Monday, August 13, 2012

New! Cars That Should 
Never Have Been Made
1957-1990 Trabant

Love them or hate them, the snarky 
little Trabant was built in the millions

Today is the 51st birthday of the Berlin Wall...the beginning of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia.

More on that in a moment.

In the late 50s, VEB Sachsenring - a motorcycle manufacturer - won a design contest to produce an extremely advanced front-wheel drive compact car known as the Trabant P50. 

At the time, the Trabant was cutting edge - built with space-age body materials, independent suspension and a roomy interior for four adults. 

The engine, however, was only advanced by Flintstones standards. As I've stated in two previous posts concerning Saab, the two-stroke engine is thought to be archaic by the rest of the world. Some people apparently didn't get the memo.

Oh, and when I said that the Trabant's interior could seat four adults? Well, that's providing those adults know each other really, really well. 

And that space-age material the body was made of? You thought I meant auto-claved composite carbon-fiber, or something along those lines, right? Like a Pagani Zonda? 

At the turn of the century, German chemists were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, especially when it came to fabrics. They pioneered the industrial application of fabrics and dyes - and even figured out some unique ways to deal with all the leftover crap.

The Trabant was made of Duroplast - a recycled cotton waste material combined with phenol resin. Nasty stuff, but the Trabant actually had a better safety rating than other cars its size because of the plastic-like body.

From 1957 onward, the little Trabant was mass produced by the thousands, and the owners of this wonder car took very good care of them. The average road life for a Trabant was 28 years.

Did the East Germans treat their Trabants so well because of a deep admiration for the workmanship and a love for the brand?

Not hardly. There simply wasn't anything else for them to drive.

A little bit of history....

The German Democratic Republic was born from the ashes of World War Two, a city-state that was a direct result of the Americans and the Russians divvying up the spoils of war. 

Frontier barriers were erected by the Stalinist regime to prevent immigration into West Germany, and Berlin was split right down the middle.

Berlin, 1961

The West side? American help to rebuild after the war, shipped-in food and an abundance of hope. East Germany? Basically the opposite. 

If you are a younger reader, of course you've heard of the famous Berlin Wall - and that it fell in 1989. Now you know how that wall went up in the first place.

From 1949 to 1989, though, East Germans suffered through forty years of oppression, fear, and really bad cars. 

Well, honey? Do you want a tan Trabant, or a tan Trabant?

The P50 (500) Trabant was produced until 1962, when the incredibly advanced (I'm kidding) 600 model was introduced, and was made for two years until the 601 Trabant came out - being built all the way until 1990. 

The difference between these models? Umm...nothing that I can see, actually.

Trabant planter

The 63 cubic inch two-cylinder two-stroke engine made a grand total 26 horsepower, used copious amounts of fuel and spewed smokey, noxious gas - nine time the pollution that a normal car of the era put out. 

You know you're in trouble when this is their best ad

The 0-to-60 times were...well, non-existent. There was no fuel pump, so the gravity-feeding gas tank had to be placed high above the motor, which made a front-end collision a very interesting affair. There was no fuel gauge, either, making your next fuel stop a matter of guess work.

And the waiting list for these cars was two years or longer.

One-horsepower Trabant

The spirit of the German people, however, can't be trampled quite so easily. The little car was rallied with success across East Germany - and is still being raced today. 

The Trabant was heavily modified as a limo, tracked vehicle, and pick-up truck by many owners that just plain had a sense of humor. 

The 'Univeral' wagon

The car was loved as only a mother can love an ugly baby. The East Germans didn't have anything else, and they made do with what they had.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was really the beginning of the end for the troublesome little Trabant. As thousands of East German immigrants poured into West Germany and Hungary, the Trabants were left behind and abandoned

Nobody wanted them, and an almost new model could be picked up for a few dollars in the early 90s.

Since then, the Trabant has gained sort of a cult status - kinda the Rocky Horror Picture Show of cars. 

They are still incredibly cheap to buy, but people keep them up and running - perhaps to remind themselves on the way things used to be....and how much better things are now.

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