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Trabbi 601-S - Typenschild 1.jpg
Manufacturer VEB Sachsenring
Production 1957–1990 (East Germany)
1991 (Germany)
3,096,099 produced
Body and chassis
Body style 2-door sedan (Limousine, Saloon)
2-door station wagon (Universal)
doorless jeep (Kübelwagen)
Layout FF layout
Engine 600cc two-cylinder two-stroke (1957–1989)
1.0L VW Polo I4 four-stroke (1989–1991)
Wheelbase 2,020 mm (79.5 in)[1]
Length 3,360 mm (132.3 in)[1]
Width 1,500 mm (59.06 in)[2]

The Trabant /trəˈbɑːnt/ is a car that was produced by former East German auto maker VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau in Zwickau, Saxony. It was the most common vehicle in East Germany, and was also exported to countries both inside and outside the eastern bloc. The main selling points were that it had room for four adults and luggage in a compact, light and durable shell; it was fast (when introduced); and it was durable.

With its poor performance, outdated and inefficient two-stroke engine (which returned poor fuel economy for the car's size and produced smoky exhaust), and production shortages, the Trabant is often cited as an example of the disadvantages of centralized planning[citation needed][dubious ]; on the other hand, it is also regarded with derisive affection as a symbol of the extinct former East Germany and of the fall of the eastern bloc (in former West Germany, as many East Germans streamed into West Berlin and West Germany in their Trabants after the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989). It was in production without any significant changes for nearly 30 years, with 3,096,099 Trabants produced in total.[3] In the West, much has been written about the Trabant, mostly negative: to comedic effect, emphasis was placed on the shortcomings of the Trabant, rather than its good points, such as that it was simple to operate and easily repaired. However, many of the former owners of the Trabant still emphasize advantages such as high capacity—the Trabant being able to carry over 1000 kg of cargo[citation needed], and in some cases it has become trendy for collectors to import older models to the US due to their low cost and easier import restrictions on antique vehicles.


A Trabant 601 Limousine.
A view inside the Trabant 601
A Trabant 601 De Luxe Limousine.

The name, meaning "satellite" or "companion" in German, was inspired by Soviet Sputnik.[4] The cars are often referred to as the Trabbi or Trabi, pronounced /ˈtrɑːbi/ TRAH-bee in English.

Due to the long waiting period between ordering a Trabant and actually taking delivery (in some cases years passed as scarce materials were obtained), people who finally received one treated the car gently and were meticulous in maintaining and repairing it. The lifespan of an average Trabant was 28 years.[5] Used Trabants would often fetch a higher price than new ones, as the former were available immediately, while the latter required the infamous long wait.

There were four principal variants of the Trabant:

  • the P50, also known as the Trabant 500, produced 1957–1962
  • the Trabant 600, produced 1962–1964
  • the Trabant 601, produced 1963–1991
  • the Trabant 1.1, produced 1990–1991 with a 1,043 cc (63.6 cu in) VW engine (making the "1.1" a slight misnomer)

The engine for the 500, 600, and original 601 was a small two-stroke engine with two cylinders, giving the vehicle modest performance. However, the combination of the vehicle's very light curb weight (~600 kg / 1100 pounds) with the engine's ability to go quickly to high revs made its acceleration between 30–50 km/h quite formidable. Given also the very fast gear shifts possible with the gear stick on the right side under the steering wheel, in a skilled driver's hands, the Trabant could easily outperform modern cars in short sprints between traffic lights. First gear, slide towards engine and push down, second gear, up, third gear, go to neutral then slide gear lever towards you and push down, fourth, up! Shifting gears up is easier than it sounds, changing from third to second takes a bit of getting used to! A bit like the pedals actually (all moved towards the centre of the car due to wheel arch) and the ABS free brakes system...

At the end of production in 1989, the Trabant delivered 19 kW (26 horsepower) from a 600 cc (37 cu in) displacement. The car took 21 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h (60 mph); the top speed was 100 km/h[6] (70 mph). Amongst various techniques often implemented in kitchen conditions to boost the car performance were: lowering cylinder heads, polishing the engine's intake manifolds and modifying carburetors. It was not uncommon to reach speeds of 130 km/h (the dial going beyond the blue signal light on a tachometer) on flat terrain with an empty car.

There were two main problems with the engine: the smoky exhaust and the pollution it produced – nine times the hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxide emissions of the average European car of 2007. The fuel consumption was 7 l/100 km (40 mpg-imp; 34 mpg-US).[7] Since the engine did not have an oil injection system, two-stroke oil had to be added to the 24-litre (6.3 U.S. gal; 5.3 imp gal) fuel tank[8] every time the car was filled up, at a 50:1 or 33:1 ratio of fuel to oil. Gas stations of the time, in countries where two-stroke engines were common, served premixed gas-oil mixture from the pump. Today, owners normally carry a container of two-stroke oil in the car for this purpose. Because the car lacked a fuel pump, the fuel tank was placed above the motor in the engine compartment so that fuel could be fed to the carburetor by gravity; a trade-off of this design was an increased fire risk in front-end accidents. Earlier models had no fuel gauge; a dipstick was inserted into the tank to determine how much fuel remained.

Trabant two-stroke engine.

The Trabant was a steel monocoque design with roof, boot/trunk lid, bonnet/hood, bumpers/fenders, and doors in Duroplast. Duroplast was a hard plastic (similar to Bakelite) made of recycled materials: cotton waste from the Soviet Union and phenol resins from the East German dye industry, making the Trabant the first car with a body made of recycled material.[5] The results of some crash tests showed it performed better than some contemporary Western hatchbacks.[9][10][11] The Trabant was the second car to use Duroplast, after the "pre-Trabant" P70 (Zwickau) model (1954–1959).

Production of the Trabant reached 3.7 million vehicles on 30 April 1991.[12]



The Trabant was the result of a planning process that had originally been intended to design a three-wheeled motorcycle.[13] Previous motorcycle production at Sachsenring had been under the aegis of AWZ (Auto-Werke Zwickau).

The vehicle was named after its originator, Gustav Trabant of Munich in 1957. In German, a Trabant is an astronomical term to denote a moon or other natural satellite of a celestial body.[14] In its Slavic origin, Trabant has the same meaning as the Russian word sputnik, namely 'companion'.

Full production[edit]

Trabant P50 built in 1959.

The first of the Trabants left the factory of the VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau in Saxony on 7 November 1957. The Trabant was a relatively advanced car when it was launched in 1958, with front wheel drive, a unitary construction, composite bodywork, and independent suspension all around. The main letdown was the engine: by the late 1950s many small cars in western countries already used cleaner and more efficient four-stroke engines, as employed in the Renault, whereas budgetary constraints and raw materials shortages forced the use of an outdated but durable and inexpensive two-stroke engine in the Trabant. When released, the Trabant was technically equivalent to the West German Lloyd automobile, which had an air cooled two-cylinder four-stroke engine in the same size vehicle.

The Trabant's air-cooled two cylinder 500 cc (31 cu in) (later 600cc) two-stroke engine was derived from a pre-war DKW design, with minor alterations being made throughout the car's production run. The first Saab car got a similar, but bigger (764 cc) and water cooled, two cylinder engine. Wartburg, a GDR manufacturer of larger saloons, also used a DKW engine: a water-cooled three cylinder 1,000 cc (61 cu in) two-stroke unit, also found in later Saab cars until the late 1960s.

In 1958 production began of the original Trabant, the P50. This car was the base of the Trabant series, and even the latest 1.1s had a large number of interchangeable parts with this car. The 500 cc 18 hp (13 kW) P50 evolved into a 20 hp (15 kW) version in 1960, gaining a fully synchronized gearbox amongst other things, and finally got a 23 hp 600 cc engine in 1962, becoming the P60.

Trabant 601 presentation in 1963.

The updated P601 was introduced in 1964. This car was essentially a facelift of the P60, with a different front fascia, bonnet, roof, and rear, whilst retaining the original P50 underpinnings. This model stayed practically unchanged up to its production end, with the most major changes being 12v electrics, coil springs for the rear, and a different dash for the latest models.

Trabant P1100 prototype

The Trabant's designers expected production to extend to 1967 at the latest, and East German designers and engineers created a series of more sophisticated prototypes through the years that were intended to replace the Trabant P601; several of these can be seen at the Dresden Transport Museum. However, each proposal for a new model was rejected by the GDR leadership due to constant shortages of critical raw materials, which were required in larger quantities for the more advanced designs. As a result, the Trabant remained in production largely unchanged; in contrast, the Czechoslovak Škoda automobiles were continually updated and exported successfully. The Trabant's production method, which was extremely labour-intensive, remained unchanged.

Late production (1989–1991)[edit]

Many Trabants were abandoned after 1989 (this one photographed in Leipzig, 1990)
Trabant 1.1 model with VW Polo four-stroke engine.

Starting in the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans loaded their Trabants with as much as they could carry and drove to either Hungary or Czechoslovakia en route to West Germany – the so-called "Trabi Trail." Many of them had to get special dispensation to drive their Trabants into West Germany, since most of the Trabants on the road failed West German emissions standards (their pollution was four times the European average).[15]

In 1989 a licensed version of the Volkswagen Polo engine replaced the ancient two-stroke engine, the result of a trade agreement between the two German states. The model, known as the Trabant 1.1, also had minor improvements to the brake and signal lights, a revised grille, and MacPherson struts instead of the leaf spring-suspended chassis. However, by the time it entered production in May 1990, the two states had already agreed to reunification.

It soon became apparent that there was no place for the Trabant in the reunified German economy. The inefficient, labour-intensive production line was kept open only because of government subsidies. Demand plummeted, as residents of the east preferred second-hand western cars, which were more efficient and produced less pollution.

The Trabant production line closed in 1991 and the factory in Mosel (Zwickau), where the Trabant 1.1 had been made, was sold to Volkswagen AG - a move that was seen as ironic given that Volkswagen owns Audi (formerly Auto Union) - which was the original owner of the factory before it was forcibly wound up by the Soviet regime and its directors forced to flee to the West, where the company was re-founded in its current home in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. The rest of the Trabant company became HQM Sachsenring GmbH. Volkswagen has now substantially redeveloped the Zwickau site, which now is a centre for engine production, as well as small scale production of the Golf and Passat.

1990s and beyond[edit]

Although Trabants had been exported from East Germany, they became well known in the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall when many were abandoned by their Eastern owners after migrating westward. However, unlike many other Eastern European cars of the eastern bloc era – notably the Lada Niva, Skoda Estelle, Polski Fiat, and Yugo – the Trabant was not a strong seller in Western Europe.

News reports inaccurately described them as having cardboard bodies. This is likely due to the fact that the body of the Trabant was Duroplast, a material that, in East German production, often made use of varying quantities of different fibres, such as cotton, or occasionally paper.

In the early 1990s it was possible to buy a Trabant for as little as a few marks, and many were given away. Later, as they became collectors' items, prices recovered, but they remain very cheap cars. Green Trabants are especially popular as they are said to bring good luck. The popular culture surrounding the Trabant was referenced by the performance artist Liz Cohen in her Bodywork project, which transformed an East German 1987 Trabant into a 1973 Chevrolet El Camino.[16]

In the late 1990s, there were plans to put the Trabant back into production in Uzbekistan as the Olimp.[17] However, only a single model was produced.[18]

Former Bulgarian Foreign Minister and Atlantic Club of Bulgaria founding president Solomon Passy owned a famous Trabant, which he used to take NATO Secretaries General Manfred Wörner, George Robertson, and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for a ride. Passy's Trabant was also blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2002. In 2005, Passy donated the vehicle, which had become a symbol of Bulgaria's NATO accession, to the National Historical Museum of Bulgaria.[19]

In 1997, the Trabant was celebrated for passing the "Elchtest" ("moose test"), a 60 km/h (37 mph) swerve manoeuvre slalom, without toppling over as the Mercedes-Benz W168 (1997 A-class) infamously did. A newspaper from Thuringia had a headline saying "Come and get us, moose! Trabi passes A-Class killer test".[20]

Trabant during the annual Parade of Trabants in Washington DC 2007

In 2007 the Trabant was brought into the world of diplomacy. Steven Fisher, the Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Budapest uses a P50 – painted as close to British Racing Green as possible – as his diplomatic car.[21][22]

American Trabant owners celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall with an annual rally in the U.S. capital city of Washington, D.C. called the "Parade of Trabants." The free event, which is sponsored by the International Spy Museum, includes street-side tours of Trabants, Trabant rides, live German music, and displays about East Germany is held in early November.[23]

In the last few years more Trabant's have been imported into Canada and the US. A recent auction from the Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum in Madison, Georgia saw a Trabant P50 and matching Wohnwagen (camper trailer) fetch ~US$25,000.

An online forum, was launched in 2011. This allows the English speaking Trabant owners to share information, knowledge, parts and experience.

Trabant and the car tuning community[edit]

The very first tuning attempts can be dated back to the production times, where a large number of amateur rally drivers fiddled with their "flying guitar picks" (name devised from the plastic material used for several outer parts of its caroserie) to outperform their friendly rivals in their own rally racing category. The car's light weight and front-wheel traction was very forgiving and allowed great amount of mishandling on the rally track.

Trabant as a racing car

The particularly archaic look and unique two-stroke engine sound of the Trabant has made it a beloved model amongst the car tuning community in Central Europe.

Many variations exist, although two major streams have been developed.

The first stream meticulously preserves the two-stroke engine sound. This is achieved by either tuning the original two cylinder engine for higher performance or using a two-stroke propulsion unit designed for another car (e.g. the 1000 cc Wartburg). Since the Trabant is very lightweight (approx. 750 kg (1,653 lb)), a small increase in engine power can rapidly increase its power-to-weight ratio, giving it a remarkable boost. A number of enthusiasts have made use of the durable and easily tuned vehicles for rally and other types of racing.

The second stream goes beyond the sentimental sound and encompasses a range of modifications. Modifications range from a thorough upgrade of the car's traction to a complete engine replacement, leaving only the body to hide a modern powerful car underneath (for example, the Sascha Fiss Volkswagen Lupo GTI[24]). Some say that the perplexing effect caused by a postmodern Trabi that can overtake modern cars at 150 km/h (93 mph) is worth all the effort. Also common is the combination of a Trabant with a Japanese superbike engine, such as the engine of a Suzuki Hayabusa (a combination known as Trabusa). Some cars with supercharged powerplants have a rated power of over 150 hp (112 kW). The car's light weight gives a power-to-weight ratio of 11 lb/hp (149 W/kg), allowing these vehicles to achieve performance comparable to modern mid-range sports cars.

It has become an established tradition for Trabant fan clubs in central Europe to organise annual meetings to present new tuning modifications and performance accessories for the vehicle.

Potential revival[edit]

The Trabant may be making a modern comeback. The Herpa company, a miniature vehicles manufacturer in Bavaria, bought the rights to the name and showed a scale model of a concept "New Trabi" at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show. Plans for production included a limited run, possibly with a BMW engine.[25][26][27] A new Trabant nT model was unveiled at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show.[28]

The Trabant nT consortium includes Herpa, German specialized auto parts manufacturer IndiKar, and German automobile engineering company IAV.[29] The group is looking for investment, design, production in the Trabant's original home town of Zwickau[30] and sales "in 2012".[31] The Trabant nT electric car will be equipped with a 45 kW asynchronous motor powered with a lithium-ion battery.[32] The nT will have a 100-mile (160-km) range on a full charge, a top speed of 80 mph (128 km/h), and a cost €19,600.


  • Trabant P50 - later called Trabant 500 (Limousine and Universal (Combi))
  • Trabant 600 (Limousine and Universal)
  • Trabant 601 Standard (Limousine, Universal)
    • Trabant 601 S. (Sonderwunsch - Special Edition) With optional equipment like fog lamps, rear white light and an odometer.
    • Trabant 601 DeLuxe. Like the 601 S and additional twin-tone colouring and chrome bumper
    • Trabant 601 Kübel. Jeep version with no doors, folding roof, auxiliary heating system, ignition system is RFI shielded.
    • Trabant 601 TRAMP. Civilian version of the Trabant Kübel, mainly export to Greece.
    • Trabant 601 Hycomat. Made for users with missing or dysfunctional left leg. It had included an automatic clutching system.
    • Trabant 800 RS. Rally version
  • Trabant 1,1 (Limousine, Universal and Tramp (Cabrio))


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Legends of the Open Road. Rizzoli International Publications. ISBN 978-88-6130-066-8. 
  2. ^ World Cars 1978. Herald Books. ISBN 0-910714-10-X. 
  3. ^ "Trabant Canada". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  4. ^ Stokes, Raymond G. (2000), "Plastics and the New Society: The German Democratic Republic in the 1950s and 1960s", in Reid, Susan E.; Crowley, David, Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe, Oxford: Berg 
  5. ^ a b "Scientific American Frontiers:Previous Shows:Transcripts:Special From Germany". PBS. Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  6. ^ "BBC". 2007-01-01. Retrieved 2014-01-14. 
  7. ^ "Trans National Trabant Tour 2007". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  8. ^ Silk, Bernard (2003-05-03). "Daily Telegraph". London: Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  9. ^ "Sachsenring Trabant". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  10. ^ "TrabiRent". TrabiRent. Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  11. ^ “” (2009-09-13). "Trabant Crashtest die wahrheit". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  12. ^ "Trabant". [dead link]
  13. ^ Kyle James (tt). "DW: Go, Trabi, Go! East Germany's Darling Car Turns 50". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ Sebetsyen, Victor (2009). Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. New York City: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-375-42532-2. 
  16. ^ Keats, Jonathon (July 2003). "High-Performance Artist". Wired. Retrieved 2007-09-04. 
  17. ^ "Trabant Clunks Back to Life". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  18. ^ "Automobile Industry In Uzbekistan". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  19. ^ "Соломон Паси подари трабанта си на НИМ" (in Bulgarian). Вести. 2005-07-13. Retrieved 2009-11-13. 
  20. ^ "Petite feat". 2005-05-06. Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  21. ^ "British Deputy Ambassador's ride small and green". Politics.Hu. Retrieved 2009-04-28. 
  22. ^ Zsolt, Csikós (10 November 2008). "A brit nagykövethelyettes Trabantja ("The British Deputy Ambassador's Trabant")". Ltd. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  23. ^ "Sixth Annual Parade of Trabants". International Spy Museum. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  24. ^ Kolb, Michael (15 July 2005). "Trabant P50 von Sascha Fiß: Fliegendes Grau". Axel Springer Auto Verlag GmbH. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  25. ^ Williams, Adam (2007-09-06). "The 'Trabi' automobile, once a symbol of East Germany, to be revived". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2011-09-17. [dead link]
  26. ^ Williams, Adam (6 September 2007). "The 'Trabi' automobile, once a symbol of East Germany, to be revived". New York Times. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  27. ^ "Deutsche Welle: German Firm Plans to Launch Revamped Trabant". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  28. ^ "Photo Gallery: Electric Trabant Unveiled at Frankfurt Motor Show". Spiegel Online. 16 September 2009. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  29. ^ "German group develops new Trabant". London: 2009-08-14. Retrieved 2009-08-14. 
  30. ^ Hall, Allan (2009-08-14). "Smoke-belching Trabant to be reborn as electric car". London: Retrieved 2009-08-14. 
  31. ^ "The "newTrabi" idea becomes the "Trabant nT" concept car". Trabant nT GmbH. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  32. ^ "Eco Cars: All-electric Trabant NT Gears To Clean 20-year-old Mess". Ecofriend. 2009-09-17. Retrieved 2009-10-14. 

External links[edit]