Vellum Venom: Trabant 601

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
On a frigid Detroit winter morning in 1998, I foolishly argued with a CCS professor over the need for conventional sedans or hatchbacks for our India design projects. Almost a decade later, the Tata Nano’s hatchback design was the justification I needed for believing designers place far too much weight in their creativity. Even if the Nano isn’t a smashing success, it proved the point.No such worries exist with the Trabant 601: the socioeconomic backdrop ensured the success of Dr. Werner Lang’s creation.
The archaeological value of this example is discussed here, so let’s focus on design: faded rally sign aside, the Trabant 601’s front end has a perky, toothy smile even when draped in dreary paint and clumsy appendages.Note how the shiny grille’s “smile” is emulated in the curvaceous panel holding it, and how the outer curves translate into a single line between the hood, the fenders, and the headlights.
With so much unused grille space, there’s little doubt these were designed for cold weather über alles.
Exposed lighting pods are expected, but the sheetmetal secured with flat-head screws was surprising. This likely made collision repairs a breeze in any part of Eastern Europe.
Up close, that front end “smile” and its continuity of lines is poorly constructed via terrible panel gaps.Headlight Dorks: take note of the European headlight’s beam superiority over what we had in America.
Simple, honest bumpers with modest impact strips imply Trabbis weren’t designed for crash tests, and the lack of integration ensures easier repairs and cheaper production.
The rubber ends seem safer than the early 601’s one-piece metal bumper: today’s pedestrian safety standards are not without precedent!
Vulgar panel gaps aside, it’s a shame the headlight assembly couldn’t protrude further out, a la Atomic Space Age design.Remember the Trabant name means satellite: it’s a reasonable request!
Black rubber insert long since removed, the aluminum fender runner was a bizarre addition to a budget-minded vehicle.Perhaps this allows Trabbi owners to haul large items atop the hood without scuffing the paint?
The smiling grille elegantly transitions into a warm smile from the hood’s leading edge. It makes onlookers smile, too!
Aftermarket driving light aside, there’s resemblance to the 1956 Fiat 1100, albeit with quality that makes said Fiat feel like a Ghia + Virgil Exner of the era.
The integrated cut-line shared amongst the grille panel+hood+headlight was an elegant surprise.
No such elegance going forward: the flat-faced fender ensures the headlight’s chrome ring is a poorly integrated afterthought, not an Atomic Space Age addition of merit.
But there’s charm in these working-class credentials: two doors sans a sleek, wasteful coupe roofline.It’s a proper 2-door Club Sedan, a welcome sight in this age of infuriating Sports Activity Coupes.
The basic steel wheel with knobby tires speak volumes about the road conditions of that era/location. No wonder these were (are?) popular rally vehicles.
Can we give props for a door cutline lining up with an A-pillar so crisply?Years before DLO FAIL became a thing, the Trabant proves it’s hard to screw it up.
Not seen from the head-on angle above, note the A-pillar’s flatness with a transition to the roundness in the door. Such contrast provides appealing surface tension.
A sad antenna stump could fit inside that hood-to-cowl panel gap.
A clean, tidy cowl shows honest styling.Peep that logical crease where the cowl ends and the windshield frame begins.
The (green) roof’s composite dome adds depth to the aluminum halo, while those exposed screws mean it’d accept a utility rack with ease.
The aluminum trim (now with rubber insert) atop the fender marches back, providing budget-minded bling between the hard transition on the bodyside.
That greenhouse is flat: curved side glass was a luxury, there’s no room for style at this price point.
The negative area makes an eye-catching, faux keystone atop the B-pillar.
These plastic (composite?) door handles possess a V-shaped, negative wedge perfect for any (Western) European concept car of the 1970s.
The C-pillar vent could be a flow-through ventilation exhaust, and its lines work reasonably well with the natural flow of the beltline and roofline.
The (green) roof is seemingly glued to the metal body, with aluminum trim hiding some of the mating surface.It appears that roof repairs could be a breeze?
Considering the Trabbi’s humble nature, the curved rear glass appears luxurious. And if the aluminum trim encircled the roof?Perhaps even decadent.
The traditional three-box design creates a reasonable trunk, while the aluminum trim reached its finale, ensuring its place as a significant Trabant styling element.
The bodyside’s curve at the base of the greenhouse bends yet again, highlighting the wheels.It’s another element that wasn’t needed(?) by engineers, but helped with styling.
Note how the tailpipe doesn’t upsell the engine upstream. Modern vehicles should emulate this.
The Trabbi’s second memorable element is the assertive, yet value-conscious tail fins.Unlike the flat faced headlight/fender treatment, the rear fins visually lengthen the proportions and add an exciting downward (and inward!) slope: a fantastic job utilizing space that’d otherwise feel cheap, unfinished.
The amber/red lenses are a smooth extension: not to the extent of the 1959 Cadillac‘s bullet lights, but still eye-catching.Imagine the improvement to the front if the headlights received such treatment.
The chrome is expected, painting everything body color integrates all into a cohesive package.
The rear fascia woulda been boring without those dramatically droopy lights.
The implementation of negative area slips the license plate “under” the car — a trick still used today.
Peep the Trabant’s size relative to a GEN II Ford Ranger: such little real estate, designed in Eastern Europe coulda had far less style. So I thank the designer(s) for:
  1. Subtle curves in the body’s cross-section.
  2. Aluminum trim/roof accents.
  3. Quirky tail fins.
  4. That smiling, charming face.
Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a lovely day.
Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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2 of 24 comments
  • Fighter835 Fighter835 on Sep 12, 2018

    Excellent article. I grew up seeing lots of these things running around, it was nice to see one again.

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Sep 21, 2018

    There are two things I need more of. One is cowbell. The other is Vellum Venom!

  • Sobhuza Trooper Like fusion power, the I.D. Buzz is only 30 years away.
  • Lou_BC "respondents between 18 and 80 years old" Basically anyone deemed an adult who might be allowed to drive.
  • Lou_BC They will do fine if they come up with some cool sedans ;)
  • Mister They've got their work cut out for them. I live in a large metropolitan city of 1.2+ million people, the is a single Mitsubishi dealer. It's really more like a used-car dealer that sells Mitsubishi on the side. With the remarkably cheesy name of "Johnny Legends".
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