousands of East Germans celebrated their newfound freedom by travelling to West Berlin and West Germany. Many of these people drove through the border crossings in a peculiar little car that came to symbolize East Germany and the failure of its economic system: the Trabant.
The Trabant was a product of East Germany’s centrally planned economy. Introduced in 1958, the Trabant was built by VEB Sachsenring, a state-owned automobile manufacturer whose factory was located in Zwickau, East Germany. It was essentially East Germany’s answer to the Volkswagen Beetle, which was manufactured in Wolfsburg, West Germany (ironically only a few miles from the East German border). Much like the Beetle, the Trabant was intended to put people on wheels as inexpensively as possible.
The overall design of the Trabant was unique. It had a number of features that were reasonably advanced at the time of its 1958 introduction, including front-wheel drive, unitary construction, and four-wheel independent suspension. But it also possessed a number of patently outdated features, particularly a small and underpowered 2-cylinder 2-stroke engine, which was notorious for being noisy, smoky, and not particularly fuel efficient. Most prominently and peculiarly, the Trabant featured a body shell fabricated from Duroplast, a plastic material that was usually manufactured from recycled cotton fibers and recycled phenol resins.
Although the Trabant was theoretically intended to put the East German masses on wheels, it was actually very difficult for the average East German to obtain. This was mainly due to material shortages that constantly plagued East Germany over the course of the nation’s life. This state of affairs was further aggravated by the inefficient and labor-intensive manufacturing methods used to build the car. As result, East Germans who purchased a Trabant usually had to wait years for it to be delivered.
In spite of its technical shortcomings, mediocre performance, and lack of availability, Trabants were frequently regarded with affection by their owners. The cars were actually quite durable and their mechanical simplicity made them easy for their owners to repair. Because they were so difficult to get, Trabant owners tended to keep their cars well maintained. This combination of durability and regular maintenance gave the Trabant a remarkably long average lifespan of 28 years.
The Trabant experienced an extraordinarily long production life, lasting from 1958 to 1991. Four of models of this car were built: the 500 (1958-1962), the 600 (1962-1964), the 601 (1963-1991), and the 1.1 (1990-1991). Throughout its production run, the Trabant’s basic design changed very little and what changes it did receive were evolutionary in nature. It received a few minor exterior changes over the years, most notably a restyled body in 1964. Mechanical changes included slightly larger and more powerful 2-stroke engines. In a last-ditch effort to keep the car alive near the end of its production run, a few Trabants received 1043 cc Volkswagen inline 4 engines.
The Trabant was effectively killed off by the reunification of Germany in 1990, which encouraged former East German citizens to discard their Trabants in favor of more modern cars from the West. VEB Sachsenring ceased production of the Trabant in 1991. In the course of its long production life, more than 3 million examples of this car were built.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of The Automobile Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1605-1606.
Trabant 601, Trabant: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 601, 1962-1972, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Trabant – Kleinwagen Mit Grosser Zukunft, Trabant: Media Information: Press Releases, 1959, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.