In the summer of 2011, I was having a breakfast with my English friends at a posh restaurant on the bank of the Danube, and we started an argument about cars. That wasn't surprising, since after finishing our coffees, we were about to go on short road trip to Etyek, a wine region not far from Budapest. Two cars were waiting for us at the parking lot: a Maserati Coupé, and a 1974 Aston Martin V8 S3 which I was about to drive.
The English side claimed that the Mini was a bigger engineering achievement than the Trabant, while my vote went to the communists. Hear me out on this one!
While I love the original Mini and find everything about Sir Alexander Issigonis's design brilliant, I can't forget the fact that in East-Germany, engineers had to come up with a family car from post-war scraps.
You see, steel was not an option, so they used Duroplast, which is basically a cheap version of fiberglass, made out of recycled cotton which came from other East-German factories. It's stronger than steel (but that doesn't make the Trabant less deadly in case of an accident), and can also be pressed just like metal. The car also had to seat four with their luggage in the back, weigh less than 650 kilos and have front-wheel drive, while the only engine option was the already outdated 600 cc two-stroke with a little more than 20 horsepower. Meanwhile, the communist party denied every plan the engineers came up with to make the car more attractive, and since they didn't like the idea of a German car damaging Russian sales in the first place, the final product could only reach production after the suits have seen the massive demand from the East-German public.
The 601 could take a lot of abuse, then be fixed with a hammer. It also had good acceleration at low speeds, and you could take it off-road thanks it's front-wheel drive and lightweight body. Lots of noise and smoke came as standard, but the Trabant was a fun (and available) car for the masses behind the Iron Curtain, where it was needed the most. More than 3 million were made from 1963 until not much after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But while it was pretty good from a planned economy, export sales never really got on even with this movie getting the word out. One could only wonder why...