George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have said that Wagner’s music is a lot better than it sounds. I can say the same about the noisy two-stroke East German Trabant.
There can be few automotive designs that have had more scorn heaped on it than the humble Trabby. As the product of a socialist state it deserves the scorn, but as an engineering product designed to sell for a very low price it is very praiseworthy.
If I wrote the last sentence a few years ago everybody would have thought that I’ve finally lost it, because then you couldn’t give a Trabant away, but things have changed.
Many people have since realised that its design makes a lot of sense. Trabant clubs have sprung up in many parts of the world, you can buy a reconditioned model in the USA and Canada, and the companies making spare parts are working overtime to supply the demand.
Why are a lot of people seeing the Trabby in a different light? This question can be answered in one word – simplicity. The two-stroke engine has only five moving parts; one crankshaft, two piston/ring assemblies, and two connecting rods. No valves, valve-gear, camshafts, water pump or even fuel pump. It is small and simple because it was designed when small and simple cars, like the Gogomobil, the Messerschmidt and the BMW Isetta were the only cars that most people could afford.
It never grew up because the East German economy could not afford to produce a bigger car. It was, in fact, the perfect car for the economic conditions of the time, and should deserve our respect for this reason.
It should not come as a surprise that the Trabby’s mechanical design dates back to the 1931 DKW F1 (pictured). This was a small transverse-engined water-cooled two-cylinder, two-stroke front-wheel-driven car. It was updated almost every year until the beginning of WW2, by which time it was called the F8. During this time the displacement increased from 600 to 700 cm3 and the power output increased from 12 to 15 kW. There’s no doubt that this range of models were the first successful transverse-engined cars, and could well have served as an inspiration for Alec Issigonis when he designed the first Mini.
In 1932 DKW merged with Audi, Wanderer and Horch to become Auto Union. After the war most of this company’s factories were in East Germany, and the Horch plant in Zwickau started to produce the IFA F8, which was essentially a 1939 DKW F8. It had the same pre-War body that many South Africans were familiar with because these cars were sold here in the late 30s. During this time steel was in short supply, so the company experimented with alternative body materials.
They finally standardised on Duraplast, which is a resin reinforced with cotton fibres. It appears similar to GRP (glass reinforced polyester) but is far more suitable for mass production because the panels can be pressed. A few F8 bodies were built in this way, and the later more modern bodies were all produced from Duraplast.
In 1957 these cars were completely redesigned, with more flowing lines, to become the P50, which was the first to be called a Trabant. The engine size was reduced to 500 cm3, and converted to air-cooling.
Later, the engine size was again increased to 600 cm3, and most years saw a number of small changes being made until 1988, by which time over three million had been built. During this year an agreement was reached with Volkswagen to use four-stroke Polo engines. Production of the two-stroke version tailed off, and finally ceased when the Berlin wall fell.