This week’s history article is about the Trabant – the classic small car from the other side of the Iron Curtain. It should really be classed as a sub-marque due to the way East Germany structured its businesses.
After the Second World War had ended, the Horsch and DKW factories were taken over by the East German Government. The Iron Curtain was going up and Communism was covering a large part of Eastern Europe. VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau was formed to initially make tractors and trucks. It was part of Industrieverband Fahrzeugbau (IFA) which was a Government department controlling all vehicle manufacturing.
The first model was the F8, basically a pre-war DKW with the original and classic 500cc two-stroke motor. This was replaced by the F9, which was the F8 with all the problems fixed! The F9 had a much more rounded body and looked like a Beetle. They also built a more conventional car, the P240 with a 6 cylinder, 4-stroke engine.
Steel was in short supply so the designers started to look for alternative materials. They came across Duraplast, a fibre reinforced plastic, which was good for the weather in such a cold wet environment – it wasn’t going to rust! A few F8s were made in plastic before a whole new model was developed.
To make way for the new car, IFA moved the F9 to the Wartburg factory in Eisenach. The new model, the P70 was created in the mid 1950s using the same small engine which was mounted transversely driving the front wheels and with the Duraplast material. The P70 came in saloon, coupe and estate car variants. This car was in production for about 4 years and was replaced by the P50 (the Trabant).
So the Trabant was born. The designers originally wanted to develop a three-wheeler but changed their minds late in the design stage. The name “Trabant” came from the Latin for “Traveller” and it was fitted with the 500cc two-stroke motor sporting a grand 18 horsepower! The car had an inner shell and floor pan of steel with a sub frame with the drivetrain bolted on. The outer shell was made of Duraplast.
The P50 lasted 4 years and was replaced by the P60 with a slightly uprated engine – now with a whopping 23 hp 600cc motor. In 1964 the P60 became the P601 and remained in production until 1989! This is the car that most people think of when they hear about the Trabant. It was a squared off version of the rounded P50.
The cars were continually improved however because the basic structure remained the same, it was possible to retrofit the updates to the earlier cars. For example, the cars started out with 6v electrics and when they went to 12v, the wiring loom and associated parts could be fitted to an older car.
The P601 was made in a saloon, estate and even a convertible Jeep format that the military also used. The designers introduced many concepts to the Government for funding but each time they were knocked back because they were deemed to expensive so the same car continued to be built. The tried a diesel version and developed prototypes with Skoda and the Eisenach factory. They were even involved in the development of Wankel rotary engines.
In 1989 the engine was pretty much a relic of the past and with the relationship warming between East and West Germany, VEB signed an agreement to slot in the VW Polo 1100cc motor. The new model was called the 1,1. By the time it got into production, the re-unification was well on the way and new imported products were hitting the markets. The Trabant was finally put out to pasture in 1991.
After the Trabant finished production, the company, now just called Sachsenring AG continued to make car parts. In 2006 it was bought by HQM from Leipzig and they still produce automotive technology mostly for the Eisenach factory which is now part of Volkswagen.
The Trabant name though is one that won’t die. In the late 1990s, there were plans to restart production in Uzbekistan under the name: “Olimp” – the German model-making company Herpa has the rights to the Trabant name. The plan was to create a car suited to Uzbek raids and be a cheap people’s car – we’ve heard that story before! Unlike the true people’s car that now owns a big chunk of European manufacturing, the Olimp never made it out of gestation. The plan for 40,000 a year turned into a single vehicle being made!
Herpa was also part of a consortium to make the “new Trabi” or Trabant nT – meaning “new thinking”. With IndiKar and IAV, both German engineering and parts manufacturers, Herpa intended to bring the car back to life with what was initially going to be a BMW engine (possibly motorcycle based), however that changed with the desire to go electric.
The idea came from a model that Herpa had created and plans were solid enough to showcase the car and to specify a shipment date – being 2012! Alas, unlike other retro cars such as the new Beetle and new Mini, the Trabant never made it past a concept model – even the Olimp beat it in production numbers!