By on September 4, 2018

Trabant 601 front, © 2018 Sajeev Mehta/Paardensex

On a frigid Detroit winter morning in 1998, I foolishly argued with a CCS professor over the need for conventional sedans or hatchbacks for our India design projects. Almost a decade later, the Tata Nano’s hatchback design was the justification I needed for believing designers place far too much weight in their creativity. Even if the Nano isn’t a smashing success, it proved the point.

No such worries exist with the Trabant 601: the ensured the success of ’s creation.

Trabant 601 front

The archaeological value of this example is discussed , so let’s focus on design: faded rally sign aside, the Trabant 601’s front end has a perky, toothy smile even when draped in dreary paint and clumsy appendages.

Note how the shiny grille’s “smile” is emulated in the curvaceous panel holding it, and how the outer curves translate into a single line between the hood, the fenders, and the headlights.

Trabant 601
With so much unused grille space, there’s little doubt these were designed for cold weather über alles.

Trabant 601
Exposed lighting pods are expected, but the sheetmetal secured with flat-head screws was surprising. This likely made collision repairs a breeze in any part of Eastern Europe.Trabant 601
Up close, that front end “smile” and its continuity of lines is poorly constructed via terrible panel gaps.

Headlight Dorks: take note of the European headlight’s beam superiority over what we had in America.

Trabant 601
Simple, honest bumpers with modest impact strips imply Trabbis weren’t designed for crash tests, and the lack of integration ensures easier repairs and cheaper production.

Trabant 601
The rubber ends seem safer than the early 601’s one-piece metal bumper: today’s pedestrian safety standards are not without precedent!

Trabant 601
Vulgar panel gaps aside, it’s a shame the headlight assembly couldn’t protrude further out, a la design.

Remember the Trabant name means satellite: it’s a reasonable request!

Trabant 601
Black rubber insert long since removed, the aluminum fender runner was a bizarre addition to a budget-minded vehicle.

Perhaps this allows Trabbi owners to haul large items atop the hood without scuffing the paint?Trabant 601
The smiling grille elegantly transitions into a warm smile from the hood’s leading edge. It makes onlookers smile, too!

Trabant 601
Aftermarket driving light aside, there’s resemblance to the 1956 , albeit with quality that makes said Fiat feel like a of the era.

Trabant 601
The integrated cut-line shared amongst the grille panel+hood+headlight was an elegant surprise.
Trabant 601
No such elegance going forward: the flat-faced fender ensures the headlight’s chrome ring is a poorly integrated afterthought, not an Atomic Space Age addition of merit.Trabant 601
But there’s charm in these working-class credentials: two doors sans a sleek, wasteful coupe roofline.

It’s a proper 2-door , a welcome sight in this age of infuriating .

Trabant 601 The basic steel wheel with knobby tires speak volumes about the road conditions of that era/location. No wonder these were (are?) popular rally vehicles. Trabant 601
Can we give props for a door cutline lining up with an A-pillar so crisply?

Years before DLO FAIL became a thing, the Trabant proves it’s hard to screw it up.

Trabant 601
Not seen from the head-on angle above, note the A-pillar’s flatness with a transition to the roundness in the door. Such contrast provides appealing surface tension.

Trabant 601
A sad antenna stump could fit inside that hood-to-cowl panel gap.

Trabant 601 A clean, tidy cowl shows honest styling.

Peep that logical crease where the cowl ends and the windshield frame begins.

Trabant 601
The (green) roof’s composite dome adds depth to the aluminum halo, while those exposed screws mean it’d accept a  with ease.

Trabant 601
The aluminum trim (now with rubber insert) atop the fender marches back, providing budget-minded bling between the hard transition on the bodyside.

Trabant 601
That greenhouse is flat: curved side glass , there’s no room for style at this price point.

Trabant 601
The negative area makes an eye-catching, faux  atop the B-pillar.

Trabant 601
These plastic (composite?) door handles possess a V-shaped, negative wedge perfect for any (Western) European concept car of the 1970s.

Trabant 601
The C-pillar vent could be a flow-through ventilation exhaust, and its lines work reasonably well with the natural flow of the beltline and roofline.

Trabant 601
The (green) roof is seemingly glued to the metal body, with aluminum trim hiding some of the mating surface.

It appears that roof repairs could be a breeze?

Trabant 601
Considering the Trabbi’s humble nature, the curved rear glass appears luxurious. And if the aluminum trim encircled the roof?

Perhaps even decadent.

Trabant 601
The traditional three-box design creates a reasonable trunk, while the aluminum trim reached its finale, ensuring its place as a significant Trabant styling element.

Trabant 601
The bodyside’s curve at the base of the greenhouse bends yet again, highlighting the wheels.

It’s another element that wasn’t needed(?) by engineers, but helped with styling.

Trabant 601 Note how the tailpipe doesn’t upsell the engine upstream. Modern vehicles should emulate this.

Trabant 601 The Trabbi’s second memorable element is the assertive, yet value-conscious tail fins.

Unlike the flat faced headlight/fender treatment, the rear fins visually lengthen the proportions and add an exciting downward (and inward!) slope: a fantastic job utilizing space that’d otherwise feel cheap, unfinished.

Trabant 601 The amber/red lenses are a smooth extension: not to the extent of the ‘s bullet lights, but still eye-catching.

Imagine the improvement to the front if the headlights received such treatment.

Trabant 601
The chrome is expected, painting everything  integrates all into a cohesive package.

Trabant 601 rear
The rear fascia woulda been boring without those dramatically droopy lights.

Trabant 601 rear
The implementation of negative area slips the license plate “under” the car — a trick still used today.

Trabant 601 Peep the Trabant’s size relative to a GEN II Ford Ranger: such little real estate, designed in Eastern Europe coulda had far less style. So I thank the designer(s) for:

  1. Subtle curves in the body’s cross-section.
  2. Aluminum trim/roof accents.
  3. Quirky tail fins.
  4. That smiling, charming face.

Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a lovely day.

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24 Comments on “Vellum Venom: Trabant 601...”


  • avatar
    IHateCars

    That’s a lot of weights to balance a little tire like that. Was there any sheetmetal in these things? I thought the body was Duroplast/Bakelite?

  • avatar
    tonyola

    The preceding Trabant P50 was much cuter and could be had in downright bourgeois two-tones.
    http://www.classiccarcatalogue.com/T/trabant%201961%2001.jpg

  • avatar
    Carrera

    When I grew up in the 80s in Eastern Europe these Trabants were not extremely common. They were half the price of a “proper” Romanian made Dacia 1300-1310. In Romania, Trabants were pretty much exclusive for handicapped people since they could be ordered from the factory with hand controls. All I remember was a loud, yet not unpleasant racket and lots of blue smoke behind them due to the gas-oil mix.

    • 0 avatar
      Ermel

      They were common in East Germany until the reunification with West Germany, and of course for a caouple of years after that. But understandably, the general public had tired of the little car and its blue exhaust fumes, so its numbers shrunk fast — by the end of the ’90s, it was an enthusiast’s car, and it still is today. In the West, you see more VW Beetles than Trabis today; in the East, it’s the other way round, but I still think the Beetle outnumbers the Trabi by far these days.

      I drove a Trabi for a couple of months. It’s fun if you don’t have to drive it, unless it’s winter, when it isn’t fun at all. I can easily stomach the fact I’ll likely never sit in one again.

      • 0 avatar
        Ermel

        Pressed “Post” too early there, sorry.

        My main criticism of the Trabant as a car is the awkward hunched driving position, with the deafening and ridiculous engine noise and the very harsh suspension following closely. The inline-2, two-stroke engine has only seven moving parts, but it sounds like seventy loose ones being shaken in a tin bucket :-) I can imagine the inline-4, four-stroke, 40 bhp VW Polo engine that the very last Trabis had might make this a fun city car.

        I do agree about the design, though. For its time and design budget, this is a cleanly-drawn car. In better condition and friendlier colours, it’s even pretty. I once saw a beige one with a red roof and chrome wheel covers, out of which stepped a little old lady with matching beige coat and red hat. That looked classy, even. (The predecessor was much more cuddly-looking though.)

        Unfortunately, the last years, and especially the four-cylinder series, were made much uglier by “modernization” via plastic grille, bumpers, and other details, denying them the ’60s charm of the original. The four cylinder Trabis are also really rather expensive today, because the fan and tuning crowd soaked them up — no surprise there.

  • avatar
    redapple

    Love the car.

    U2 Zoo TV Prop?

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Fascinating as always, thank you Sajeev!

  • avatar
    jhefner

    Yea! A Vellum Venom article!!!

    A few years ago, a Mil Mi-24 “Hind” gunship made a surprise visit to an R/C airshow at the airport by our house, stealing the show from everything else. We were able to look around inside, including the cockpit and and weapons officer station.

    Like this Trabant, it was rugged, easy to maintain, simple in construction, yet highly effective. Everything could be maintained in the field, in the open air. There were few if any exotic materials.

    Thanks Sajeev.

  • avatar
    MBella

    These always get a bad reputation, but most people that criticize them miss the point. These things weren’t designed to compete with a period Mercedes. They were designed to be the absolutely cheapest vehicle possible. This was designed for people who couldn’t even aspire to own a contemporary Škoda or Poľskí FIAT. It was the 60s version of the Tata Nano. If the communists weren’t so afraid of capitalist overproduction, they probably could have sold a decent amount to areas such as southeast Asia.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    The BMW Neue Klasse and the Trabant 601 came out about the same time (1962-63). I can’t think of a better illustration of the difference between a Republic and a People’s Republic.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    “Headlight Dorks: take note of the European headlight’s beam superiority over what we had in America.”

    Amen.

    This is why both my old Toyota pickup and 300D had the Hella drop-in replacement “not really sealed-beams” with beam-shaping lenses and H4 bulbs in back.

    (Anyone with a car that takes sealed-beams should pick up a set, or an equivalent. You won’t regret it.)

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    Thanks Sajeev, I hope you have a lovely day too.
    :-)

  • avatar

    It was, thanks to all you lovely folks out there on the Internet.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    As a side note: Most Two-strokes do not smoke because of the oil going through them, either mixed with the gasoline or injected. The smoke mostly comes from an over rich fuel air mix. This is usually done to prevent the piston(s) from overheating and seizing to the cylinders. Just check videos of old Formula 1 and 2 motorcycle races and pro motocross races. After the start you will seldom see exhaust smoke.
    Having owned and worked on/tuned many a two stroke, when properly jetted there will be little smoke.
    Yamaha sold the two stroke RZ 350 for a few years in the 1980s, even in California. It did require catalytic convertors. Rumor had it that it was deleted from the USA market due to an informal agreement between the “Big Four” Japanese motorcycle companies to only sell 4 strokes.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    As a side note: Most Two-strokes do not smoke because of the oil going through them, either mixed with the gasoline or injected. The smoke mostly comes from an over rich fuel air mix. This is usually done to prevent the piston(s) from overheating and seizing to the cylinders. Just check videos of old Formula 1 and 2 motorcycle races and pro motocross races. After the start you will seldom see exhaust smoke.
    Having owned and worked on/tuned many a two stroke, when properly jetted there will be little smoke.
    Yamaha sold the two stroke RZ 350 for a few years in the 1980s, even in California. It did require catalytic convertors. Rumor had it that it was deleted from the USA market due to an informal agreement between the “Big Four” Japanese motorcycle companies to only sell 4 strokes.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I owned one of these for a summer, though mine was a 3dr wagon. 1992, Budapest, spending the summer with my Hungarian best friend from college. Bought it for $500, sold it for $500 to another American student when I left. Got us back and forth to his mother’s lake house at Balaton all summer. I found it fairly entertaining to drive, though the backwards gearshift pattern and non-self-centering steering took some getting used to. 100km/hr foot to the floor trailing a blue cloud, I think I saw 120 on the clock on a long downhill once.

    Got to drive most of the Commie-cars that summer. My friend’s dad had a Lada 1200 wagon, his mother had a Wartburg (*3* cylinders and a metal body!). His grandmother a Polski Fiat, and through various friends a rear-engine Skoda and a Dacia. The Skoda was DEFINITELY the pick of the bunch, but the Lada wasn’t bad either.

    For a long time my avatar here was me in the Trabi, but that got lost in some website issues long ago. Seemingly along with e-mail notifications at post replies – I don’t get those anymore either.

  • avatar

    Actually drove one in East Berlin when it was still “a thing”. Relatives of the wife were OstBerliners, and had a Trabbi. Three on the tree. The two stroke engine looked like a copy of the SAAB two stroke, and best of all, if you opened the hood, you’d see the gas tank was strapped TO THE FIREWALL. For contrast, three weeks earlier a friend let me drive his new ZR-1 (the C5 with the Mercury Marine engine). The relative has since gone over to Audi, with a nice A3….the only Trabbi left in Berlin are on “Trabbi Tours” for tourists. I’d rather wreck any late model German car at 65 mph than a Trabbi at 30 mph. Oh, and it drove like a two stroke golf cart with a three speed transmission.

  • avatar
    ryanwm80

    The styling is good and purposeful, but I’m not sure if it’s as iconic as a 1955 Chevrolet or 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. The design themes of those cars also appeared on the 1958 AMC Rambler American and the original 1959 Mini Cooper, which I believe debuted in 1959. By the late ’50’s European styling was becoming in vogue with car design – minimalist, bauhaus design – and this is also applicable to the Volkswagen beetle, which we think of as different, but it was also minimalist compared to most cars made in America at the time. Good, clean design is appealing, and it’s interesting to see how the East Germans incorporated it into their car, but I suspect they looked at the popularity of other design trends in the late 50’s rather than pioneering new design concepts or emulating existing ones.

  • avatar
    Fighter835

    Excellent article. I grew up seeing lots of these things running around, it was nice to see one again.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    There are two things I need more of.

    One is cowbell. The other is Vellum Venom!


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