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Thomas Mallett2012-09-28 15:45:20

Cars that make me smile: Trabant

Although not a masterpiece of engineering, the Trabant enjoys the status of an automotive icon...

The TrabantTrabantTrabantGerman Democratic Republic, 1957 > 19914 models
22 photos
is, and was, not very good, subjectively and objectively few will argue about that. However, those of us with a sunny outlook on life with a ‘glass half full’ approach can see the amusement in it.

I have laid out my stall from the outset here. The Trabant epitomises many of the things that were wrong with the eastern bloc. It had ridiculously long waiting time for delivery, dreadful build quality, a toxic and pathetically underpowered engine and, to top it all off, a gravity fed fuel tank that led to derision and more than one fire.

There is no denying that the Trabant must have caused a fair number of headaches in its day, as embattled eastern Europeans stood by the side of the road with their pride and joy puffing out smoke and steam. In fact, in 2008 Time magazine pronounced the Trabant one of the 50 worst cars ever made.

Despite its many faults and the 18-month waiting list for one of these, the company sold over three million units between 1957 and 1990 and with an average lifecycle of 28 years there are still plenty of them left.

But if they were built so badly and are seemingly combustible at the mere thought of a collision why were so many made, bought, sold and maintained over the years?

The answer to this isn’t the fact that it is a loveable rogue, or that it had some hidden charms, quite simply it didn’t. But it was the best that you could buy if you were born on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. However, today they have a very real following, there are even Trabant clubs.

In 1989 the Tabant of the moment had 26bhp and took 21 seconds to puff its way to 60 mph and to put the old fashioned technology into perspective 1989 was a year when Porsche was building the ultra-technologically refined Porsche 959. Meanwhile, Trabant was still asking customers to add two stroke oil to the fuel at every fill up. Early cars even failed to come with a fuel gauge, meaning customers had to insert a dipstick into the fuel tank in order to work out whether they were going to make it to the next fuel station or not.

601Trabant 601
36 cu in
30 hp @ 4200 rpm
62 mph
vsPorsche 959
174 cu in
451 hp @ 6500 rpm
197 mph

The feeling of quality was not enhanced by the duroplast body that ensconced the steel monocoque. Imagine your car being made out of Bakelite, that it what it was like. I suspect that it wasn’t for the environment’s sake that the duroplast was made from recycled cotton from the Soviet Union, but it is nice to think that the Trabant was actually ahead of its time in some ways…it was wasn’t it? OK, I know that one’s a tough sell.

So why am I so amused by the Trabant? Why do I actually quite like them?

I think it stretches back to the 1991 RAC Rally of Great Britain, where a tuned (to 42bhp) Trabant tacked the wooded stages in direct competition with the Lancia Delt Intergrale’s and the four-wheel-drive monsters of the day. The Trabant soldiered on and finished the rally to applause, derision and general amusement of all concerned.

But, and this important: Everyone, to a man was delighted that the little, smoke spewing Trabant had made it to the finishing line in one piece. It gained media coverage beyond its meager showing and the crowd gathered in the cold Welsh forests considered it a high point in their weekend’s entertainment.

There are more stories too, Trabants that have raced on the track and you can even include some Trabant action in a stag party in Eastern Europe such is the following for the little car.

I will confess that I have never driven a Trabant and quite frankly I wouldn’t want to. They say ‘never meet your heroes' and while I could never claim that the Trabant was or is one of my heroes I think the sheer horror of the way it might lurch round a corner could put me off forever. No, I’m just going to smile and have a little chuckle next time I see one, just like I normally do.


Other articles from this series:

Cars that make me smile: Isetta

Straight 4
64 cu in
Top Speed
78 mph
4, Manual
Maximum power
40 hp @ 5300 rpm
Saloon (sedan)
Fuel consumption (combined)
annual ownership cost




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