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Trabant P601

Published: 26th Apr 2011 - 1 Comments

Air-cooled twin pot engine can be lifted out by hand, even if you are working alone. Air-cooled twin pot engine can be lifted out by hand, even if you are working alone.
Interiors are spartan but comfortable for short hops. Lack of transmission tunnel gives ample room for legs Interiors are spartan but comfortable for short hops. Lack of transmission tunnel gives ample room for legs
The rear seat folds down in the rather neat little Kombi (estate) version to create a car that is almost Tardis-like. The rear seat folds down in the rather neat little Kombi (estate) version to create a car that is almost Tardis-like.
The saloon car is officially known as the Limousine in its native Germany. The saloon car is officially known as the Limousine in its native Germany.
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What is a Trabant P601?

The Trabant was the East German Rolls-Royce and Ferrari all rolled into one of papier mache covered car! It all made perfect sense at the time. When most people’s transport options consisted of walking or riding a moped, the prospect of affording a small car with seating for four was tantalising indeed. And that’s exactly what the Sachsenring factory in Zwickau, East Germany produced with the P70 in 1955. A car so stylish that Nissan copied it for their Figaro retro-car some 35 years on!Today they make interesting novelty semi-classics that boast a surprising following It’s the greenest car you’ll ever own to as you’ll discover later!


The original Trabant evolved through the P50 and P60, until arriving at the Trabant P601 in 1964. Powered by a twin-cylinder, air-cooled, two-stroke engine of 594cc, it was still in production when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. As the world watched east Berliners streaming across the open border in their Trabis, the cars came to symbolise communism: anachronistic, inefficient but surprisingly durable. All of which rather obscures the Trabant’s many merits. Compared to the other microcars that flowered briefly in the 1960s, it is bigger, better, faster and more enjoyable to drive. Just because political stagnation kept it in production until 1991, it is hardly fair to compare it with a VW Polo of that era. An Austin Metro maybe, but not a VW…

The most famous factoid about Trabants is that they are made out of papier mache. In fact, the outer panels are a concoction of phenolic resin reinforced with cotton fibres and is known as Duroplast. Many of these cotton fibres came from recycled clothing, allowing the Trabi to stake a claim to being green long before anybody else thought of the idea. Duroplast itself is a wonderful compound, immensely strong and far superior to brittle fibreglass. But underneath, there is a steel chassis and inner structure, so don’t believe sellers who claim the cars can’t rust. From Autumn 1989, some were built with VW’s 1043cc four-stroke Polo engine for the Hungarian market - a sensible option that was as fast as a Mini Cooper, but somehow not quite the same.


Sachsenring were building small front-wheel drive DKWs decades before that genre was popularised by the Mini, and the Trabant follows this space and-weight effective layout. With proper CV joints and a modest 26bhp to play with, torque steer is not really an issue. On a well-sorted car, the steering (via a rack) should be light and positive, as should the brakes (they are drums all round). The two-stroke engine should be a willing starter in all temperatures, and warms up very quickly. There is synchromesh on all four gears, and an automatic freewheel on fourth to aid economy and smooth coasting on light throttle. Being a two-stroke, you do need to keep the revs up through the gears to keep it all running smoothly.The first engines ran on a 33:1 mix of petrol and two-stroke oil, but the introduction of needle roller bearings for the camshaft in April 1974 stretched this to a more socially-acceptable 50:1. Having said that, no Trabi should smoke unduly once it has warmed up if the engine is in good condition and you use a good quality two-stroke oil. Other improvements over the years included electrics, which went from six volts to 12volts in October 1983, together with a switch to alternator and electronic ignition. Brakes were improved in detail (becoming dual-circuit), but all are big drums on a light car and very effective. Most of these changes can be easily applied to earlier cars, and few Trabants remain perfectly standard.

The glorious pink-flocked upholstery found in some 1980s versions adds a touch of class to interiors which otherwise tend to be rather Spartan, though most seem to come as standard with East German cigarette burns. Having said that, you’ll find all the creature comforts you need, including an effective heater despite the engine’s air cooling.


The cost of a two-stroker that is registered and MoT’d in the UK rarely goes much over £1000, and £500 should see you on the road in something decent. Project cars can be yours for a four-pack of beer. Prices can be halved if you buy direct from Germany.

What To Look For

  • Engines run on a 50:1 mix from engine number 65/66-001501 onwards. If a previous owner has been using too much oil, a good thrash at the correct ratio should clear out any sludge.
  • Two-stroke engines don’t take kindly to long-term storage, especially if they are started occasionally for short bursts. The resulting condensation can cause the roller main bearings to rust and then to grumble, although the big ends last better. If an engine proves difficult to start when hot, then the chances are it is low on compression, especially if this is accompanied by piston slap on the over-run once it is running.
  • For the novice, deciding whether a two-stroke engine sounds OK or on its way out can be difficult. Try to find a two-stroke or Trabi-experienced mate to go along and listen when you view a car.
  • The four-speed gearbox should be a finger-tip delight to use once you’ve mastered the push-pull-twist-and-go action. If not, it is unlikely to be anything more serious than linkage bushes that need lubricating or replacing.
  • If the steering is anything other than very light, make sure the grease nipples have been lubricated: there are two on either side of the front suspension, one on the steering column (and, incidentally, one on the handbrake).
  • Rear brake drums (and front ones to until the early 1980s) need a special puller to remove them: join the club to find one near you.
  • Cars can look great, but be rotten underneath. You need to poke around the bulkhead, inner wheelarches, boot floor, sills, B posts and crossmember (under the front footwells) in your search for rust.
  • Everything is available for the Trabant, either through David Milne at Trabi UK, through other club members or via eBay. If searching the net, be sure to search on the German site (
  • Later cars have seatbelts in the front, but no provision for them in the back. Rear belts can be fitted to pass a particularly rigid MoT, or you can simply remove the rear seat.
  • Workshop manuals are widely available, only in German. They do have useful pictures and exploded diagrams though. Search the web for: ‘Wie helfe ich mir selbst - Trabant 601’, ISBN 3-9804294-5-8.


Although it is often ridiculed, the Trabant makes a great daily driver. It is happier on A and B-roads than on the motorway, but wherever you go it will put a smile both on your face and on anybody you pass along the way.

User Comments

This review has 1 comments

  • I own and drive daily a Trabant 601s, have done for three years, and while I fully recommend the humble Trabant as an excellent first restoration project, or as an entry level vehicle for first time classic owners, I feel I should share the following news.

    At this time (November 2011) Trabi-UK is not trading. It is hoped that this is not a permanent situation.

    Although spares are usually easily available direct from LDM, ReichTuning and Trabantwelt in Germany, I recommend contacting the Wartburg Trabant IFA club UK first, as many members (such as myself) have spare parts (new or used) that we may be willing to sell on.

    I also recommend the club as a valuable resource for information, vehicle authentication and general advice. Membership of the club brings insurance discounts and a regular well edited A4 club magazine (featuring Trabant, Wartburg, Other IFA and related soviet / Eastern-Bloc marques).

    Comment by: Mitto     Posted on: 17 Nov 2011 at 11:16 PM

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