I’ve always wanted to drive a Trabant. When I tell this to people who know Trabants well, they give me the same sort of look as if I’d said “I’ve always wanted to know what shit from a mule tastes like.” But I don’t care. I just had my first experience driving a metaphorical mule shitwich, and I couldn’t be more delighted.
It’s easy – remarkably easy – to make fun of a Trabant. Objectively, it’s terrible in pretty much every quantifiable way. But looking at this car that way simply isn’t a fair judge of what it is. The Trabant, in its own, very specific way, is a triumph. What makes it a triumph is the fact that this car is essentially the exact opposite of a Bugatti Veyron.
Here's the official Hungarian car catalogue from 1974 issued by the state-owned Merkur…
A Veyron was a car created to be a technical marvel, and absolutely every resource and advantage that the might of the Volkswagen Group could throw at the car was available. There were no limits, and in the end they did make a remarkable car, albeit one that cost millions of dollars and hardly anyone owns or even drives.
The Trabant is the polar opposite. The East German government had nothing. No plans, no resources, just an old, leftover DKW factory and a general idea that the East German people needed a car they could afford.
Beyond that, the didn’t have shit. The Trabant is a triumph of making something from nothing. They didn’t even have enough steel to build the bodies out of, so Trabant engineers developed what was the first large-scale application of recycling to solve this problem: they took cotton waste from the Soviet Union (think Breshnev’s old underpants) and phenol resins from the dye industry and used that to make Duroplast, the fiberglass-like stuff Trabant bodies were made from.
If you look at the stuff without paint, it sort of looks like felt. Because it sort of is. Also, sometimes pigs would eat it.
But it’s this kind of undaunted thinking that makes me respect the Trabant so damn much. Everything about this car is an incredible study in doing more with less. The two-stroke engine has maybe five moving parts. The gas tank is positioned as high as possible, and the carb as low as possible because there’s no fuel pump; it’s all a gravity feed.
What did East German proto-Craigslisters say their not working cars needed if there was no fuel pump? A new gravity well?
So, the people behind the Trabant had no materials, hardly any monetary resources, and best of all, almost no support from the East German Politburo. When they first started building Trabants, the first duroplast car, the P70, worked okay, but had a wood frame because the engineers just didn’t know how to best attach Duroplast panels to steel.
As far as the ruling Communist party was concerned, this was good enough. They drove decent Soviet Volgas and Czech Tatras, they barely gave a brace of BMs about what the little people drove.
The engineers, though, they did give a shit, and they engineered the steel-unibody (with duroplast body skins) Trabant P50 in secret, and were able to get it into production just because they only told the Head Commies about it when it was done.
Someone tell me if this is funny in Hungarian.
They had nothing in their favor, and they still managed to make a car that pretty much did every job a car can be asked to do, and they built millions of them. That’s impressive, and if you can’t see that, then, well, go read about some supercar you’ll never own or even see outside of a climate-controlled garage on the Robb Report or some shit.
This is a lot of lead-in to my little review of my Trabant drive, but I think it’s necessary because the Trabi is not something you can really understand out of context.
The reason I got to drive a Trabant at all was because the amazing International Spy Museum in Washington, DC does an annual Parade of Trabants. It’s the largest gathering of Trabants in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s where I met Matthew Annen, the son of the man who has more Trabants (and the people behind TrabantUSA) than pretty much anyone in America, and probably more than is healthy.
I actually broadcast my whole Trabant drive on Facebook, so if you want to see what I’m talking about in video that’s flipped horizonally for some reason I don’t understand, here you go:
That video goes on for 30 minutes! Just a warning. I’ll cover my thoughts on that drive up there below, if you prefer text to those fancy moving pictures.
Matt is a great guy, and in the tradition of Great Guys everywhere, he let me drive his car. This was one of the Trabants they brought to the parade: a blue 1981 Trabant Estate that was rescued from a field in the UK and shipped to the US. It’s not exactly in concurs condition: in fact, when I showed up, the rear hatch hinge had just snapped, so the whole rear hatch was missing.
This was a pretty rough Trabi, but I was fine with that, because I figured that many Trabants were likely in a similar state during their heyday. New Trabants had an up to 10 year waiting list, so people tended to hold on to their cars forever, and I’m sure many ended up in a condition like this one.
Okay, let’s slide into a format something more like a review:
What are the specs on this Trabant?
The specs? Probably chipped paint and years of road tar. Ah, I kid! Love that gag. Okay, let’s talk technical stuff, which is good, because Trabants are sort of interesting, technically.
Really, they were fairly advanced when the basic design was laid out in 1957: it’s got a transverse engine with the transmission off to the side, just like pretty much every modern FWD car made today. Keep in mind, this is before the Mini came out to champion transverse engines and FWD, and the Trabi was even more like a modern car than the Mini because it didn’t keep its gearbox in the oil sump.
Of course, as advanced as the layout was, the engine itself was a DKW-derived two-stroke, air-cooled inline-twin. It started as 500cc and 18 HP, and grew into a 600cc beast making a continent-shoving 26 HP. That sounds meager, mostly because it is, but it’s worth remembering the car only weighs about 1600 lbs.
There’s transverse leaf springs front and rear, separate ignition coils per cylinder,and generally everything is designed for crude durability and simplicity.
Oh, one (more) weird thing about the Trabant: the engine is wearing a little jacket. I couldn’t get a good reason for why the engine block is wearing a funny little pleather cozy – maybe to protect the duroplast hood from the heat? It’s strange. There’s hardly any air intake into the engine, just a couple little holes for fresh air for the cabin and one for the carb, but I guess cooling air is just drawn up from below. Between that and the engine jacket, this may be the only engine I’ve ever seen that looks like it’s been designed to keep warm, not cool.
How’s it look?
I really like the way Trabants look, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually all that good-looking. They have an undeniable frumpy sort of charm, though, that’s for sure. I feel like the designers really wanted to make something that resembled a “real” car, so they went with a fairly conventional three-box design, one that fit the general design vocabulary of the period.
The earlier Trabants I think were a little more appealing, with their grille-free front hood. They have a bit of a VW Type III or maybe a BMW 700 look about them. The later 601 model added a big, fake full-width grille that made the car look a bit more conventional.
I do prefer the sort-of shooting brake look of the Estate version, like the one I drove. I think it’s a handsome little car, in its own way.
It’s also worth noting that the colors that Trabants were available in are very strange. I’ve heard a lot about ‘goose shit green’ as a color, and two-tone ones were known, with a contrasting color roof. Like this one here: it appears to be the color of pus, with a roof the color of I-should-see-a-doctor mucus.
I kind of like it.
How’s the inside?
The interior of a Trabant is a lot like the rest of the car: you can tell this thing was built where the main goal was stretching out materials and keeping things cheap and simple over actual comfort or style. That said, they didn’t do too bad a job!
The plastics all feel strange and foreign, if you know what I mean. There’s just subtle things about them – feel, smell, sound – that somehow all scream Warsaw Pact product.
The use of space isn’t terrible, especially in the estate, but it’s not great, either. That’s why it’s so remarkable people were able to get smuggled out of East Berlin in these things. Where did they hide?
I was told many hid in the engine compartment, bent over the block and crammed above the transmission. That seems like hell, but it does give a little purpose to that engine-jacket. The museum had set up boxes that mimicked the volume of space in there, and I was just able to fit:
But it was no fun.
What’s it like to drive?
Okay, this is the fun part. I really liked driving a Trabant, but my criteria for enjoyment is a lot different than most people. For example, I count ‘complete bewilderment’ as a plus. And by far the most bewildering part of driving a Trabi is the shifter.
The shifter is that strange 90° angled handle coming out of the dash. If you haven’t driven a Trabi before, it’s insanely difficult to wrap your head around the shift pattern – even more so than on something with an unusual shifter, like a Citroën 2CV. At least a 2CV is still basically a normally-oriented H-pattern. The Trabant is an H-pattern, but it’s backwards and rotated 90° and vertical.
Even if you’re comfortable with a 3-on-the-tree, which I am, I found this thing to be like what MC Escher would have designed if he had enough shrooms handy. Here’s what the owner’s manual diagram helpfully shows:
Even once you accept that 0 is N, this thing is still like giving a Rubik’s cube to your dog. There’s also not much feel through the shifter at all, so, it’s hard to tell if you’re pushed in far enough for 1st, but not too far so you’re in R, but far enough so you’re not in 3rd.
The shifting motions are strange and unexpected to someone used to a floor shifter. I had a blast trying to figure it out, but this would take some serious getting used to.
Getting the right gear is important, too, because the acceleration in this thing is probably best measured by watching biscuits rise. It doesn’t necessarily feel all that slow, likely because it’s so light, but I did get passed once by a guy on a Chinese- Vespa knockoff scooter. Some of that was because of my amateurish shifting, but not all of it.
The car has that distinctive two-stroke sound and accompanying clouds of blue exhaust. You’re very aware you’re in a loud, filthy machine the whole time.
It’s so light, though, that it feels nimble to drive, and despite the archaic setup, it’s not a terrible handler – a Trabant passed that famous moose test that did in the Mercedes-Benz A-class, for example. Despite everything, it’s really pretty fun, in a go-cart way, to drive around. I’m sure you may think differently if this was your only option, but in my very different context, I enjoyed it.
Overall tone and character
I’m not going to shit on the overall build quality of the car too much because the one I drove was in such rough shape, I really can’t tell. But what I can tell is this: that little car was still going, and that thing had never been babied or coddled in its entire life.
The military version was called a Kubelwagen. The civilian version of this was called the Tramp, because I guess ‘Hobo’ was taken.
Sure, maybe the panel gaps were big on a Trabant. Maybe the dash knobs disintegrated in your hands, maybe the rear hatch falls off, maybe years and years of use wears right through the pot metal of the spoon-like accelerator pedal. Maybe all that is true. But it doesn’t matter, because these cars don’t seem to quit.
When the wall fell and Germans could finally get newer and better cars, running Trabants were abandoned in mass numbers. Trabants didn’t wear out and die off, they were deliberately abandoned. That’s because I’m not entirely sure they can die off.
The one I drove needed a distributor swap, which is accessed from behind the front right wheel, where it resides right on the end of the crank. The repair took minutes and only used a screwdriver. The whole car is designed like this.
A Trabant may be a slow, filthy, noisy, sorry excuse for a car, but it’s not going to stop running just because you’re too big a candy-ass to deal with its flaws. It’s going to start and run sorta-shittily every single time you twist that key (improbably mounted under the steering column) because fuck you. Trabi doesn’t quit.
When you read that headline up there about a bunch of snails destroying an old Trabant, I’m sure…
So, I’m kind of in love with the Trabant. I’m in love with this deeply flawed little relic of the Cold War, a little beast born of scarcity that somehow never got the memo that it was time to quit.
I’m lucky that I’ll hopefully never have to know a society where this was the best that I could do. But I can respect the machine for doing the best that it could.