Trabant 601 Buying Guide

Is this the world's cheapest automotive cult hero? Here’s what to look for when buying a Sachsenring Trabant 601

How much to pay

• Project £400-1000 • Good £1200-1750 • Concours £2500 •
• Most expensive at auction: £3500 (1990 Trabant 601S)

Overview

Practicality ★★★
Running costs ★★★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★★
Investment ★★
Desirability ★★

Built between 1964 and 1990, the Sachsenring Trabant 601 will always be an icon of popular culture. However, irony runs rife as it remains fundamentally unpopular thanks largely to connections with the Eastern Bloc society and the Cold War.

A people’s car for the masses, much as the Volkswagen Beetle was conceived, the Trabant’s reputation belied its fun value as a collector car. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Trabis ended up littering scrapyards across the continent, as other vehicles became available to the Eastern Europeans originally stuck with nothing else.

The haze of blue smoke forever associated with a Trabant is down to its 600cc two-stroke engine. Emissions-friendly it's not, but its simplicity makes it one of the simplest engines in history to rebuild. Volkswagen’s influence on the IFA Sachsenring factory led to a temporary update in mid-1990 for the Trabant, with a conventional 1.1-litre Polo engine and floor-mounted gearstick rather than the previous column change.

The Trabant has a reputation for being the ‘worst car in the world’. Many have laughed at the bodywork made of papier-mâché or cardboard, and some 1980s comedians knew jokes about nothing else. In truth, the Trabant was built with a plasticised resin and cotton known as Duroplast, mounted over a steel frame.

Don’t listen to the critics; Trabants are truly wonderful, historically significant and hugely charismatic. However, even the youngest examples are now at least 27 years old and vehicles were maintained by the owner rather than fully resourced dealerships – bear this in mind when looking for one.

Your AutoClassics Sachsenring Trabant inspection checklist

Engine

The engines are a little noisy, and to the untrained ear even a good engine can sound broken; like spanners rattling around a washing machine. Listening to the exhaust note can help determine if the engine is healthy or not.

A clean and well-kept engine bay can be as good as sign as anything. One danger is if the previous owner hasn't been careful with the two-stroke 50:1 ratio (33:1 before 1974) of petrol to oil mix, which could lead to big-end bearing failure and the need for a new engine, although due to there being so few moving parts the engines are otherwise near-bulletproof.

The rear engine mount tends to separate, allowing the engine to move back and forth. This is not a difficult nor expensive job to rectify, but something worth noting.

Look for oil leaks from the cylinder head and from the driveshaft seals on the gearbox. Also, make sure the battery is charging and the starter motor is working, as both alternator and starter motor can be expensive to replace.

Check the fuel hose condition, too. Perished hoses can cause fires though they're easily replaced.

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Gearbox

Gear selection should feel very positive. The gearbox is incredibly simple but check for oil leaks around the gearbox seals. If gearchanges aren't smooth then check the gearbox oil level and selector linkage, otherwise a rebuild may be in order.

Gear selection on the column selector is a lot of fun when you get used to it. Often the gear selector rod, which can be easily accessed from under the bonnet, needs greasing to enable smoother selection, so if the change feels stiff that may be the fix needed. There is a fourth gear freewheel on all Trabants, so don’t expect engine braking in top.

Suspension and brakes

Steering swivel joints, upper and lower, have hard plastic bushes which need to be reamed to the correct size. This may test either your wallet or your patience, depending on whether you have it undertaken professionally or attempt it yourself. Check for play in these joints, and in the wishbone and leaf spring end bushes. The leaf springs and any grease points should have been regularly lubricated.

A brake problem commonly occurs when a Trabant is left in damp conditions. Even after a few days the brakes can leak or seize when driven, that’s if it will move off the driveway at all. This is due to the poor quality of the cast iron used for the brake cylinders, so new cylinders and shoes may be required. All the parts are available and it’s an achievable if laborious DIY job.

If the car was built before spring 1984, then a factory hub puller will be needed to access the brake shoes and cylinders. An aftermarket puller will not do the job.

Check the rubber brake hoses as well as the condition of the metal brake pipes. Don't worry too much if you find issues in these areas; all is easily affordable and repairable. Trabant brakes are effective, but it will take a few miles to get used to the typically spongey feel to the brake pedal.

Bodywork

The post-1986 metal chassis frames were galvanised, and the bodywork shouldn’t rot, but as with any classic car, rust is always a concern. The main areas to look are the floors and sills; wheelarches and front suspension mounts; rusty door frames are not structural but are a sure sign there will be rot elsewhere.

Rust problems can be hidden by the Duroplast body, so any exposed metalwork will be a sure sign of how poor the hidden areas could be. There is a crossmember behind the engine, and it is here that the space frame can crack, usually due to lack of rigidity in the rest of the frame.

Interior

The interior of the Trabant is best described as 'compact'. Long-legged drivers of six foot or more may find knees as high as elbows when sat behind the wheel. There is an expectation that you will become more friendly with your passengers due to the proximity of the accommodation.

The lack of a floor-mounted gearstick means there is more room for placing bags of shopping on the floor. An under-dash parcel tray is standard and central to that are some important controls, namely the heating and fuel tap. Heating control is via three levers that offer heat, cool air and distribution of said breeze.

The fuel tap has to be opened before starting the engine and closed after parking up. A reserve position, offering access to the lower portion of the tank, negated the need, in someone’s mind, to offer a fuel gauge. A fuel tank dipstick was provided instead.

Most interiors were brown or variations on brown. Only later cars with the ‘S’ and ‘De Luxe’ designation gained head restraints. The best addition to the interior has to be the extra large rear view mirror that gives a great view of the rear quarters, should your back seat passengers be acting suspiciously...

History

  • 1964: Trabant 601 production begins.
  • 1965: Hycomat automatic clutch was offered as an option.
  • 1967: The car gained double leading shoe front brakes.
  • 1969: An extra 3bhp was added to the engine spec.
  • 1978: Mini Moke-like 'Tramp' model introduced, based on military Trabant Kübel.
  • 1980: The car gains a dual-circuit braking system. Trabant 601 TRAMP (added in 1978).
  • 1982: Inertia-reel front seat belts added to the spec.
  • 1983: 12-volt electrics finally modernise the electrical system.
  • 1984: Constant velocity halfshafts, alternator, heated rear screen and halogen front lights are added to the spec.
  • 1990: In May a 1.1-litre VW Polo engine was used for one year, with floor-mounted gearstick, quieter and emissions more acceptable. It's now more of a caricature of the quirky car that it had once been.

AutoClassics say…

Attracting more attention than some classic Ferraris on the show scene, the Trabant may not be the best car built but it is a lot of fun to drive and own. Expect to tell everyone about the history of the car and the culture that spawned it, discuss the merits of the two-stroke engine and having a fuel tank atop the engine!

Certainly, the best proposition is a car with a good MoT history and on the road. A rear fog light (centre or offset to the right) is essential on or after 1 April 1980 and side indicator repeater lights and hazard lights after 1 April 1986. Rear seat belts are a requirement after 1 April 1987. Emissions tests are not required for a two-stroke vehicle, so don’t panic about the reek coming from the exhaust. It’s normal – honestly.

Specifications

Trabant 601 (1964-1990)
  Power 30bhp
  Top speed 62mph
  0-60mph 21secs
  Economy 41mpg

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