What’s The Similarity Between A Tesla Model 3 And A Trabant? More Than You Might Think

To anyone who experienced it first hand, the massive queues we saw last Thursday at shopping malls and high streets around the world of happy, enthusiastic Tesla fans — each with their $1,000 deposits for the Model 3 burning a Tesla-shaped hole in their pockets — seemed very much like launch-day queues for the first few generations of Apple’s iPhone.

Unified by a singular goal, these queues became places where stories were told, friends were made, and a level of camaraderie flourished which you rarely see in today’s modern consumer society. Unlike the unashamed brutality and selfishness of Black Friday sales, Thursday’s queues were civilized, ordered, and carried not a hope that each would walk away with a reservation to buy Tesla’s latest electric car but that each would walk away with the knowledge (or hope at least) that they were there on the day that Tesla changed the world.

Is the Tesla Model 3 the modern day Trabant? Of course not.

Is the Tesla Model 3 the modern day Trabant? Of course not.

The length and breadth of queues around the world for the Tesla Model 3 caught both Tesla and the press off-guard, leading Elon Musk to already announce via Twitter that Tesla is examining a revamped production schedule and perhaps even a brand-new production facility in Europe to keep up with demand. While that’s good news for the 300,000 or more Tesla Model 3 reservation holders, there’s one inescapable fact that everyone will have to come to terms with.

Unless you’re near the front of the queue, you’re in for a long wait for the Model 3, because demand is certainly already outstripping Tesla’s production capabilities.

The last time the world saw such a long queue for a car, says Hadelsblatt technology reporter Britta Weddeling, was when East Germans spent years waiting for their chance to buy a Trabant.

Trabants were once loved -- and fairly technically advanced too.

Trabants were once loved — and fairly technically advanced too.

Maligning the Silicon Valley trend for having a shortage of everything from affordable housing to decent public transport Weddeling — who lives in San Francisco and covers Silicon Valley for the German-language newspaper — argues that the shortage of Model 3 is something that makes complete sense in the VC-centric valley.

“A shortage of Model 3 seems only logical. In my neighborhood there is also a shortage of energy,” she writes. “Every two or three weeks the only thing that gets disrupted in highly innovative San Francisco is my power line.”

Naturally, the article is a little tongue in cheek, but her comparison to the lowly Trabant has got us thinking. While you might think there’s little to join the two together — one was built by hand by burly men with large hammers working for the good of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik while the other is will be built by state-of-the-art robots in a bright and airy factory in Silicon Valley — the two cars are more alike than you might think.

How can we possibly compare a futuristic, high-end zero-emission electric car to a two-stroke, troublesome car so notorious that it was literally given away by East German families after the fall of the Berlin Wall because it was so terrible (and they finally had access to decent, modern cars from around the world)? Read on and you’ll find out. (We’re already hearing the howls of displeasure from the Tesla faithful. But if you’ll bear with us we think there are a couple of salient points we’d like to make with a devilish grin on our face. Provided you’re willing to take this post with the humor it was meant, carry on reading. If not, we suggest you may want to read the five things we like about the Tesla Model 3 instead.)

First of all, like the Tesla Model 3, the Trabant — at least in its early days — was sold as a car that everyone could buy (even if reality was very different). Supported by the East Bloc rather than the free market, the success of the Trabbi didn’t come as a consequence of massive hype but rather that it was one of only a handful of cars that regular East Germans could buy.


Trabant 601 Kombi By Christoph Neumann (private archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For want of a better expression the Trabant was essentially the Hobson’s choice people’s car: a car that people chose because there was no other car that met their needs or budget. Many would argue (although some may disagree) that the Model 3 is a similar Hobson’s choice: the only ~$35,000 car to offer 200+ miles of range per charge, advanced autonomous drive features, and a pre-made long-distance, reliable charging network.

Then there’s the cutting-edge design. While the Model 3’s final design has yet to be finalized, it’s clear already that it is crammed full with cutting-edge technology and pushes the bounds of what’s possible with today’s automotive production methods. From the full-length glass roof to the way in which Tesla has moved the front seats forward and rear seats back to make as much cabin room as possible, the Tesla Model 3 is innovative.

So too was the Trabant — at least during the early years of its production. While the Trabant became something of a comedy car towards the end of its production life, early Trabants embodied the very latest in automotive technology of the time.

While we’ll admit the terrible two-stroke engine was the car’s ultimate downfall, the Trabant used a monocoque unitary construction — something most U.S. car companies didn’t adopt for several decades after the Trabant began to roll off the production line. It also had independent suspension, front wheel drive and a freewheel gear designed to save fuel.

That’s not all either: decades before recycling was a thing that the automotive industry aspired to, the Trabant’s body panels were made from Duroplast: a hard plastic-like material made of recycled cotton waste from the Soviet Union’s massive cotton mills and phenol resins from East Germany’s massive dye industry. Save for its heavily polluting engine, the Trabant was actually quite an environmentally friendly car.

With that smokey two-stroke removed, the Trabant makes an excellent electric car...

With that smokey two-stroke removed, the Trabant makes an excellent electric car…

While we’re on the subject of innovation, it’s worth noting the extraordinary — if dangerous — layout of the car’s major components. Doing away with a fuel pump to save weight and construction costs, the Trabant’s fuel tank was located next to the engine under the hood, allowing the car’s carburetor to be fed by gravity. This freed up space in the rear and gave the Trabant sedan and ‘kombi’ wagon incredibly good load-carrying capabilities for a car so small.

The air-cooled engine too had its own jacket, ensuring it reached operating temperature as quickly as possible and kept itself warm in the harsh winters of remote parts of pre-unification DDR. The lack of radiator? Another innovation that allowed the car to be lightweight and super-fuel efficient.

Then there’s safety. Speaking last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that the Tesla Model 3 was designed to be the safest car of its class. While we can’t say the same of the Trabant, it did once famously pass a slalom ‘moose’ test that the 1997 Mercedes-Benz A-class sedan did not. And while we’ll admit this link is particularly tenuous, those we know with Trabants say that the Duroplast body panels of the Trabant are incredibly durable and strong. Indeed, back in 1991, official crash tests showed that the Trabant did better in offset frontal crash tests than far better-known Western European models, beating the popular Ford Escort and Opel Vectra — which officials at the time said “broke like a deck of cards.”

Finally, we’ve one other thing to note: both the Trabant and the Tesla Model 3 have very loyal fans who love the car regardless of what anyone else says. And while we’re sure many will be waiting for year for their Model 3 to arrive — just as Trabant owners did back in East Germany more than 30 years ago — at least today’s Model 3 owners will know their car won’t ever be ridiculed just as much as the Trabant has been over the years.

And in case you’re wondering? Yes, the Trabant makes an excellent electric car: we’ve aware of several very clever conversions and have ridden in one…

Disclaimer: we’re not suggesting you forgo a Tesla Model 3 for a Trabant, but the author will admit to having a soft spot for terrible East-German motor vehicles, having at one point owned and operated a two-stroke, blue-smoke-trailing, rattling, g0-anywhere MZ Motorcycle. 

(Featured image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0503-0015-001 / Weiß / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons


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