Accessibility links

The Trabant Turns 60

Sixty years after the first "Trabi" rolled off the assembly line in a cloud of blue smoke, we look at the little plastic car that innovated, stagnated, and was finally rejuvenated.

East Germany had a problem -- well, a few problems at the height of the Cold War, but a shortage of raw materials was one of the most pressing. With only a tiny allocation of steel at their disposal, engineers tasked with creating a "people's car" for the Eastern Bloc country had to think outside the box.
1

East Germany had a problem -- well, a few problems at the height of the Cold War, but a shortage of raw materials was one of the most pressing. With only a tiny allocation of steel at their disposal, engineers tasked with creating a "people's car" for the Eastern Bloc country had to think outside the box.

One result was Duroplast, a material made by soaking waste cotton in plastic resin, then squeezing it in a hot press. Duroplast was tough, light, and held its color for decades -- unlike fiberglass, which yellowed under the sun.
2

One result was Duroplast, a material made by soaking waste cotton in plastic resin, then squeezing it in a hot press. Duroplast was tough, light, and held its color for decades -- unlike fiberglass, which yellowed under the sun.

The Trabant featured a steel unibody frame, with Duroplast panels bolted on. Early models also boasted three ashtrays.
3

The Trabant featured a steel unibody frame, with Duroplast panels bolted on. Early models also boasted three ashtrays.

Once communist authorities green-lighted the design, mass production of the Trabant (which means "companion") began in 1957.
4

Once communist authorities green-lighted the design, mass production of the Trabant (which means "companion") began in 1957.

Beneath the Duroplast panels the car was simple -- simple enough to be rather genius. With just five moving parts, the Trabi's original air-cooled engine, which weighed just 40 kilograms, was child's play to maintain.
5

Beneath the Duroplast panels the car was simple -- simple enough to be rather genius. With just five moving parts, the Trabi's original air-cooled engine, which weighed just 40 kilograms, was child's play to maintain.

With the car weighing just over 600 kilograms overall, the little two-cylinder, two-stroke engine kept the Trabant relatively zippy on the average city strasse.
6

With the car weighing just over 600 kilograms overall, the little two-cylinder, two-stroke engine kept the Trabant relatively zippy on the average city strasse.

By the 1960s, milky colored Trabants were becoming ubiquitous in East Germany...
7

By the 1960s, milky colored Trabants were becoming ubiquitous in East Germany...

... and beyond. A limited number were sold to foreign buyers, mostly to countries behind the Iron Curtain, though some Trabis made it as far as the car dealerships of Iceland. More than 3.5 million Trabants would be made before production ceased in 1991.
8

... and beyond. A limited number were sold to foreign buyers, mostly to countries behind the Iron Curtain, though some Trabis made it as far as the car dealerships of Iceland. More than 3.5 million Trabants would be made before production ceased in 1991.

But in East Germany, hopeful Trabant owners needed to spend around a year's salary for the car, and waiting times for delivery were often more than a decade.
9

But in East Germany, hopeful Trabant owners needed to spend around a year's salary for the car, and waiting times for delivery were often more than a decade.

As the Cold War grew colder and the Soviet Bloc became poorer, prototypes for updated Trabants were rejected by the cash-strapped communist authorities. As comparable Western and Japanese cars leapt ahead through the 1970s and 80s, the Trabant continued to roll off the factory floor almost unchanged.
10

As the Cold War grew colder and the Soviet Bloc became poorer, prototypes for updated Trabants were rejected by the cash-strapped communist authorities. As comparable Western and Japanese cars leapt ahead through the 1970s and 80s, the Trabant continued to roll off the factory floor almost unchanged.

Trabants grew notorious for the clouds of blue smoke their two-stroke engines left behind, choking the East's autobahns. Many owners upped the amount of oil in the fuel mix in the belief it would extend engine life -- and the higher the oil ratio, the smokier the car.
11

Trabants grew notorious for the clouds of blue smoke their two-stroke engines left behind, choking the East's autobahns. Many owners upped the amount of oil in the fuel mix in the belief it would extend engine life -- and the higher the oil ratio, the smokier the car.

By the late 1980s, the Trabant had become a symbol of Moscow's crumbling communist empire. As border controls weakened, vast lines of Trabants snaked out of East Germany on the "Trabi trail" to flee the communist regime.
12

By the late 1980s, the Trabant had become a symbol of Moscow's crumbling communist empire. As border controls weakened, vast lines of Trabants snaked out of East Germany on the "Trabi trail" to flee the communist regime.

When the wall separating East and West Germany finally fell in 1989, Trabants driving west were doused in champagne and had their Duroplast roofs thumped in celebration. The reek of the Trabant's exhaust fumes on the streets of reunified Berlin was dubbed "the perfume of freedom."
13

When the wall separating East and West Germany finally fell in 1989, Trabants driving west were doused in champagne and had their Duroplast roofs thumped in celebration. The reek of the Trabant's exhaust fumes on the streets of reunified Berlin was dubbed "the perfume of freedom."

But for many East Germans the cars were a symbol of a system that had strangled their freedom for nearly half a century, and they couldn't wait to be rid of them. Thousands were dumped and left to rot...
14

But for many East Germans the cars were a symbol of a system that had strangled their freedom for nearly half a century, and they couldn't wait to be rid of them. Thousands were dumped and left to rot...

... or had their Duroplast panels (which proved stubbornly difficult to dispose of) torn off so their steel frame could be sold for scrap, like this stripped Trabant wagon in Romania.
15

... or had their Duroplast panels (which proved stubbornly difficult to dispose of) torn off so their steel frame could be sold for scrap, like this stripped Trabant wagon in Romania.

Some Trabants took on odd new careers, like this famous Trabi stork nest in the eastern German town of Neuruppin...
16

Some Trabants took on odd new careers, like this famous Trabi stork nest in the eastern German town of Neuruppin...

...or this Trabi stretch limousine.
17

...or this Trabi stretch limousine.

As memories of Stasi repressions faded, the Trabant gained new popularity, and Trabant clubs were formed across the world.
18

As memories of Stasi repressions faded, the Trabant gained new popularity, and Trabant clubs were formed across the world.

In Berlin, Trabant enthusiasts gave rise to new business...
19

In Berlin, Trabant enthusiasts gave rise to new business...

...and the car was immortalized in art. This sculpture in the garden of the German Embassy in Prague is dedicated to the 4,000 East Germans who fled to the Czechoslovakian city and occupied the garden in early 1989. The refugees left their Trabants behind after being granted asylum.
20

...and the car was immortalized in art. This sculpture in the garden of the German Embassy in Prague is dedicated to the 4,000 East Germans who fled to the Czechoslovakian city and occupied the garden in early 1989. The refugees left their Trabants behind after being granted asylum.

As the iconic Trabant quietly celebrates its 60th birthday, it endures as a symbol of achievement and a reminder of oppression. As one driver told Public Radio International, "there is no car in Germany imbued with so many emotions."
21

As the iconic Trabant quietly celebrates its 60th birthday, it endures as a symbol of achievement and a reminder of oppression. As one driver told Public Radio International, "there is no car in Germany imbued with so many emotions."

XS
SM
MD
LG