Yes. I finally found one. And in the wild, no less. What you’re looking at is the infamously awful East German Trabant 601.
Last year, I stopped at a cafe near Reykjavik, Iceland. The vehicle parked out front required a double-take. Could it be a Trabant? Yes—indeed, it is. But how did it get to Iceland? I never got the answer to that question.
So, what’s the deal with this ugly little car, and why was it so awful? Here’s a hint: it’s not made of steel.
There’s No Iron behind the Iron Curtain
It seems East Germany used up all the iron making the curtain. At least that’s what the designers at Trabant would’ve had you believe.
Because the Trabant 601 wasn’t made of iron. Or steel. Or any metal for that matter. Instead, the crafty East German auto company decided to use an obviously superior building material:
Yeah, that’s right. The body panels of the old Trabby were made of COTTON. “Hey,” the designers thought, “since steel rusts, why not build a car out of something that doesn’t?”
So they did. Actually, it was rather brilliant. By combining cotton fibers and a special resin, engineers created a hard fiberglass-like material called Duroplast.
The Trabant Had Some Steel…
Okay, I lied. The Trabant did have some steel components. They stamped the unibody structure in steel. But they made the doors, hood, and fenders of Duroplast.
But the body panels weren’t the only cut corners on the Cotton Car. There’s something much more sinister under the hood.
Lawn Mower Engine? No. It’s Worse.
The Trabant 601 came with a 500cc two-cylinder TWO-STROKE engine. Trabant owners had to mix oil with the gas. As a result, clouds of blue smoke dominated the horizon in East Berlin for much of the 20th century.
Nothing says “Communist Bloc” like a two-stroke car.
But what about the transmission? At this point, I could say it was a sprocket and a bicycle chain. But no. The Trabant had something you could call a transmission, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Three on the Tree? Not Really.
Trabant cars came with a four-speed column-shift transmission. Except the shifter looked like a bent aluminum broom handle. And instead of pivoting on a hinge (like three-speed column transmissions), you had to physically slide the handle forward and back when shifting between gears on the H pattern.
Also, you couldn’t decelerate in every gear. Since it’s a two-stroke, if you starve the engine of fuel, you ALSO starve it of oil.
But thankfully, Trabby parts were plentiful. Some say Trabant owners simply kept a spare engine in the trunk in case they blew it up.
East Germany is gone, but the Trabant lives on. Primarily because the Duroplast body panels are toxic, won’t decompose, and are impossible to dispose of. (Note: the only way to get rid of a Duroplast car is to shred or burn it; some municipalities use the shavings as a cement additive).
The Trabant is a physical manifestation of failed utopian ideologies. It’s the predictable result of a system that promised the world but delivered something… worse.
It’s the best that the worst ideas have to offer, and it’s the best they’ll ever get. But somehow, I still want to drive one just for the novelty.
Now we just have to wait for David Freiburger to drop an LS into one.