Trabant P601 1.1

If you wanted something to represent the West's idea of what life under Communism was, it would be hard to find anything more epitomising than the Trabant. The depressingly practical yet structurally flimsy product of a planned economy more than aptly encapsulated contemporary opinions of what was going on in Eastern Europe, and the Trabant became the butt of all the jokes aimed at Ladas and Skodas too.

As with any planned economy, the People Need Transport question was answered in the flimsy little package of the Trabant. The round eyed little rattler was spawned from the Zwickau factory in East Germany, as early as 1955. It was dubbed the AWZ P70, under the ingeniously practical nomenclature that P meant Plastic and 70 represented the smoky 700cc engine underneath. Yes, plastic, or Duroplast as its manufacturer calls it, which bears an uncanny resemblance to fibreglass. The P-70 was little more than a plastic-bodied IFA F8 (the F9 would become the Wartburg, our Trabi's big sister); a pre-war design desperate for an update. Enter then, the first proper Trabant - the AWZ Trabant P50. A monocoque Duroplast shell with a feeble 500cc engine, the P50 is our embryonic Trabant. It introduced all the soft curves, frog eyes and lightweight chuckability into the 1950's attitude of car design, and the 18-hp three-geared drivetrain was almost twist-and-go-like in its simplicity.

Understanding just how crude the history of the Trabant is should then explain the enduring charm of the P-601. By 1964, when the P601 came out, other countries had small cars that were smarter, cleaner and more powerful. The Morris Mini the 2CV, the Fiat 500; all were using four-stroke engines at this point, and it was only the suffering lack-based economies ("you can't count on anything") of the Eastern Bloc that still depended on the blue-fug-producing two-strokes. The Trabant is a product of this lack; the Duroplast used for the body is a recycling of cotton and resin waste products from other heavy industries, and yet still there were waiting lists of up to 12 years for a new Trabant, because production output was so slow. This also meant that used-car prices were higher than those for new models; the immediate availability added a premium value to the poison-yellow death traps.

One of the few boasts any Trabant owner can make is that each machine was hand-assembled; videos of mulleted and moustachio'd Germans pounding on panels with rubber mallets to make them fit should show you just how much energy went into each Trabi to get them on the road in the first place. The other is the famous Elk test; if you haven't heard, new cars taken to Sweden where they are driven at speed towards a moose. At the last moment, they make a few hard turns to avoid the beast, and the car is measured in terms of controlability and safety. Mercedes' baby A-class attempted this in 1997 and fell over, injuring the two occupants. The Trabant passed with flying colours, which is what keeps it alive in rally circles today.

Little happened over the 27 years of Trabant production until 1988, when one of the maddest ideas ever was put forth. As Perestroika reared its ugly head and the choking toxic two-stroke fumes wreathed Berlin, the decision was made to ditch the engine in favour of a clean and cheap 1.1litre Volkswagen model left over from the Polo. Great in theory; a small, simple recycled car made of parts-bin mechanicals for the new economy. In practice, dumping 40hp into an 800kg car made for a twitchy barely-controllable drive. Combine that with the Duroplast concept where crumple-zones become disintegrate-if-its-a-bit-chilly zones, and you have a car which, if the accelerator is tapped a little too vigourously, will result in a toxic pile of burning resin smouldering against the Berlin Wall. Little wonder then that by the time production shut down in 1991, only 40,000 P601s had the Polo engine ; only a few thousand more than the original AWZ P70. By the reunification of Germany, Trabants were held in such low regard that they were swapped for packs of cigarettes, or left abandonned by the side of the road to rot. Only Trabants don't rot; that Duroplast is 100% non-biodegradable, which made getting rid of them even harder than buying them in the first place. A recent plan by Budapest City Council to swap Trabants for a year's free public transport yielded 200 Trabis to the local scrapyard; 120 of them were then recycled into spare parts for the remaining models rattling around.

It's hard to shake off a Trabi; the warm glow of nostalgia has burned away the fog of exhaust smoke, and short of smashing one into an elk, they'll be with us for some time to come.