Monday, January 31, 2011

My Trabi Story.

It was in the last days of August 2010 that I noticed via email, that a fellow member of the
IFA Uk club had posted on the club forum, he had a Trabant for sale.
Now, if you read my earlier  writings you'll know I had just gotten my Wartburg 353
Tourist up to scratch, with a number of jobs completed and I had started taking the car to
shows and to enjoy it.
But, I had always wanted a Trabi and bought the Wartburg as a second choice, as there
was little available in the Trabi market at the time.

The Trabant on sale was a 601 Universal or Kombi model as I prefer to call it and
although it needed a bit of welding, it had had a fair bit of recent work done to it and had 
eight months mot and six months tax.Furthermore, it was a November 1989 model, which
of course was the same month and year that the Berlin Wall opened.
This also meant that the car was one of the last of the two stroke models to be made, before
they changed to the four stroke Volkswagen engine for the last year or so of production.
Furthermore, this car had the rear coil spring suspension, that was fitted to the last models
along with Electronic ignition as standard.
It was the model that ticked all the boxes for me. Electronic ignition is a huge advantage
to two strokes as I knew from my Wartburgs and being Nov '89 with the revised suspension, 
there was no earlier model that could have appealed to me more.
( Well, ok, maybe I'd prefer a Kubel if the price was the same!)
I knew that from 1983, trabants had 12 volt electrics and from 1974, the petrol/fuel mix changed
from 33:1 to 50:1 which meant the later ones had a few changes that would make a big 
difference. An added bonus was this car was the Kombi model which although not hugely
important, I preferred it to the saloon.

The car was owned by Richard Hemington ( now Club secretary), whom I didn't know and had 
previously been owned by Professor Lew Schnurr, who had bought the car in the early nineties
in Berlin and brought it back to Britain, where he drove it daily for a number of years.
He is also the man who translated the 'Trabant Owners handbook' from German to English.
The car had been forward and back to Berlin a number of times and had also covered part
of Scandinavia and the Alps.
It had covered just over sixty thousand kilometres from new.

I was very interested and emailed the owner to find out more about the car and the extent of the
work it needed.
Not that much as it turned out.

There were two small holes in one of the inner wheel arches, near the battery tray which would
need fixing. 
The worst problem was that the both door sills- the top part that you see when you 
open a door were rusted through. But the good news here was that new sills were supplied
with the car, which made it a labour only job and a lot simpler.
Only other problem the car had was that water had leaked through the holes near the
battery tray onto the floor area in front of the front seats and although still solid, it needed 
fixing and then painted.
I knew this last job was one that I could tackle myself and would enjoy seeing the end
result, so the work needing done didn't faze me.
He told me it was excellent mechanically and he wouldn't hesitate to drive it anywhere.

Richard sent me about fifty photographs in a large file, so I could see the car from
virtually every angle and gave me some more info.
The car had new brake cylinders and new brake shoes all round, new windscreen,
recent tyres, new bonnet frame and battery.
Problem was, he was in Colchester and I was in Ireland, so if I traveled to see it, I
really had to buy it, otherwise it would be a complete waste of time and money.
He was offering the car at a very reasonable price, considering it had a decent mot
and tax and was a good runner.
Problem with living in Ireland is that with it being so small, there's a real shortage
of classics cars, compared to what's always available in the Uk.
He also said there might be a possibility he could meet me at East Midlands airport
with the car if I bought it, which was probably what clinched the deal more than anything
else. I would have to drive the 175 miles to Holyhead from there to get the Ferry back
to Ireland, which was a whole lot more palatable than flying into London and driving from
Colchester to Holyhead!
Added to this, he said he had loads of spare parts and if I wanted to buy some with the
car he'd come back with prices. For some reason this never panned out, maybe he wanted
to keep his spares after thinking about it. Anyway, I wasn't too bothered about them.
I did think the car was being offered at a very low price and I wondered if it could be as
good as it sounded.
However, I place great faith in communication and the communication with Richard was
first class. He answered all my questions promptly and accurately and was upfront at all
The fact he was a club member, I also placed value upon as generally people who join
car clubs are enthusiasts and more likely to have looked after their cars.
I did wonder would there be any rust in places where it couldn't be seen, like the
chassis for example, but he assured me there wasn't and it did of course have a long
Also, I knew that the two holes he told me about, couldn't be seen from under the
bonnet unless you removed the battery, so I guessed if he hadn't told me I wouldn't
have known about them until the next mot. The fact that he openly told me about them
I took as a good sign.

So I worked out the finances, including the cost of going to collect it and getting home 
and decided to go for it.
Flights to East Midlands Airport can be very cheap from Ireland and I got two single
tickets for my son and I for twenty quid all in.
The ferry back to Ireland, from Holyhead was courtesy of Stena and cost just over
one hundred euros, which wasn't too bad. So we got over and back for about two hundred
quid, all in, with petrol and food included.
Best thing about Holyhead crossings to Ireland is that it only takes about three hours and
you're on the road again. Only other option is from Liverpool and that's an overnight boat.
The car drove brilliantly the whole way and we had no problems whatsoever on route.

I'd never driven a Trabant before and was surprised at how good they are to drive.
The gearchange does take a little time to adjust to, but it's plain sailing after that.
The Trabant has had much criticism over it's long  lifespan, from Western critics, but I can now
 say those critics have been wrong and their criticism unjustified.
The steering is tight, accurate,  responsive and the turning circle is fantastic.
My car had recent new brake shoes fitted all round and the car stops up pretty sharp
 and in a straight line.
What surprised me most was how good the little car handles as negative criticism seems 
to attack that characteristic more than anything else. You can really chuck the little car 
around and its tyres stick to the road admirably. I can now understand how the Trabant won
 so many rallies in the sixties and early seventies.
I guess most of the critcism they received was due to crossplies.

Most surprising thing is the fuel economy I got.
When I picked the car up, it had 22 litres of fuel in the tank.
I later topped it up with 12 litres, to fill it.     That's 34 litres.
I drove 438km(270 miles approx) when I got the car and it still had 11 litres of fuel in the tank.
So, the car did 270 miles on 23 litres of fuel, which roughly equates to 54 mpg.
I drove the car at 80-85 kmph according to the speedo on the motorway and obviously mixed 
speeds on lesser roads. I would say that the motorway miles I covered would be no more than 180.

A week or so after I returned home, I started into doing the work on my Trabi.
I took out pretty much the whole interior, seats, carpeting and rubber matting.
I thoroughly washed all and set it aside, ready to put back into the car.
Next, I used Deox C, a type of Rust neutraliser on the rusty floor area, which really did a great
job. I left his for a couple of days to thoroughly dry and gave the whole area two coats of
Lowe's Rust primer. Next day, I sprayed the floor with an aerosol can of 'Papyrus' that I
got from Trabiuk. The finish was better than I could have hoped for, really good.
I then put all the interior back into the car, after mopping and hoovering the
entire floor shell of the car.
I then delivered the car to a local panel beater, who I'd arranged to cut out the old
door sills and splice in the new ones.
I found this guy purely by chance after having had a couple of outright refusals to do
the job, from a couple of similar bodyshops.
Not only was he keen enough to get the job, he would do it for 100 euros which I
thought was great value.
I later found out from Richard, who sold me the car that he had been quoted
750 pounds for the same job in London, which explained probably why he sold such a good car.
The door sills turned out very well and it was reassuring to find out that the bottom sills
underneath those being replaced were totally solid.
The panel beater left them primed and ready for painting, which I did myself with a 
spray can in one hand and a hairdryer in the other! 
Hard technique to recommend or explain, but they turned out well.

My brother asked me recently what driving a Trabant was like.
I thought about it and said, it's like driving a road legal bumper car.
He thought I was being negative, but I wasn't.
A well sorted Trabant is super fun to drive and reminds me of when I was a kid at
 the fairground and had a go on the bumper cars for the first time.
It puts a smile on your face.

I found it inevitable that I would compare the Trabi to the Wartburg and they are
both similar and different in many ways.
They use a lot of the same switchgear and the door handles are the same, on the
outside anyway.
Despite the Wartburg being watercooled, the two stroke technology is the same and
it feels like a bigger, more powerful version of the trabant engine.
In East Germany, the Wartburg typically sold for 2 to 3 times the price of a Trabant, so
naturally was considered to be better and the car many people aspired to.
It's really just a bit bigger and faster and they don't handle as well as the Trabant.
They are of course much heavier and possibly safer, although I'm not certain about that
one as the Trabant is a very strong car for its size and weight.
The Wartburg engine fitted to the Trabant as many have done would add a big power and
speed boost, but to the detriment of originality.
I much prefer the column gear change of the Trabant to the floor change of the Wartburgs
I had and the Trabant feels and looks more like a classic car than the 353.
If I had another Wartburg I'd like one of the column change models, preferably a 311 or
pre 1985 353.
The Wartburg has much more space and a bigger boot.
The Trabant has a number of greasing points that need lubricating from time to time, but
it's not a difficult job.
People regularly assume my trabant is 40-50 years old, so classic is its design and the style
of the Trabant definitely has more character than the Wartburg 353, which is the typical 
Russian box style not unlike some Lada's. Although I do feel they're a much better car than
the Lada.
Both IFA cars  have their followers and I like them both.

I feel though that a new Wartburg that cost the price of 2 or 3 Trabants was over-valued.

The car sometimes developed an air lock when sitting for a few hours and
the inline filter would drain itself of fuel. This necessitated fiddling with the fuel lines 
until the filter filled up again and then the car would start.
This problem became worse in the days and weeks after I got home, until it got to
the point the car would stop every few hundred yards from what seemed like fuel starvation.

 I changed all the fuel hoses and shortened and tightened them as much as
possible to ensure the gravity flow was in the best possible position. I also
dispensed with the inline filter which I thought might be hindering progress.
Still I had problems and the car kept stopping.
To cut a long story short, it turned out the (T) joining piece that connects the two
fuel lines and the line for the air breather going to the top of the petrol tank was pinched
inwards severely and was causing the airlock which was the problem.
I got a copper T piece from a Plumbers merchants that is far better than the original
flimsy plastic bit that preceded it. Fitted it and problem solved.

It just goes to show that good cars are out there, especially if you're not afraid to do
a little work and the club can be a great place to buy a car.

The trabi continues to drive well and I make a point of taking it out at least once a week.
I've painted the bonnet which was a bit tatty and around the rear light cluster in black
which is a common area for paint to chip off. I also took the carburettor off, and gave it
a proper clean with compressed air.
I changed the gear oil and sprayed the leaf springs on the front suspension.
I also T-cutted the whole car and gave it a coat of good wax afterwards.
So short of a respray I can do no more and the car looks and drives as a Trabi should.
Next job is to sort the sagging parcel shelf , grease  the greasing points and
that's it.