Sunday, January 26, 2014

Trabant - the East German People's Car

Few cars are subjected to the amount negative press as the Trabant, East Germany's infamous people's car. In the Western press stories about the Trabant are invariably negative and popularise all sorts of ridiculous myths and misinformation, often by writers who have never seen, let alone actually driven a real Trabant. Much of the criticism leveled at the car is political in nature with the Trabant forming a topos of Communist inefficiency and incompetence. However, when one separates facts from fiction and assesses the car on its own merits, a quite different picture emerges.


The division of Germany into Western and Eastern spheres left East Germany with only a smattering of viable auto-works. These included the BMW works at Eisenach, Framo's light truck factory at Hainichen, the Phanomen heavy truck-works at Zittau, and the factories of the Auto-Union conglomerate spread across Chemnitz, Zwickau and Zschopau. All the factories were damaged during the war and what wasn't destroyed by bombs was pillaged by Soviet engineering corps as war reparations. The Soviet's diligently stripped every last piece of industrial equipment from the main factories - even down to the door frames and plumbing - but one or two smaller plants slipped through the net. One factory that escaped the Soviet's attention was the DKW engine reconditioning workshop in Chemnitz. This small factory retained a store of spare engines and parts, and - importantly - possessed the plans and blueprints for the range of DKW cars and motorcycles. Other important survivors were a range of small karosseriewerkes (body shops) in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. It wasn't much of a foundation to build upon. In 1946 the East German government nationalised the auto industry under a single governing body named VEB (Volkseigener Betrieb).

The Predecessors
Inevitably the first cars produced out of the old factories were copies of pre-war models. At the 1948 Leipzig Trade Fare, IFA, as East Germany's nationalised DKW factory was now named, released its version of the pre-war DKW F8.

This tough little car, with its wooden bodywork and powered by a 684cc two cylinder two-stroke engine, became the mainstay of the East German auto industry for the next few years. It was sold in sedan, wagon, and cabriolet versions.

Between 1951 and 1957 IFA also manufactured the impressive 'Luxus' F8 for the export market. The Luxus' steel bodywork was hand-built by VEB karosseriewerk in Dresden (formerly the Glaser karosserie). Only 400 were built and all but 70 were exported.

In 1949 IFA released the F9, the realization of DKW's pre-war F9 'hohneklasse.' The car was not an exact replica of the 1939 model as the original engine plans had been lost during the war so a new engine was reverse engineered, but it was very close in styling and performance. The F9 would remain in production from 1950 to 1956, when it was replaced by the Wartburg 311.

The F8 Luxus and F9 were both high quality, modern steel cars and, at approximately 13,500 Marks apiece, were generally out of the price range of the average East German consumer. In fact most were exported to bring in desperately needed foreign currency. The F9 enjoyed strong sales in Scandinavia, France and Belgium, South America and even South Africa. Domestic consumers were forced to make do with the old-fashioned F8, which itself cost an extravagant 8,145 Marks. In 1953 VEB presented the Autowerkes at Zwickau (AWZ) a brief to develop a budget car for the people in the price range of approximately 4,000 Marks. The brief came with the caveat that the car must not consume East Germany's scarce strategic resources, most especially steel. With admirable forethought they added a requirement that the design should be flexible enough to permit future enhancements to the vehicle's power plant and drive train without requiring wholesale changes to the design.

The Zwickau engineers had already been pondering this very question for sometime and presented their solution in October 1954, after less than a year in development. The new car was effectively an updated F8 with completely new, pontoon bodywork made from a synthetic product called Duroplast.


The prototype AWZ P70 goes on display at the Leipzig auto fair in 1954.

A lot of preposterous claims have been made about the Trabant's Duroplast body being made of cardboard. This is rubbish. Duroplast was a pioneering synthetic product of impressive versatility and durability that had been in use since the 1920s. Phenolic resin, a by-product from the chemical dying industry, when impregnated into a porous substrate material and compressed and heated, created a durable, hard wearing and heat resistant product, much like Bakelite. It had many practical uses, but the idea of using it in cars was developed by DKW engineers in the 1930s as an alternative to plywood paneling.

Duroplast body panels on display at the DKW stand at the Berlin Motor Show in 1936.

DKW's Duroplast was made from resin impregnated sawdust and wood-fibre and used initially on items such the trunk lids, which being curved could be mass produced in Duroplast cheaper than being hand-formed in wood. Soon DKW begin investigating Duroplast for all body panels and numerous test cars were smashed and rolled to test Duroplast's response to collision damage. Duroplast did not handle load bearing stress particularly well but the tests proved that it was no less safe than DKW's wooden bodywork and in 1937 Duroplast bodied F8's went on the market. Bonnets however continued to be manufactured in steel.

DKW's marketing department employed gimmicky photos like this to demonstrate the effectiveness of Duroplast to a dubious market. AWZ would find itself doing the same.

The first all Duroplast bodied car should have been DKW's new F9. When originally designed in 1935, the F9 was planned as an all steel-bodied competitor to the KDF Volkswagen project, however, steel rationing forced DKW to redesign the car for Duroplast. The war however, intervened before any cars went into production.

After the war VEB was able to source vast supplies of cotton waste from the Soviet Union very cheaply, the Soviets being a leading producer of cotton, to replace DKW's sawdust and wood fibre substrate. In 1953 IFA began manufacturing Duroplast door and bonnet panels for the F8.

The P70's designers had planned the car with a modern steel monocoque chassis, but fastening the Duraplast panels directly onto the steel frame proved more technically challenging than they had expected. VEB however, wanted the car to go into immediate production so in order to fulfill the order AWZ opted to continue with traditional wood framed bodywork. This ultimately limited the car's mass production potential.

Like their DKW predecessors before them, the AWZ team stand behind... err, on top of.... their product.

Underneath the new body however, the P70 was running an F8 chassis with transverse mounted, water-cooled 688cc two-stroke engine. The engine was however moved slightly forward, ahead of the front axle. The gear lever was mounted in the centre of the dash.

With it's new, modern styling the AWZ P70 was a sensation with the public when released in 1955. There were three models - the sedan, kombi van and a very sporty two seater coupe, which primarily targeted the export market. At 9900 Marks, the P70 could scarcely be considered a budget, people's car, but was on par with that other people's car, the Volkswagen, with which it compared favourably. It sold well in both domestic and export markets and some 36,000 were built before production ceased in 1959.

The very elegant P70 coupe. The majority of these sleek little roadsters went to the export market. They are highly desirable today.

The Trabant
The P70 was not a Trabant in the true sense but a compromise that pointed towards the future. As far as VEB was concerned however, the P70 met their design brief and they were not really interested in further development, but the design team at AWZ were not particularly happy with the car and a team under chief-designer Werner Lang continued to work on the design. The resulting AWZ P-50 that was presented in November 1957 was superficially similar to it predecessor, but was in fact a completely different vehicle. It had a modern, steel monocoque frame, upon which were hung the Duroplast body panels. The engine was a 17 horsepower, 499cc two-cylinder two-stoke of a new design manufactured by VEB Barkaswerkes in Chemnitz. To reduce cost and complexity, the transverse mounted engine was air-cooled. A permanent freewheel device was installed to avoid engine damage. Like its predecessors, the gear lever was mounted in the dashboard and the gearbox was unsynchronised. The petrol tank was situated in the engine bay. Styling was contemporary and appealing.

Trabant P50

VEB approved the car and it entered production in late 1958 with the name "Trabant", which was German for satellite in honour of the recent Soviet Sputnik launch. The Trabant compared favourably with other German 'klein-wagens' (small cars), such as the NSU Prinz, Lloyd 500 and Goggomobil TS250, and was streaks ahead of kabinerollers like the BMW Isetta, and Messerschmitt that many people had to make do with. Although small, it could seat four people in reasonable comfort. Its small engine was adequate for its size and was of such simple design that it could be worked on by a home mechanic with standard household tools. Only six bolts held the engine in place and it was light enough to be lifted from the car by hand.

The P50-1 was in production from August 1958 to October 1959, during which time a number of running improvements were made. The engine was uprated to 18 hp and then 20 hp, and new paint and trim options became available, including two and three tone paint schemes. The price for a standard model in East Germany was 8,440 Marks, which equated to an average worker's annual wage - certainly not the budget price VEB had originally envisaged. Tellingly, the Trabant was sold across the border in West Germany for only 3,656 DM, where it competed successfully in the klein-wagons market.

The P50-2 was introduced in 1960 with further improvements in basic fittings. A synchro gearbox was introduced and a three-door kombi van was also added to the range. Sales in the West received a boost when the Trabant won its class in the Austrian Semperit Rally. However, by 1962 western exports began to decline as better quality small cars, such as the Austin Mini, began to enter the market. Because Sachsenring concentrated on the export market, East German consumers were poorly served, having to put up with lengthy waits to receive even the most basic models. Some 131,000 P50s of all types were built.

Trabant P60

In October 1962 the new P60 or Trabant 600 was introduced. In styling and appearance it looked identical to its predecessor, but featured an engine bored out to 594cc and delivering 25hp. A fully synchronised gearbox was also introduced as standard and the gear shifter was now on the steering column. It was at this point that VEB's farsighted original specification about engine interchangeability paid its first dividend as P50 owners swapped out their old engines and gearboxes for the newer versions. It is now very rare to find P50s with their original engines. In later years it wasn't unknown for Trabant owners to carry a spare engine or two in their boot in case of emergencies. 

With a domestic price of around 7,500 Marks, the P60 was still a relatively expensive vehicle for the average East German. Nevertheless, export demand to Eastern Bloc countries was high and 108,000 P60s were built before the model was replaced in 1965.

Trabant 601

The P60's successor was the Trabant 601, the archetypical Trabant. The 601 had a slightly more powerful 28hp engine, improvements to its suspension, and was restyled away from its curvy, 50s styled predecessor, with squarer features, a larger boot, wider body, and a distinctive false radiator grill. Two tone and chrome trim were dropped in favour of bold, block colours of blue, green, brown and white. The price tag for the standard model was 8,000 Marks.

This model would remain in production, virtually unchanged until 1990, much to the disgust of the designers at Sachsenring. They had seen the 601 simply as a stop gap model while they worked up the designs of the next generation of modern, steel bodied vehicles. Sachsenring even worked with Felix Wankel on a rotary-engined small car that would have been an interesting counterpoint to NSU's radical rotary engined Ro80. But year on year VEB management steadfastly refused to grant funding for the many new prototypes and improved variants the designers presented. There were two reasons behind this. Firstly, the collapse of East Germany's export markets in the west and the loss of hard currency earnings was slowly but surely strangling the East German economy. With less capital to throw around, VEB invested its development budget where it saw the biggest return, such as in heavy truck sales to Asia and the Middle East. Secondly, demand for the Trabant never waned, especially in the eastern markets, and as long as the car was selling, the administrators at VEB saw no need to change it. The Trabant's success led to complacency and stagnation.

These problems weren't immediately apparent in 1965. In fact the new Trabant was in such high demand that Sachsenring could not keep up with production. In part, this was due to the limitations of the Duraplast manufacturing process. Each Duroplast panel took 20 minutes for pressing, curing and drying which set a fixed limit on the number of panels that could be produced per day. Instead of purchasing more machine presses, VEB chose to distribute parts manufacture across more factories, which only made production more complicated and inefficient. Long waiting times for vehicles were experienced, mainly by East German customers as Sachsenring diverted most production for export. Hungary was Sachsenring's biggest market and Hungarian customers could buy a Trabant without any waiting period. Bulgarian customers might have to wait a year, but the wait for East German customers stretched out beyond 2 years. By 1990 the waiting list could be as long as 14 years.

As much as the Sachsenring designers complained about the lack of development, small changes and improvements continued to be made. The Deluxe model was released in 1966 with a return to two tone paint schemes, chrome trim and improved fittings. There was also a camping version with a sunroof. By 1968 half a million Trabants had rolled off the production line.

In 1973 the millionth Trabant left the factory to much fanfare. Although sales were still strong, Sachsenring knew they needed to vamp up the old car. Another round of new models were presented to VEB, which were again turned down and customers were forced to make do with minor improvements, such as 12 volt electrics, automatic transmission and better brakes and suspension.

By the mid-1980s no amount of improvements could disguise the fact that the Trabant was very tired. Even sales to Communist Bloc countries was beginning to wane in favour of Czechoslovakian Skodas or Polish built Fiats. Conditions at Sachsenring had also declined; the equipment was antiquated, the staff were demoralised and disorganised, and the cars that ran off the production line were of increasingly poor quality. Customers receiving brand new Trabants were often horrified to discover that bolts were not tightened, panels were loose, and electrical fittings were not connected. It was little use complaining as no one at the company was interested. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the convoy of smoking, spluttering Trabants heading west became an iconic - and fatal - image for the car. It's days were numbered.

East Germans heading west. Part of the negative image of Trabants as stinking and smokey comes from the bad advice provided to Trabant owners by the state-owned Minol oil company. Although the Trabant could run on 1/33 petroil ratio, Minol recommended owners over-oil the mixture to as high as 1/25 to better preserve their engines. This was untrue and actually made the engine run less efficiently. Nevertheless, despite all the fatalist jokes about East Germans and the Trabant, the shortage of cars in East Germany meant Trabant owners took extremely good care of their car. For this reason Trabants still hold a  record for longevity - an average of 28 years of active road use.

In 1989 the West German people's car manufacturer, Volkswagen, cast acquisitive eyes on Sachsenring as a means to break into the Communist Bloc market. To help prop up the moribund East German economy they moved manufacture of VW Polo components east where wages were cheaper, but quality control was also poorer. VW and Sachsenring established a joint venture for a Volkswagen engined replacement to the Trabant. Sachsenring's engineers presented a brand new design for an all steel mid-sized, contemporary styled car, but unfortunately Sachsenring was virtually bankrupt and could not afford the tooling and panel presses required, so the VW engine was installed in a modernised Trabant. Named the Trabant 1.1, the car was more modern than its predecessors, with a new dashboard and controls, including for the first time a petrol gauge! To accommodate the new engine the petrol tank was moved to the rear.

But it was all in vain. The Trabant 1.1 wasn't necessarily a bad car - quality control was much better than on late model 601s - but it was simply out of touch with the market. East German consumers were now looking for modernity and variety and the Trabant 1.1 just looked too much like.... well, a Trabant. In 1991 Volkswagen, who had taken a controlling share in Sachsenring, shut down the Zwickau factory and ended the Trabant's 33 year odyssey. All up some 3.4 millions Trabants had rolled off the production line - a remarkable achievement by anyone's standard.

Trabant 1.1's fill the stockyard looking for a home.


In the years after German unification the Trabant was a disparaged reminder of the failed East German socialist system. Trabants became literally worthless overnight and hundreds of thousands were simply abandoned and left to rot, which proved a problem in itself as Duroplast was non-biodegradable. One of the Trabants major selling points - that its Duroplast panels did not rust or rot - was now a major environmental problem and another symbol of the failed socialist system.

By the turn of the millennium however, a certain nostalgia for the smokey old East German car began to appear, especially amongst the new generation of Ostlanders disappointed with the failed promises of German unification. The Trabant became a symbol of the Ostalgia movement.

Another factor in the Trabant's rehabilitation was its incredible robustness. Many an old Trabant was wheeled out of its shed after a decade or two's slumber and with little more than a new battery and fresh petroil, spluttered back into life. For students across Europe an old Trabant banger could be purchased for as little as 100 euro to do the job. Youth culture and the tuning movement then took a hand and the staid old Trabant was souped, chopped and slammed and suddenly became tre-cool. All across East Germany and the former Communist Bloc countries there are Trabi-treffens and clubs with tens of thousands of Trabants and related oldtimers attending.

In fact, when all the politics and hyperbole is put aside and the car is judged according to its merits, it really wasn't a bad car.  It was old even when it was new, but then it never aspired to greatness, or aimed at taking the world by storm, but it did the job it was designed to do, which was to provide cheap, reliable transport with a minimum of fuss and maintenance. And hundreds of thousands of them to continue to do this job today. The Trabant is not dead, not by a long shot!

A case of parallel development. Both the Volkswagen and the Trabant were built as budget vehicles with an expected short term lifespan, but both continued in production basically in their original form for decades. Both cars stir deep passions of affection or revulsion in people and both have fiercely loyal fan bases that have kept these old cars on the road and relevant.

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  1. What an amazing yet little known story.

  2. I agree, lovely story told from the heart!

  3. One point to make. VEB is not the name of a company. VEB stands for Volkseigener Betrieb, which in English is "[Business] owned by the people". Like in West germany there is GmbH, and in England Ltd. It just means the legal category of the company.

    The company that made Trabants was and is still Sachsenring.

  4. Technically, the trabant was a product of various companies, all organized as VEBs, under the IFA kombinat. IFA oversaw all vehicle production in the GDR and as most of its factories (apart from AWE) were more or less related to auto-union IFA itself worked as a "mini" auto-union "II" e.g. Sachsenring was what's was left of Horch and AWZ was AudiWerke Zwickau renamed to AutomobilWerke Zwickau, merged again to form VEB Sachsenring-AutomobilWeke Zwickau. and as in the old auto union days the audi factory was essentially an assembly line for DKW cars with bodies coming from Spandau and engines from Zschopau, here the AutomobilWerke part of the company pressed and welded the steel space-frame and assembled the car once the duroplast bodies had been affixed across the road at Sachsenring and the engine came from Barkas (formerly Framo, another DKW group company).

    it's also interesting the theory often put forward by the late Dr.Werner Lang that VW had developed the Golf on the basis of the trabant 603 project. The good engineer was probably a bit biased (and maybe senile, too) as the design process of the golf is by no way a mystery(after the EA266 had been scrapped VW admittedly rounded up fiats, peugeots and other successful FWD automobiles to benchmark and study them, which explains why the VW was late to the hatchback party) and the 603 and the golf are completely different besides a superficial similarity in shape. However, what is true is that after those benchmarkings the golf ultimately stemmed from fiat's design of FWD with transverse engine and end-on gearbox, which in itself Giacosa saw as an improvement over the in-sump gearbox used by issigonis to allow for a transverse FWD installation... just like those pre-war DKWs that inspired him! So the golf and the trabant ARE related, albeit more distantly and not for sure in the way Dr.Lang proposed.

    btw, really nice blog and research, it's a pleasure to read this stories from a factive, technical perspective.

  5. Muchas gracias por su estupenda exposición, más allá de maniqueísmos.