Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/9/19 9:47 p.m.

I bought a 1982 Trabant 601 in February 2019.  It's a good driver so I can't call this a build thread.  However, after spending time on the internet looking at the "information" on various  web, YouTube, and other social media resources, I saw a lot more people exaggerating, embellishing, and just plain making fun of these cars.  There is plenty to make fun of with these cars, but I thought perhaps I could give some real world descriptions of what it's like to own and maintain one of these.  So here is my start...

Like many of you, I've got an embarrassing number of cars, but am always on the hunt.  One of my bucket-list cars was an Eastern Bloc car, so I've been watching for Trabants, Skodas, Ladas, etc. for some time.  I rarely am on Facebook, but one day I noticed a Trabant on the Michigan European Auto Classified group that I was somehow signed up for.  It was near Detroit, about three hours from me, and since it was February, the owner wasn't getting much traction.  There was a nice break in the weather, so I hooked up the trailer (in case we made a deal), got some cash (in case we made a deal), and headed over (I was skeptical that we'd make a deal, but didn't want to take a 2nd trip).  Needless to say, we made a deal and I brought it home.

The owner had moved to the US from Romania when he was 8 years old.  His dad had bought a Trabant 601 brand new after being on a waiting list for about 3 years.  The normal waiting list was longer, but his dad got preference because he was caring for disabled elderly relatives.  Anyway, the guy I bought the car from is nostalgic about Trabants, very knowledgeable, and was rotating this car out of his possession as he'd found one of the late model, four stroke cars that he wanted to own instead.   He'd done a pretty good job with the mechanicals on the car--there's a little sorting left for me--but I liked that it wasn't going to be a huge project.  I wanted a car that was unrestored, unmolelested, and fairly original.  I think I found it.  It's had a little rust repair to the front shock mounts and an incorrect steering wheel, but otherwise seems like the real deal.

I'll admit I haven't driven it much yet, maybe 2-3 times a month.  When I get a new car, I usually take a bunch of short trips with it before I go for the full inspection of the mechanicals.  I find those short trips help expose the issues, so I can take a sharper look when I get into it.  I'm just starting the sorting, so I'll be posting those updates as they happen.

Here's my description of the driving experience:  It's a really comfortable, easy-to-drive sedan.  Everyone who rides with me is surprised at how nice it rides given its worst-car-ever-built reputation.   It's got a four-on-the-tree gearbox that takes a little getting used to (basically an H-pattern that's reversed from a typical three-on-the-tree H-pattern).  The comical part is the engine noise, which is much closer to a weed whacker than a dirt bike.  It's more powerful than I thought it would be.  I've also got a Fiat 500, which is 4 stroke, and the Trabant is faster.  Maybe "not as slow" is a better than "faster."   I'd compare the brakes to most 1950s or 1960s cars.  Not great, but not bad.  Currently, the right front grabs hard and pulls the car to the right, but then the left grabs a few moments later and pulls it back left.  That's high on the sorting list.  Bottom line is it's a nicer driver than I thought it would be given the internet descriptions and I think it will be a fun car for errands and little trips.

Patrick
Patrick MegaDork
9/9/19 9:56 p.m.

Cool!

keithedwards
keithedwards New Reader
9/10/19 6:21 a.m.

In reply to Carl Heideman :

I like it, especially with the trailer hitch and euro-style ball.

Pete Gossett
Pete Gossett MegaDork
9/10/19 8:34 a.m.

In reply to Carl Heideman :

Can I go ahead and call dibs now?

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim MegaDork
9/10/19 9:12 a.m.

One of the few times one reads "good driver" and "Trabant" in the same post .

Congrats on the purchase, that does indeed look like a good 'un.

Those were actually pretty advanced cars when they first came on the market, but in line with so many other Eastern Block vehicles, they suffered from a lack of development and lack of parts during their heyday.

Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/10/19 10:02 a.m.
BoxheadTim said:

One of the few times one reads "good driver" and "Trabant" in the same post .

Congrats on the purchase, that does indeed look like a good 'un.

Those were actually pretty advanced cars when they first came on the market, but in line with so many other Eastern Block vehicles, they suffered from a lack of development and lack of parts during their heyday.

That's sort of the reason I'm documenting the car here.  When I bought it, I thought is was going to be dismal and fall apart like all the hype.  I haven't used it enough yet to answer the fall apart question, but it is a really nice driver. 

Regarding advanced, considering the design is from the late 1950s/early 1960s, they were pretty advanced.  But they kept building them into the late 1980s--no longer so advanced. They're also advanced in their simplicity.  Air cooled, gravity feed fuel, no frills, light weight.  Less stuff to break/fix/maintain/adjust.  I'm a big Lotus fan and I see similarities in this strategy.  Similar jokes about reliability, too...

Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/10/19 10:04 a.m.
keithedwards said:

In reply to Carl Heideman :

I like it, especially with the trailer hitch and euro-style ball.

Yea, the hitch is cool and maybe someday I'll dare tow something with it.  Something very very light...

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim MegaDork
9/10/19 10:22 a.m.
Carl Heideman said:
BoxheadTim said:

One of the few times one reads "good driver" and "Trabant" in the same post .

Congrats on the purchase, that does indeed look like a good 'un.

Those were actually pretty advanced cars when they first came on the market, but in line with so many other Eastern Block vehicles, they suffered from a lack of development and lack of parts during their heyday.

That's sort of the reason I'm documenting the car here.  When I bought it, I thought is was going to be dismal and fall apart like all the hype.  I haven't used it enough yet to answer the fall apart question, but it is a really nice driver. 

I think some of the reasons behind their reputation are rooted in the fact that people had to keep them running for a long time without adequate (read - hardly any) spare parts supply. Heck, the wait times for these were in the 10-20 year rate in East Germany when this was a new car. Basically if you wanted a new car, you ordered one and then started saving up to pay for it. So a lot of people who needed/wanted a car sooner ended up with very second hand ones that were mostly kept running through ingenuity and willpower.

Regarding advanced, considering the design is from the late 1950s/early 1960s, they were pretty advanced.  But they kept building them into the late 1980s--no longer so advanced. They're also advanced in their simplicity.  Air cooled, gravity feed fuel, no frills, light weight.  Less stuff to break/fix/maintain/adjust.  I'm a big Lotus fan and I see similarities in this strategy.  Similar jokes about reliability, too...

Original design dates back to the early 50s IIRC - the first model Trabants came to market in the late 50s. But you're right, this particular model was the one that was produced longest, even past the German reunification. Which is pretty impressive.

Hungary Bill
Hungary Bill PowerDork
9/10/19 2:50 p.m.

That has to be the CLEANEST Trabant I've ever seen.  Congratulations!

I'm with you on the Trabant hate.  I bought a 1982 Trabant 601 for just under $300 in 2012 and drove it 3+ hours home in the snow (on corded tires).  Along the way it did 60mph (100kph) and got something ridiculous like 35mpg. 

If you find yourself needing parts that you cant source locally, hit me up.  They're becoming a bit scarce around here lately, but I'm sure I can find just about anything you need.

Cheers!

Ransom
Ransom UltimaDork
9/10/19 3:35 p.m.

Congratulations! That's awesome. There is an undeniable cool factor here.

Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/10/19 4:46 p.m.
Hungary Bill said:

That has to be the CLEANEST Trabant I've ever seen.  Congratulations!

I'm with you on the Trabant hate.  I bought a 1982 Trabant 601 for just under $300 in 2012 and drove it 3+ hours home in the snow (on corded tires).  Along the way it did 60mph (100kph) and got something ridiculous like 35mpg. 

If you find yourself needing parts that you cant source locally, hit me up.  They're becoming a bit scarce around here lately, but I'm sure I can find just about anything you need.

Cheers!

Thanks for the validation, both on the car and the Trabant reputation.  I thought I'd found a good one.  The previous owner gave me some hints on parts, but I'll for sure take you up on your offer if I can't find anything.

Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/10/19 5:31 p.m.

I posted the Trabant introduction yesterday, but it was really as pre-cursor to my first repair report.  I've taken the car on a few 5-10km trips from my house to the shop or around the neighborhood.  Last Saturday, I took it on the longest trip so far--35km--to a friends car-infested shop party.  On Sunday, I smelled and saw a small puddle of gas underneath.

As I mentioned above, the Trabant is very simple and uses a gravity instead of a fuel pump.  Like motorcycles, lawn mowers, Model T's and other vehicles with gravity feed, there is a fuel shutoff.  There is no gauge, either, and the fuel shutoff includes a reserve setting.  Z is off, A is on, R is reserve.  Maybe Hungary Bill can tell me what they stand for?

The previous owner warned me that the shutoff valve fails frequently.  He told me to plan on three per year!  I figured if they're that bad, I'm not going to replace it with another bad new part.  We have enough of that with British cars at Eclectic.  I figured if it failed, I'd adapt something else.

Pulling the tank was a piece of cake.  It's a matter of loosening two J-bolts like a battery hold down, then unhooking the wire/hook from the dash knob to the valve, then removing the banjo bolt on the fuel line.  3 minutes, tops.

With the tank out, I took a look at the valve.  The base of it is a fuel filter and the plastic cap is threaded on, sealing with an O-ring.  It turned out that the cap was mis-threaded and not seated properly on the O-ring.  Since it didn't look like the plastic threads were damaged, I just carefully reinstalled it. The upper nut on the valve wasn't very tight, so I addressed that at the same time.  I don't know why it hadn't leaked for the past few months, but apparently that last drive shook it enough to matter.  I let the tank sit for a little while while I cleaned it and the engine bay with some solvent.   No leaks, so I put it back together.

Total repair time was maybe 30 minutes.  And now I have some confidence in the valve.  I am going to order a spare to be ready if it does fail for real.  

I forgot to record the mileage on the car when I got it, but I'm going to report the mileage at repairs or other milestones.  This one was at 72264km, I'd say about 100km from my first drive.

Here's my analysis:  I was impressed how easy and fast this was.  Usually a fuel tank/fuel pump/etc. repair takes more tools, makes a bigger mess, involves getting under the car, and more.  I used a 13mm wrench, a 14mm socket, and my hands to pull the hook off of the valve.

My next report will likely be on leaning out the fuel mixture a bit.  It seems pretty rich to me and there were a lot of used, wet spark plugs in the trunk.  I took a cursory look at the carb and it may not be quite as easy as the tank removal since it's stuck tight below the exhaust manifold.  More on that soon, I hope.

Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/10/19 5:38 p.m.

As long as I'm at it, I thought I'd give a little more of a Trabant tour.  I said above there is no fuel gauge.  What I should have said is there is no dash gauge.  If you look at the photo of the underside of the hood, you'll see a black stick wedged behind a brace.

That stick is the fuel gauge.

I assume each number represents liters of fuel.

So it's got a gauge, just not a very convenient gauge.

TurnerX19
TurnerX19 Dork
9/10/19 6:25 p.m.

Convenience is imperialist evil commerad Heidemann!

RandolphCarter
RandolphCarter New Reader
9/10/19 7:05 p.m.
TurnerX19 said:

Convenience is imperialist evil commerad Heidemann!

 

Forward, Comrades! Let us together create the glorious Worker's Paradise!

 

(I know, more appropriate for a Lada, but this Capitalist running pig-dog gets sooooo confused sometimes...)

 

To the original poster, are you going to keep it stock?

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/10/19 9:19 p.m.
Carl Heideman said:

I posted the Trabant introduction yesterday, but it was really as pre-cursor to my first repair report.  I've taken the car on a few 5-10km trips from my house to the shop or around the neighborhood.  Last Saturday, I took it on the longest trip so far--35km--to a friends car-infested shop party.  On Sunday, I smelled and saw a small puddle of gas underneath.

As I mentioned above, the Trabant is very simple and uses a gravity instead of a fuel pump.  Like motorcycles, lawn mowers, Model T's and other vehicles with gravity feed, there is a fuel shutoff.  There is no gauge, either, and the fuel shutoff includes a reserve setting.  Z is off, A is on, R is reserve.  Maybe Hungary Bill can tell me what they stand for?

I believe it's the other way around, unless it is in Hungarian. Z should stand for "zu" which is on, and A for "aus" which is off. 

Patrick
Patrick MegaDork
9/10/19 9:20 p.m.

It thrills me that there are two eastern bloc cars on page 1 of the build threads section 

Woody
Woody MegaDork
9/10/19 10:57 p.m.

Back in 1989 or 90, Car and Driver was piling on these cars really hard, and I guess the same thing was happening in West Germany. I was really happy when my friend from Hamburg sent me a little toy Trabi. I think I may still have it somewhere. I'll have to find it and post a photo.

I think this is going to be fun to watch. Enjoy your Trabant!

Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/11/19 9:47 a.m.
Jordan Rimpela said:

I believe it's the other way around, unless it is in Hungarian. Z should stand for "zu" which is on, and A for "aus" which is off. 

The car came from Romania according to the previous owner.  I don't know what language is on the car, but the car runs on "A" and runs out of gas on "Z" so maybe it is a different language abbreviation.

Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/11/19 9:49 a.m.
RandolphCarter said:

To the original poster, are you going to keep it stock?

I have no problem cutting up or modifying cars, but I want to keep this as stock as possible to maintain and understand the genuine Trabant experience.

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim MegaDork
9/11/19 9:55 a.m.

In reply to Carl Heideman :

Those are the German markings:

A = Auf = "Open"

Z = Zu = "Closed"

I don't think they ever made a foreign language version of this car, they couldn't make enough to satisfy local demand in the first place. After German reunification, a lot of cheaper cars from West Germany got sold to East Germany, and they in turn sold their cars into other (then former) Eastern Bloc countries. Wouldn't be unusual for a car like that to end up in Romania that way. But who knows, it may have been sold there new to somebody pretty high up in society, given how desperately poor Romania was back then.

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/11/19 11:18 a.m.
BoxheadTim said:

In reply to Carl Heideman :

Those are the German markings:

A = Auf = "Open"

Z = Zu = "Closed"

Open and closed makes a lot more sense. This is why I should not late-night German. 

Carl Heideman
Carl Heideman
9/11/19 12:18 p.m.
BoxheadTim said:

In reply to Carl Heideman :

Those are the German markings:

A = Auf = "Open"

Z = Zu = "Closed"

I don't think they ever made a foreign language version of this car, they couldn't make enough to satisfy local demand in the first place. After German reunification, a lot of cheaper cars from West Germany got sold to East Germany, and they in turn sold their cars into other (then former) Eastern Bloc countries. Wouldn't be unusual for a car like that to end up in Romania that way. But who knows, it may have been sold there new to somebody pretty high up in society, given how desperately poor Romania was back then.

So I guess we've found another positive aspect of the Trabant experience:  It helps you learn another language.

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