The Berlin Wall has now been 'down' for longer than it was in place. Its failure at the end of the Eighties led to the reunification of Germany and a mass exodus of humanity into the West, but it was more than just people that crossed the border – the cars of East Germany came too, spluttering and smoking through the rubble of the Iron Curtain.
During the Cold War the West became a symbol of freedom, the East a byword for repression. While US servicemen had the run of West Germany in whatever glitzy automotive product out of Detroit took their fancy, the delights of personal mobility in the East took the form of the Trabant, commonly nicknamed “Trabbi”. It was cheap to build and run, but invariably only available to favoured Party members rather than the populace at large.
We’ve all heard the stories – the long waiting list after ordering, a dipstick instead of a proper petrol gauge, extra heating provided by a rug under the back seat. The image that springs to mind is of East Berlin streets choking with fumes from the two-stroke engines of Trabants. No point taking colour photos, because everything was so grey. But is that really so?
In 1954, orders came from the Politburo that the DDR was to develop a rival to the Volkswagen Beetle, one that was made from a minimum of imported materials and which had to be strong and robust, easy to maintain, of low fuel consumption and big enough for a family of four and their luggage.
The Trabant debuted in 1957 as the 500cc P50 with an inner monocoque shell made of steel and outer body made from Duroplast, a phenol-based material with an organic filling that was devised as a response to the DDR’s steel shortages.
By 1962 the engine size was 600cc and in 1963 the Trabant was facelifted as the 601, a vehicle familiar from U2 album covers. When production finally ceased in 1991 more than three million had been sold, the last examples replacing two-stroke power with a VW Polo engine. The driver’s handbook gave handy tips as to how to virtually re-assemble your 601 in a country with a very few service stations.
That’s if you could get your hands on one in the first place; the average delivery waiting time was between 12 and 15 years. It was not uncommon to a DDR citizen to place an order immediately after their 18th birthday so they could take the wheel before they reached their mid-thirties; a used Trabant sold for more than twice the price of a new model.
And so if you really want to know what DDR motoring is, your best course of action is to ask Peter Frost, Eastern European Car Collector extraordinaire, and owner of a 1963 Wartburg 311. These were made between 1956 and 1965 at the former BMW factory in Eisenach and cost three times as much as a 601.
One of the Wartburg’s functions was intended to bring hard Western currency into East Germany and a number were officially sold in the UK. A mere £539 (the price of a Mini) would buy you a sizeable four-door saloon with a cigarette lighter, boot lamp and “pile-floor carpeting throughout”, albeit at the possible social cost of having your neighbours think you a Communist agent. The 311 certainly looks ideally placed to scuttle through the East Berlin of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Quiller Memorandum or Funeral in Berlin.
Peter has owned his Wartburg since 1992 and it began its career as chauffeur-driven transport for a senior Party Member before it was eventually “smuggled out to the UK during the 1980s”. The 311 has been regularly used since joining the Frost vehicle line-up in 1992. He says: “It makes that glorious two-stroke engine noise – I like to put the accelerator down just to hear it – and in terms of handling the 311 is streets ahead of the BMC 1.6-litre Farinas of the same era.”
The four-speed gearbox is controlled by a steering column lever “that is like an electric switch, and the Wartburg does feel as though it’s produced to BMW quality standards”.
Not being content with the 311, Peter is also the proud driver of a 1986 353 Estate – a variety of Wartburg made between 1966 and 1991. In the UK they were badged as the Knight and advertised as having a “turbine-smooth engine”, although Frost observes that “compared with the older car the general quality has dropped a little. That said, it is faster than the 1963 car and the 353 does have some nice touches such as the extra tail lights, which are visible when the rear door is lifted. Basically it is a practical utility vehicle, with a vast load bay.”
Of all the Frost collection it is his 1989 Trabant 601 that is the most recognisable of to British motorists, even if it is still greeted with cries of “that’s one of dem Russian cars” – at least Peter receives fewer “cardboard cars!” detractors than he did in the 1990s. He maintains that “their Achilles’ heel is their reputation – they are not the smoky, noisy heaps of popular myth” and indeed fans of the 601 will tell you how responsive the rack and pinion steering is, and of the general lack of chassis flex.
Few Trabant owners will expect Citroën DS standards of ride (think tractor rather than magic carpet) but as a town car Peter finds his 601 “nimble, agile and easy to park”. If the top speed of 70mph is not especially impressive, at least your progress is accompanied by a splendid amount of noise from the exhaust system.
And if that doesn't convince you of the merits of DDR-style motoring, then the commercial above almost certainly will.
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