Defunct German Car Brands: Trabant
Trabant was an East German car brand deeply rooted in the pre-war car industry of Saxony.
Before world war II, Saxony was one of the centers of the German car industry, featuring brands such as Wanderer, DKW, Horch, and Audi, which together formed the Auto Union. After the war, the production facilities were in ruins, and what was left was seized by the Russians. The carmakers had a difficult start, which was not eased by the fact that they were immediately socialized and directly controlled by the government. Many engineers went to West Germany, where they were either hired by Borgward, where they went on to produce the tiny Lloyd microcars. Others went to Ingolstadt, where DKW had a central warehouse for spare parts, to form a company independent of the East German roots. (That company later became Audi.)
The remaining engineers struggled to set up a production line for the pre-war models DKW F8 and DKW F9. Of the latter model, only prototypes had been built before the war, but it had never been put into in production in favor of war-related vehicles.
Others developed a stylish, expensive luxury sedan in the tradition of Audi and Horch, named Sachsenring P 240 featuring a 2400 cc straight-six engine.
However, both cars proved to be too expensive and unsuitable for mass motorization, which the government believed could only be achieved with a unified cheap small car. They ordered the engineers in Zwickau, Saxony, to develop a microcar using as much as possible existing pre-war technology. Bubble cars like in West Germany were deemed unsuitable from the very start; instead, a proper little car was aimed for.
The first result was ready in 1955, but it was not yet called Trabant, but AWZ P70. It was based on a shortened chassis of the 1939 DKW F8. It had the same water-cooled longitudinally mounted 700 cc two-cylinder two-stroke engine, which produced 22 hp. However, the water cooling was of a thermosiphon type and the placement of the radiator behind the engine instead of its usual place in the front caused the engine to overheat frequently. This triggered the development of an air-cooled variant of the engine used in the later Trabant.
The body was also a novelty: A wooden space frame was covered with a newly developed plastic made from recycled material. This material called Duroplast was a phenol resin reinforced with waste cotton fibers from Russia. The engineers had to come up with such an exotic and novel solution because high-quality sheet metal from Western Europe was embargoed, the Russian steel was unsuitable, and own East German steel production capacities were not yet existing. This emergency solution made the AWZ P70 the first car using recycled plastic. The roof was made from plywood covered in leatherette, as the Duroplast technology was not yet developed far enough to produce parts of that size.
The spartan equipment made the car unattractive. All windows were fixed, the trunk did not have a lid and had to be accessed by removing the backrest of the rear seat. These issues were later corrected.
A station wagon popular for its huge capacity and a coupe with all-steel body, which was internationally acclaimed for its sporty design, were added in 1956 and 1957, respectively.
The car turned out to be too costly in production and to be plagued with too many issues to be the basis for mass-motorization. Production was stopped in 1959. The experiences made with this car went into the development of the Trabant P50, which appeared in 1957.
Duroplast technology was improved, and a new 500 cc 18 hp air-cooled teo-cylinder two-stroke engine was developed to avoid trouble with the water cooling of the predecessor. The wooden space frame was replaced by a steel unibody. By the time the car made it to the market, it was among the most advanced microcars, providing relatively comfortable seating for four adults and a large trunk with a usable size of 415 liters (110 gal). This was enabled by a clever arrangement of a transversially-mounted engine and gearbox unit over the front axle, which required minimal space for the driving unit.
A station wagon was introduced shortly after the sedan.
In 1962, the engine was enlarged to 600 cc, resulting in an increas in power to 23 hp. The bodywork remained unchanged. The car was renamed to Trabant 600.
The last big change for a long time came in 1694, when a new body replaced the dated 1950s design for the model Trabant 601. The outer panels were still made from Duroplast, earning the car the nickname “Rennpappe” (”racing cardboard”).
The station wagon was also redesigned.
In this shape, the car was produced with only minimal changes and improvement for the next 26 years. Over the years, power outpot was increased from 23 to 26 hp. Design and technology, which were apart from the two-stroke engine still contemporary or even advanced by the time the model appeared, became more and more outdated, and although the car was reliable, it acquired a bad reputation and became an icon of the backwardness of the socialist economic model.
The engineers in Zwickau designed several potential replacements, experimented with Wankel engines, built prototypes, but all in vain. The political leaders
stopped all plans, fearing unnecessary investments as the car was working well and the socialist citizen did not need luxury.
Despite all shortcomings, and weaknesses of the ageing construction, production never met the demand, and potential buers had to wait for up to 20 years to get a new car. It was common that parents signed a contract for a child right after it was born, expecting the car to be delivered well after its 18th birthday. This was mostly due to the cumbersome and slow production process of the Duroplast body panels.
In the late 1980s, East Germany acquired a license to produce engines for Volkswagen, who expected a cost advantage from the cheap production in East Germany. Part of the agreement was that a certain contingent of the engines produced would be for the local cars, Trabant and Wartburg. However, investments for the new production line exploded, so no money was left to develop a new body for the car. Using many makeshift solutions, the old body was adapted to accomodate the 1100 cc version of the new, much bigger four-cylinder four-stroke engine. The result was an excessively expensive small car with an outdated body that was probably even more unpopular than the original in its final years. In 1989, when the car was introduced, the peaceful revolution in East Germany and the reas of Eastern Europe was in full swing. Production started in 1990 and ended already on April 30, 1991, after only 12 months. With the financial, economic and social revolution in July 1990, western cars became affordable for the East Germans, and the Trabant had no chance for survival. Even price dumping, offering the car for only 6,000 DM (instead of 16,000 DM) did not help sales.
Many Trabant cars were abandoned after the owners had acquired a new western model. They created a major waste problem as the Duroplast was almost impossible to recycle.
Today, Volkswagen is present in Zwickau with a factory, and many suppliers are also producing there. However, they do not require as much workforce as the cumbersome and labor-intense production of the Trabant did, creating an unemployment problem in the region and a massive decrease in population.
Today, the car has achieved a kind of cult status. It has become a symbol of the German reunion, when tens of thousands of little Trabants were flooding into West Germany the days after the wall fell.