Tucked away in the entry list for the 1995 Telstra Rally Australia was one of the event’s most unusual entries ever, a Trabant 601R, driven by Michael Kahlfuss and Ronald Bauer.
Surely not a Trabant, the butt of motoring jokes all around the world, only surpassed by Volvo or Skoda jokes?
There have been some strange vehicles entered in previous Rally Australias – Vauxhall Astras, Morris Minis, SEATs, and so on, but this was the first time (and the only time in the event’s history) that a Trabant had appeared on the list of starters.
Considering the calibre and quality of the other cars competing that year, Celica GT4s, Mitsubishi Lancer Evos, Subaru Imprezas and so on, the entry stood out like a sore thumb.
It would be fair to say that perhaps this was the first time that a Trabant had appeared on Australian roads, certainly the first one to enter an Australian rally, so it was worthwhile for us to investigate this unusual entry further.
Trabants first saw the light of day behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany during the 1950s. There were a number of car manufacturers in Germany before the Second World War, but when war was declared, the Iron Curtain divided Germany into the East and West, virtually marooning manufacturers such as Auto Union (who made Audis, DKWs and a number of other makes) and BMW in East Germany.
The little Trabant got stuck in the water splash at the bottom of the Bunnings jumps. Photo: Stuart Bowes
Because of the demands made on weapon and aircraft manufacturers, there was little room for the production of motor cars, even if the East Germans could afford them.
Effectively their motor industry died. At the end of the war, the East Germans were so far behind the times when it came to producing up-to-date motor vehicles, that their first attempt at producing cars was not very successful.
The population were still smarting from the effects of the war effort, and there was no money available for them to buy the sorts of cars that the lucky westerners could afford.
Yet the general public still needed to get around, and in 1957 the “people’s factory” in Zwickau turned out their first offering, the 2-cylinder, two stroke, 300cc Trabant. Despite being widely recognized as the world’s most basic car, the East Germans queued up in ever-increasing numbers to buy one.
A basic, noisy, smelly and hopelessly incompetent vehicle, the Trabant was nevertheless very popular with the car-starved population. But the government of the day didn’t want their people to become too westernized too soon, so production of the car was regulated, so much so that it was not uncommon for customers to have to wait for up to eight years to buy one.
Kahlfuss also contested the arduous Safari Rally in the Trabant.
Over the following years the basic Trabant (or Trabby, as they became widely known), was changed only minimally – the engine was upgraded and a few other minor modifications made.
Without putting too fine a point on it, the Trabant was probably the worst car in the world. Yet here was one, entered in the highest-level rally event in the world against 300-plus horsepower, 4-wheel-drive, turbocharged guided missiles. Why?
Germans Michael Kahlfuss, a driving instructor, and his co-driver, Ronald Bauer, a motor mechanic, were no strangers to World Championship rallying. In fact they made their rally debut in the RAC Rally of Great Britain in the Trabant the previous year, much to the delight and disbelief of the spectators, who almost carried them and their car across the finish line with their cheers of support.
Kahlfuss and Bauer followed this up with an 11th in class in the Monte Carlo Rally, before tackling the toughest event in the world, the East African Safari. Given the basic nature of the car, it proved to be surprisingly reliable, if not competitive.
This particular Trabant was a 601R model, basic in the extreme, powered by a 600cc, two-cylinder, two stroke engine fuelled by the same sort of mixture that you would pour into the fuel tank of your average motorized lawn mower.
Sitting on top of the tiny engine under the front bonnet sat a tiny carburetor fed by the fuel/oil mixture mentioned, and copious quantities of air generated in an expansion chamber twice as big that forces air into the motor, much like the engine in a racing motorcycle.
A local Masai liked the look of the Trabant.
Access to the engine is obtained by removing the grille and for night driving, the grille is removed, replaced by one containing a pair of driving lights.
Inside the Trabby, the crew had fitted a pair of contoured racing seats, full FIA-approved harnesses, a comprehensive roll cage, and little else. There was one additional gauge to record the oil pressure, and a column-mounted gear lever connected to a gearbox containing unknown ratios.
The whole package was extremely functional and super-light, attributes that were similarly shared by the other cars in the event. Stopping the beast was taken care of by drum brakes all round, although there was one consideration to improved stopping – finned alloy drums on the front.
As Rally Australia unfolded that year, it became obvious that the performance of the vehicle was not to be sneezed at. As it ring-a-dinged its way around the Langley Park Super Stage, it set some times that put it amongst the times recorded by the odd Daihatsu Charade and a Mazda 323.
It handled well, turned into corners with aplomb and had an amazing turn of speed. All with just 600cc!
But it was out in the forest where the real action was happening, and where the car’s inadequacies became apparent. Those alloy-finned brakes were the greatest drawback, particularly coming down from the famous Bunnings jumps into the water splash at the bottom.
Not only did the brakes fade out completely, the engine ingested a mouthful of water in the Bunnings creek, causing forward progress to be delayed while everything dried out.
Entering in an event like Rally Australia is one thing, getting there is another, and Kahlfuss and Bauer had a little help from their friends. Toyota, who brought several Celica GT4s to Rally Australia in 1995, found room in one of their containers for the Trabant to make the trip down under, which was quite a saving.
Obviously, Toyota didn’t see the Trabant as being a threat to the performance of their GT4s, even though it was homologated in the Group A category!
On event, the Trabant’s service crew tended the car from a 3-tonne service truck which contained enough spare gearboxes, motors, suspension parts and miscellaneous spares to rebuild the car several times over. There was obviously a serious intent of the crew to gain a respectable placing in the rally.
Sadly, this was the last time that the Trabant and its gallant crew were to be seen in action in Australia – the car’s FIA Group A homologation ran out and its track life was quickly coming to a close.
However, Kahlfuss was keen to keep rallying, albeit not in a Trabby. When asked what he planned to rally the following year, he was quick to reply.
“Celica,” he said. “Trabant brakes no work under water.”
In the long and decorated history of Rally Australia, the Trabant was surely the most unusual, the most unique and the most underpowered car ever to drive down the starting ramp.
And yes, it did finish the event, 45th outright, third in class and almost three hours behind the winner, Kenneth Eriksson.
Whatever you might think of the car, Kahlfuss and Bauer had proved a point. You could almost see the smiles on the faces of hundreds of East German Trabant owners after they heard the news.
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