History of the Trabant Classic German Automobile

Trabant Car
Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

First, let’s start with a little history lesson. The German Democratic Republic (GDR), East Germany, was established in 1949 from the area of the country occupied by the Soviet Union. East Berlin became the capital while West Berlin remained part of the Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany.

To escape Communist rule and poor living standards, over 3 million people emigrated from East Germany to live in the more prosperous free economy of West Germany. In August 1961 the Berlin Wall was built to stem this flow of refugees.

Early Days of the Trabant

In 1957, the Trabant started out as East Germany's answer to the VW Beetle as the people’s affordable car. It was a simple design that could easily be maintained and repaired by its owner using a few basic tools. Most owners carried a replacement belt and sparks plugs at all times.

The first Trabant, a P 50, was powered by a smoky two-stroke generator that maxed out at 18 hp; the P stood for plastic and the 50 signified its 500cc engine that used only five moving parts. To conserve expensive metal, the Trabant body was manufactured using Duroplast, a form of plastic containing resin strengthened by recycled wool or cotton. Surprisingly, in crash tests, the Trabant actually proved to be superior to some modern small hatchbacks.

Refueling the Trabant required lifting the hood to fill the six-gallon gas tank and then adding two-stroke oil and shaking it back and forth to mix it. But that didn’t deter folks from enjoying the main selling points of the car including it had room for four adults and luggage, it was compact, fast, light and durable.

The lifespan of an average Trabant was 28 years, probably due to the fact that it could take over ten years for a one to be delivered from the time it was ordered and people who finally received theirs were very careful with it. Subsequently, used Trabants often fetched a higher price than new ones, as they were available immediately.

East German designers and engineers created a series of more sophisticated prototypes through the years that were intended to replace the original Trabant, however, each proposal for a new model was rejected by the GDR leadership for reasons of cost. Instead, subtle changes came in 1963 with the P 60 series including improved brakes and electrical systems.

The Trabant P 60 (600cc) still took 21 seconds to get from 0 to 60 with a top speed of 70mph while producing nine times the amount of hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxides of the average European car.

The Trabant and the Berlin Wall

It was in a Trabant that thousands of East Germans drove over the border when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. This made the Trabant a kind of automotive liberator and one of the most recognizable symbols of the failed former East Germany and the fall of communism.

There is a painting of a Trabant by Birgit Kinder on a segment of the Berlin Wall that was made into a public gallery which commemorates not only the breaking of the wall in November 1989 but the little Trabant, the car driven by most East Germans in 1989.

As German reunification began, demand for the Trabant plummeted. Residents of the east preferred second-hand western cars and the production line closed in 1991. Today these little cars have a huge following of young drivers because they are so easy to repair and customize. There are several Trabant enthusiast clubs all over the world which is amazing for a car that rarely left the communist states.