Thursday, July 4, 2013

To Trabant or Not to Trabant.

Last year I stumbled across a true automotive oddity, a 1970 Trabant 601. It was for sale on a website that I consult regularly; it is where I have purchased most of my old cars. The second I saw the picture I knew that I was interested. I remember very well that it was a Sunday morning, and when I saw that the car was only 15 minutes away from where I lived, I called and set up to see it that very afternoon.
I knew nothing about the Trabant brand, so I spent the morning researching it online. Trabant was the name of four different cars produced between 1957 until 1990 (the Trabant 500, the Trabant 600, the Trabant 601, and the Trabant 1.1) by the East German company (get ready for it, the name's a mouthful!) VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau. Most would simply call the car 'The Trabant', or more affectionately, 'Trabbi', with the 601 model being the most popular, and the face of the brand.

This is this model that I went to see. The owner was a very friendly gentleman who was more than happy to spend an hour of his time showing me his car. He had purchased it several years earlier, and while he had done a significant amount of work to restore it, he had lost interest and let it sit for two years. It was apparently his wife who was sick of seeing it sit in the garden that told him he had to sell it!

(Unfortunately the above photo is the only original photo of the car that I have, though I will include several of a nearly identical model I photographed in Hungary several years back.)
Along with the car were boxes and boxes of spare parts. Most common parts (inner tubes, headlights, steering wheels, wheels, seats, brake pads) were in double, if not triple. The seats had been re-upholstered, brand new chrome trim rings for the headlight were still in their boxes, and all of the brake lines had been replaced. This was clearly a project car that was begging for someone to help it cross the finish line.
As an aside, it turns out this man could be forgiven for abandoning this project, as he had a huge garage with more than a twenty beautifully restored old cars, including a Citroen Ami8, a Matra 530, Citroen DS, Renault Fuego, and two very rare (in Europe) American cars, a 1970s Cadillac convertible, and a pristine 1978 Lincoln 'Cartier Edition' Mark V. I spent another hour admiring these beauties, though that is the story for another day...

Alas, there was a hiccup. The price was reasonable, and there was even room for negotiation. It clearly helped that I was so visibly excited over such a rare and unique find (I really need to work on my poker face!). The owner liked the idea of his Trabbi going to someone who truly appreciated it. The problem was that when he had imported the car from the Czech Republic years earlier, he had not bothered to register the car in France and put the ownership in his name. While all of the paperwork from the original owner was available, after a bit of research I discovered that not only is it becoming more and more difficult to import an old car from a foreign country, but the fact that the current owner had not transferred it made it nearly impossible for a new owner to put it in his name.

For weeks the little 601 haunted me. There was so much potential. The Trabant body was made from a material called 'Duroplast', a sort of plastic-like mix of cotton and resin, so the outer body panels were not rusty, and never would be. The frame was indeed steel, but in this example I could see that it was in excellent shape and required no patching. The motor had not run for a few years, but such a simple machine (the 600 cc two-stroke, two-cylinder has more in common with your lawn mower than your car; you even have to mix the oil in with the gas!) could easily have been made to run again.
Occasionally I allow myself to be realistic, and I decided against buying the car. I had nearly forgotten about it, until I saw it pop up on the same website this past week!

EDIT: link no longer active, apparently the car has been sold

The price has dropped slightly, and I hear the Trabant calling my name again. I see so many possibilities. It could be turned into a mini '57 Chevy wannabe. It could be easily converted into a retro electric car. Though of course I think that the best option is to return it to original condition.

So that's where it sits today. Part of me knows that it would take a miracle to transfer the ownership, but another part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and snap it up before someone else does. My left-shoulder angel and right-shoulder demon are locked in a fierce battle right now... I'll let you know what the outcome is...

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