Chances are good you’ve at least heard of the Trabant, national car of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR); but the Trabant wasn’t invented overnight. This dour gentleman is standing next to a Sachsenring P70 – a car meant as much as a prototype for new tech to be used on the forthcoming Trabant (planning for it began in 1953) as a commercial enterprise in and of itself.
The P70 replaced the IFA F8, a prewar DKW design that was more or less unchanged from 1939 (production did not resume until 1947). When it was new the F8 was a very sophisticated small car but by 1954-55 it was definitely time for a replacement. It had already been long overshadowed by the larger IFA F9, another Auto Union/DKW related design.
Life after Potsdam
All of these cars origins go back to the geographic divisions created by the end of WW2. Almost all of the former Auto Union combine (Audi, DKW, Horch, and Wanderer) was now in the Soviet-administered zone. The Soviets commandeered the factories as war reparations and nationalized them.
Much of the former vehicle producing world in the Eastern zone, not just car companies, eventually fell under the umbrella of IFA, short for Industrieverband Fahrzeugbau, a state-controlled industrial conglomerate.
The former DKW factory at Zwickau became VEB (Volkseigener Betrieb) Automobilwerk Zwickau, abbreviated as AWZ. The former Horch factory in Zwickau became VEB Kraftfahrzeugwerk Horch Zwickau. Both produced cars that were part of the IFA family under the new structure. The Wanderer factory in Chemnitz was destroyed.
In the first months and years after the war, many executives and workers fled to the Western zones. It was IFA and Zwickau that first put DKW’s prewar F9 design into production while the the “new” Auto Union, still with us today as Audi, got started in Ingolstadt.
Until 1954 all of the East German cars were rooted in prewar designs originated by now West German companies. Plans for a national car that would be something new eventually led to the Trabant, but in incremental steps, of which the P70 was one of the first.
The P70 – launched at the 1955 Leipzig Trade Fair and its big cousin, the P240, were the first cars in the transition into a properly home-grown industry in the DDR making new postwar designs.
Lest you think this was all about “people’s cars,” the former Horch works offered the first of the new cars – the P70’s enormous cousin, the P240. Although a story for another day, the P240 was built at the old Horch factory and meant as a Mercedes-rivaling successor to the prewar Horches. Ingolstadt owned the rights to Horch, so the name “Sachsenring,” inspired by the nearby racetrack, was chosen.
Genesis of the P70
The P240 was meant as a luxury car, something rather unusual in a Communist country, but it wasn’t meant for serious volume. The P70, on the other hand, would replace the cheapest car available in the DDR, and had to be cheap and easy to build. Here another problem caused by the border divisions was addressed.
Germany’s primary steel producing region (Ruhr) fell under Western administration after the war, while steel mills in Silesia were now in Poland and not predisposed to help German industrial companies get back on their feet. That meant steel would be in short supply for a long time, so East German engineers turned to plastic as early as 1950-51.
The key was making cheap and durable plastics. Unlike in the USA and United Kingdom, where fiberglass would eventually make it to volume cars, East German engineers turned to cotton waste – available in huge, cheap quantities from Russia. Combined with phenolic acid, the cotton waste could be used in a heatset plastic that formed a durable material suitable for body panels – Duroplast.
Duroplast was ideal for exterior panels and easier under the circumstances to use than Steel (due to supplies) but also much more time consuming to stamp than steel, and not well suited to structural panels. Tried out on individual body panels on the F8 and F9 first, the P70 would be the first car with a body made out of the material.
The car used a conventional frame but the body structure was made from Beech wood. Robust when new – press photos depicted about 20 workers standing on one of the cars to prove it, the wood eventually rotted. A combination of this wood frame and the fact that these were generally bottom-feeder economy cars eventually led to a very low survival rate – the P70 is very rare today.
Under the hood you’d find the F8’s familiar 654-cc two-stroke twin, transversely mounted over the gearbox, with the updated rack-and-pinion steering of the larger IFA F9. The starter motor and dynamo were one and the same, a unique setup called Dynastart, now adapted for the modern 12V electrics on the P70. The radiator was mounted behind the engine, strangely, and coolant moved by thermo siphon rather than a water pump.
The car was very basic. At first, only a two-door sedan was available, with no trunk lid. You accessed the cargo area through the folding back seat. It was slow, too – acceptable maybe in the prewar F8, but less so in a brand new car. It could only manage 60mph downhill, but it compared fairly well to West German bubble cars like the Messerschmidt and Isetta.
Sachsenring and the Trabant
A more usable wagon arrived in the spring of 1956 . This was followed a year later by a very pretty coupe, by VEB Karosseriewerk Dresden (formerly Gläser, now nationalized). The coupe was a very stylish car – often cited as one of the many inspirations of the much later Nissan Figaro – but it’s heavy body work made it even slower than the regular P70s. And those were no rockets themselves.
Originally labeled the IFA or AWZ (VEB Automobilwerke Zwickau) P70, in 1957-58, the two nearby enterprises producing the P70 and P240 were unified into VEB Sachsenring, and you can see the Sachsenring logo on this P70. Ideally, turning these two factories into a unit would have meant efficiencies but most of the action was at the Zwickau factory.
The unification of the two entities would become clearer with the debut of the Trabant in 1958.
This photo comes from the OldMotors archive, and was probably taken somewhere between Zwickau and Dresden, most likely when the car was new. The plate begins with an “R,” which means it was probably registered new in Dresden.
The P70 was offered from the summer of 1955 into the summer of 1959, by which time customers had cooled on it – just about 3,500 were made in the final year, out of about 36,000 total.
By that time the original Trabant had been engineered and gone on sale.
The new car was powered by an air-cooled twin and had a steel substructure instead of wood, but the layout would look very familiar compared to the P70. Unsurprisingly, P70s were in some cases used as development mules for the Trabbi.
The Horch works built the shells, a nearby textile factory made the panels and the cars were put through final assembly at Zwickau.
The Trabant was a more successful car from an engineering and durability standpoint and not too dated when it debuted in late 1958 or even when it was restyled in 1962 – but it would have a long life.
Some of the methods for making it, particularly the use of Duroplast, were good for the circumstances of 1955 but made the cars laborious to produce and hard to change later on. The long decline set in during the mid-1960s, and the Trabant continued mostly unchanged until the fall of the Berlin Wall.