Like the Beetle, and the Mini, Trabants have become a motoring legend. The Beetle is often discussed without mentioning its manufacturer VolksWagen, similarly the Trabant without mentioning Sachsenring.
The Sachsenring factory made 3 million Trabants making it a very successful little car, to put this in perspective there were only 1.2 million Morris Minors made.
To understand the Trabant it is necessary to delve a little into the history of it manufacturer.
Before the war the factories in Zwickau were the home of Horch, a manufacturer of large, expensive, high quality cars, and Audi. They were both part of the Auto Union group which also included DKW.
When hostilities ended Zwickau, in East Germany, became part of the Communist ruled DDR. Initially the factory was used to produce much needed tractors and trucks. The factory became part of IFA which was the state owned group which ran all of the East German motor industry.
It wasn't long before car production resumed, cars were not only needed at home, but were also a valuable export commodity earning much needed foreign currency.
Car production commenced with the IFA F8 which was based on a pre-war DKW design and featured a twin cylinder, water cooled, two stroke engine and front wheel drive.
A larger car, the IFA F9 was developed. This was based on development work carried out before the war by DKW, further development work by the East Germans ironed out a number of faults in the original design. In the west a visually similar DKW model appeared based on the same pre war development, but was much closer to the original design than the IFA F9
The F9 featured an attractive, aerodynamic body, a new three cylinder two stroke engine, and front wheel drive. Estate and convertible versions were also produced.
Small volume production of a large, luxury car was also started. The Sachsenring P240 had a 6 cylinder four stroke engine and conventional rear wheel drive.
While all this was happening research was being carried out into alternative materials to steel which was in short supply and expensive to import. A new material for bodywork was developed, and this was called Duraplast.
Duraplast is a composite made up of a Phenolic resin reinforced with cotton fibres. The resin being a close relative of Formica and Bakalite. In some ways Duraplast appears similar to GRP (Glass Reinfoced Polyster or 'Fibre Glass') However, Duraplast is much more suitable for volume car production than GRP. Making things from GRP is a slow, messy, labour intensive process whereas Duraplast panels are made in a press making the process much closer to that used for steel. Incidently the Formica company in the UK licensed the use of Duraplast and used it to produce a variety of components from commercial vehicle parts to suit cases, and even boot lids for the Mini. The use of Duraplast in the UK didn't last long, however. (Could this have been because the use of Communist owned technology was not encouraged by people in high places ?)
Duraplast bodywork was first used on a few F8s. It was left unpainted which resulted in a finish not unlike an old bakalite radio.
A new car was developed utilising Duraplast bodywork. This featured a water cooled, transverse mounted twin cylinder two stroke engine driving the front wheels. (the transverse engine/front wheel drive layout here in use several years before the Mini which is often wrongly credited with pioneering that configuration). The new car was known as the AWZ P70 or Zwickau P70 and really can be regarded as the for runner of the Trabant. The P70 was available in saloon, coupe and estate versions. Many years later Nissan produced the Figaro which was so similar in appearance to the P70 Coupe it would be difficult to believe that they didn't use the P70 as inspiration.
To make way for the production of the P70 of the production of the F9 was moved to Eisenach (see Wartburg for further information).
The technology used to make the P70 was employed to make a slightly smaller car. This was called the Trabant P50 and featured a new 500cc twin cylinder two stroke engine, this time using forced air cooling instead of water. The car was built using an inner shell and floor pan made of steel. The engine, transmision, steering and front suspension were mounted on a detachable sub frame. The outer body panels were all made of Duraplast. This resulted in a compact, simple, economical, car that could seat four adults. The P50 was available in saloon, estate, and van formats and volume production started in 1957. At this time the Trabant P50, the P70, and P240 were all in production at the Sachsenring factory alongside of trucks.
The P50 was developed further and this resulted in the P60. The engine fitted to these cars grew to 600cc and with it came increased power.
At this point it should be remembered that the first Trabants were developed during a time of great shortages especially of steel and petrol. Many economy cars such as bubble cars came into being at this time. Most of these economy cars compromised in some areas; some had restricted seating, some had little or no luggage space, some had minimal performance. The Trabant didn't suffer from any of these problems so was considerably better than many small (micro) cars of the time.
In 1964 the Trabant had a major redisgn which resulted in the launch of the P601. This car retained the same basic concept, and the new body style provided more interior and luggage space.
The P601 body style was retained retained until the end of production in 1991. This lead many people to believe that the cars stayed the same and no further development took place. In reality the cars were constantly developed and every year saw the introduction of a number of changes. The power output of the engine gradually increased, and modifications to the engine allowed it to run with much less oil mixed with the petrol. The brakes were improved, and a change made from 6 volt to 12 volt electrics. There were many other changes, too many to list here, however changes were carried out in such a way that the majority of them could be applied to earlier cars. Many older Trabants were carefully recycled by being rebuilt and updated with later components.
The P601 was available in three basic forms; a saloon, an estate, and a convertible jeep version. The jeep was available in civilian and military specifications.
In 1988 an agreement was entered with VW to produce Polo engines which were fitted to a much modified version of the P601. This was initially produced in parallel with the two stroke car. Eventually, after the fall of the Berlin wall the production of the two stroke car was phased out.
Trabants were exported to many countries both within, and outside of the then communist countries of Eastern Europe.Countries as diverse as Belgium, Holland and South Africa imported them. There were even a couple of attempts to sell them in the UK, the first in 1963, and another some time later (possibly 1972).
Trabants are very strong little cars, and were often seen towing caravans or trailers. Some independant crash testing was carried out, and the Trabant performed better than several well known small hatchbacks made in Western Europe.
A large range of optional extras were available from furry seat covers to a rather clever roof tent which is fitted in place of a roof rack and erects in seconds on top of the car.
During the production of the Trabant the Sachsenring factory was involved in a large amount of research and development. Various prototypes were produced including a diesal engined Trabant, and a four stroke engined hatchback Trabant was developed in cooperation with Skoda.
There where many other prototypes, and the Sachsenring factory played a little known, but significant part, in the development of the Wankel engine. A number of single, twin, and three rotor Wankel engines were produced.
Although VW have now become the major car producer in Zwickau, the Sachsenring company still exists producing components and developing prototype cars.
Today there is a strong following for the Trabant, many 100s of thousands are still in use, a large number have found their way to many countries that never imported them, and there are now owners and enthusiasts clubs all over the world.