Home » When The Walls Come Tumblin’ Down: 1972 BMW 2002 vs 1987 Trabant 601

When The Walls Come Tumblin’ Down: 1972 BMW 2002 vs 1987 Trabant 601

Sbsd 11 9 2023
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Good morning! Today’s Shitbox Showdown includes a history lesson. Thirty-four years ago today, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened up, and cars like the two shown here were able to share the road after decades of separation. Since both are icons in their own right, I decided to pit them against each other, and find out which side’s car you all prefer. We’ll be spending more imaginary internet money than usual today, because one of these cars is a bit hard to find for sale, and the other one is increasing in value seemingly by the hour.

But before go off to meet Linda Fiorentino at the Cafe Friedrichstrasse, we should finish up with yesterday’s cheapies. When it comes to dirt-cheap cars, condition is everything. How well a car was built matters less than how it has been treated since then, and while we’re all largely in agreement that the Ford Escort was probably the better car when new, when it comes to this Escort versus this Cavalier, the Cavalier comes across as the better deal.

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Many of you seem to share, if not my enthusiasm for the J cars, at least a grudging respect. Shoddy construction and cheap materials were the hallmarks of GM’s bottom-tier US-built models, but that loose sloppiness somehow translated to a cockroach-like longevity. Chevy Cavaliers and their siblings just run and run and run, held together with baling wire and hope. In a way, they’re a bit like the American Lada, or for that matter, Trabant.

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Which brings us to today’s matchup. For an entire generation, a 100-mile-long border wall split a city in two. This monument to fear and folly created two cultures within one country, and more importantly for our purposes, two car cultures. West Germany produced world-class performance cars; East Germany… didn’t. And yet, after the wall came down, a funny thing happened: one horrid little East German car became a cultural icon, and we all found out that, on the other side of the wall, it had been all along. Let’s see how it measures up against one of the cars that propelled West Germany’s rise to automotive fame.

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1972 BMW 2002 – $11,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter overhead cam inline 4, four-speed manual, RWD

Location: San Leandro, CA

Odometer reading: 120,000 miles

Runs/drives? Runs great, but needs a little reassembly to be driven

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BMW today is known for high-performance, high-technology cars (and increasingly, SUVs) built to a high standard, but plagued by complexity and fussy styling. But once upon a time, not too long ago, its cars were pure, focused machines that placed driving feel and roadholding above all else. The technology was a means to that end, not an end itself. One could say that BMW has lost its way, and one could make one’s case by pointing to this car, the 2002.

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In sharp contrast to the massively powerful BMWs of today, the 2002 makes do with a two-liter M10 four-cylinder that only makes about a hundred horsepower. It sends that power to the rear wheels – suspended independently on semi-trailing arms, one of the keys to the 02’s lively handling – through a four-speed stick. This one recently had its engine and transmission replaced, and it runs great, but the original engine and transmission are included. It also includes three sets of wheels and tires, and a whole bunch of other parts. The interior is disassembled, and a new carpet kit is half-installed, but it sounds like if you bolted the driver’s seat back in, you could drive it home.

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Surprisingly for a 2002, the seller claims this car is rust-free. Normally, the shock towers and floors on these are pretty crusty, but this one is solid through and through. It’s painted matte black on the outside, with BMW tri-color stripes. It looks sharp, but personally I’m not a fan of the whole matte-black thing. I’d rather see a car shiny, or with natural patina.

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As a 1972 model, this one still has reasonably-sized bumpers, and the iconic 2002 round taillights. Perhaps as importantly, it’s now free from any sort of emissions testing, so it can be modified and upgraded to your heart’s content. And since it’s already not terrribly original, no one is going to complain too much about “ruining” it – as long as you don’t do anything stupid.

1987 Trabant 601S wagon – $13,950

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Engine/drivetrain: 594cc two-stroke inline 2, four-speed manual, FWD

Location: Staunton, IL

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Odometer reading: 12,000 kilometers

Runs/drives? Yep!

Two cylinders. Twenty-something horsepower. A recycled plastic body [Editor’s Note: Technically, Duroplast, a Bakelite/fiberglass-like material made from resins and old Soviet underpants. – JT] that became a favorite snack of Eastern European goats. And buckets of character. There isn’t much that I can say about the Trabant that hasn’t been said before. Simultaneously the butt of jokes and and an object of immense admiration, the Trabant came to symbolize everything that had gone wrong in East Germany. It’s objectively horrible: small, slow, and poorly-made, yet somehow charming. It’s also a symbol of just how much the freedom an automobile provides means to people: There was a waiting list as long as thirteen years for these things. Terrible as they were, they were what was available, and that made them special.

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Two-stroke car engines are almost unheard of these days; they’re dirty, noisy, and require oil mixed in with the fuel, all of which are at odds with modern emissions requirements and driver expectations. But for a cheap car in an impoverished nation, they make sense. If I’m counting right, a two-cylinder two-stroke engine has only five moving parts: one crankshaft, two connecting rods, and two pistons. This engine doesn’t even have a fuel pump; the fuel/oil mixture is gravity-fed to the carburetor. It’s air-cooled, so there’s no radiator to worry about. Automobile engines literally don’t get any simpler than this.

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This Trabi runs and drives, the seller says, but that’s all the information we get. I get the feeling they don’t know much about this car, but in fairness, southern Illinois is an unlikely place for a Trabant to end up. Its odometer shows only 12,000 kilometers, about 7,500 miles, but we have no way of knowing whether that’s accurate. I’m not sure it matters; if you want a Trabant, there aren’t many in America to cross-shop.

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Even better, this one’s a wagon. Trabant sedans are dowdy, but the wagons are kinda cool in a VW Squareback sort of way. It looks clean and shiny, even the wheels. The trailer hitch strikes me as optimistic, but it’s a nice touch – you can imagine some East German family hooking up an equally flimsy and ramshackle caravan and heading off for a weekend at some state-run campground.

If you’ve never been to Berlin and seen the East Side Gallery – the remaining section of the Berlin Wall still standing, covered in murals and graffiti – I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was there in 2000, and the stories told by the murals painted on that crumbling concrete are powerful. More than one features a Trabant, the little car that meant so much to a nation deprived of so many things. It’s a bona-fide classic these days, but is it more desirable than a famous West German sports sedan? You decide.

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(Image credits: BMW – Craigslist seller; Trabant – Autotrader seller)

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Atszekelyhidi
Atszekelyhidi
3 months ago

A 1981 mustard yellow 601 sedan Trabant was our first car and the one I learned to drive on 10 years later, so I have some good memories about it. Driving it in secret to high school when I was 15 and my father was not around. And about the cleaning of its spark plugs when they got oily twice a week. And the 4th gear not willing to engage, so driving 60 km/h in third. But the heater was great, immediate and strong, with a broken cable though, so it was on all the time, making summertime 30C days a bit too comfy. At the end the block broke into pieces due to the said 3rd gear overuse and it went to the scrapyard. Still fun times.

Ricardo
Ricardo
3 months ago

damn… never thought a 2002 at over $10,000 would look like a smart buy… but here we are

Jimmy7
Jimmy7
3 months ago

Buy the Trabbi. When you’re tired of it, sell it to the Reagan Library for $25,000. Capitalism wins again!

Otter
Otter
3 months ago

OMG what did we win the Cold War for if not to extinguish collective-built cars? I’d take the BMW at twice the price.

Ricki
Ricki
3 months ago

I really really want that Trabant. My spouse would want it more than I do.

But fourteen grand? Not for a (barely) glorified go kart.

Last edited 3 months ago by Ricki
Myk El
Myk El
3 months ago

I think asking is a bit high on both, but since we’re playing with imaginary money, I’d take the BMW.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
3 months ago

I want both, but the Trabbie price is far too optimistic.

Last edited 3 months ago by FloridaNative
FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
3 months ago

A solid, round-taillight 2002 for decent (by which I mean not completely crack-pipe) money? Sure, the matte black wouldn’t’ve been my choice, but that’s nothing a couple of coats of tractor paint can’t fix – maybe Allis-Chalmers orange or Oliver green.

The Trabant, on the other hand, is a beautiful blue (and a wagon!), but it’s still a Trabant.

Edit: Even Stef’s VW-powered-Trabant idea isn’t selling me at close to fourteen grand, I’m afraid.

Last edited 3 months ago by FuzzyPlushroom
Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago

“Its odometer shows only 12,000 kilometers, about 7,500 miles, but we have no way of knowing whether that’s accurate.”

But those are Soviet Kilometres. Ten times bigger than capitalist Kilometres!

Take $3000-4000 off of the Bavarian stovepipe and I might consider it just to have a rust free starting point.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
3 months ago

Once the BMW 2002 is finished up, it’ll be a pretty nice car. The Trabant will be a heap of shit no matter what.

The only thing the Trabant is good for is for attracting attention at Cars & Coffee.

As a car to actually use for going places, it’ll be terrible.

And there is no way that heap of shit Trabant is worth more than that BMW. So the BMW gets my vote.

Henry Smith
Henry Smith
3 months ago

Why would anyone wish to own a car made by the oppressed workers in capitalist West Germany when one could be embraced in the personified glory of the Soviet Union with the Trabant! :p

But seriously I’d still take the Trabant. I want to know the joy of being constantly reminded how lucky I am for having transport with wheels and an engine.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
3 months ago

Thirty-four years ago today, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened up, and cars like the two shown here were able to share the road after decades of separation.

See, this is why I want to stuff a Type 4 engine in the back of a Trabant. That’s it. That’s my dream swap. Screw your walls! 914-swap the world!

I love 2002s (and it’s a roundie!), but that’s just an ugly example, rust-free as it might be. The Trabi doesn’t need its seat bolted back in, isn’t a hideous matte black and goshdarnit, it matches Theo Bunny. I would name him Peter Cottontail and go on many farty, slow adventures in my Puffalump-hued two-stroke machine. I want it. If I had another full-time job right now, that would be a damn tempting ad. The price is a bit high, but it looks to be in decent nick.

Anyway, VOTE GLORIOUS TRABANT, COMRADES!

Last edited 3 months ago by Stef Schrader
OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
3 months ago

So, this reminds me of an old Soviet era joke which I’ll update for the Trabi:

A worker saves his money and goes in to order his Trabi. He is all excited until they tell him the delivery date scheduled for a dozen years hence, at which point he becomes crestfallen and slumps in his chair. “What’s the matter comrade, do you find the performance of our glorious system to be unsatisfactory?” the dealer rep / undercover Stasi agent asks menacingly. “Oh no, not at all” the worker replies. “It’s just that’s the day the plumber is scheduled to come fix my pipes.”

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
3 months ago

Both of these are pretty overpriced in my book.

I mean, I love the idea of the Trabi – it’s a cool longroof, it’s hipster fun, etc. But in the end it’s not worth the coin for what is legitimately a bad car.

On the other hand, although I am not any sort of BMW guy this is one of their truly iconic models and I could see myself having real fun flinging this thing around at its limits. I could also at least contemplate not losing money on the deal when I’m done with it and ready to sell.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
3 months ago

Who wouldn’t want a Trabant?

After all they’re from the Eastern Bloc

This is your chance, don’t throw it away

Or you’ll have to wait 13 years and one day

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
3 months ago

“And the guards fired above our heads. We could be heroes just for one day.”

Got to go all Freedom like here. BMW surely has to win this battle.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
3 months ago

If you look at dollars per HP, the Trabant is about $630 per hp. A new Corvette Stingray in 2020 was $122/hp and a 2020 F150 5.0L was a bargain at $82/hp

https://www.motortrend.com/features/most-horsepower-per-dollar-list-cars-trucks-hatchbacks?slide=1

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
3 months ago

I would be interested to drive a Trabant, once.

Actually, the GDR Museum in Berlin lets you, kind of: they have a Trabant inside that’s set up as a sort of driving simulator. The same day I was there, I saw a parade of—what for it—stretch Trabants. Absolutely mind-blowing.

The museum, btw, is a must-see. It does a brilliant job of reflecting the sincere nostalgia for East German life without pretending it was something (good or free) that it was not.

3WiperB
3WiperB
3 months ago

There’s many variations on this old joke, but basically:

A man orders a Trabant.
The salesperson says, “Come back in 13 years to pick up your car.”
The man says, “Morning or afternoon?”.
The salesperson says, “It’s 13 years, does it matter if it’s morning or afternoon?”
The man says, “Of course it matters. The plumber is coming in the afternoon.”

Last edited 3 months ago by 3WiperB
Col Lingus
Col Lingus
3 months ago
Reply to  3WiperB

Thanks for the laugh.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
3 months ago
Reply to  3WiperB

Well shoot, I should have read the replies first before posting the same joke.

3WiperB
3WiperB
3 months ago
Reply to  OrigamiSensei

Great minds think alike.

Don Kasak
Don Kasak
3 months ago

I voted for the Trabant, even though the price is exorbitant. I live about 50 miles from Staunton, which made the difference for my selection.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
3 months ago

“There was a waiting list as long as thirteen years for these things.”

Why, was there a shortage of old Soviet underpants?

Last edited 3 months ago by Cheap Bastard
Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
3 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Everybody was going commando in the 80s.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
3 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

It’s what freedom is all about!

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
3 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

All the way to Afghanistan and the nude jahideen.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Then you had to wait two more years for gas to put in it. That’s why this is so low mileage, there was only a few place you were allowed to go.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
3 months ago

That’s what they WANT you to think.

FloridaMatt
FloridaMatt
3 months ago

First new car we bought after being married was a 69 2002. Really fun car. Most expensive replacement thermostat I’ve ever bought.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
3 months ago

Trabant here. It’s rare enough to be a conversation piece but can actually be used. It being objectively terrible compared to, say, a Cavalier is more grist for that mill.

When the engine dies, drop a Predator 870 with a CVT in there. Preferably built a little. That will clean up the emissions and make it a better driver.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
3 months ago

That’s not a bad a idea!

Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
3 months ago

My in laws are from Romania, and my father in law was a master mechanic, as is his brother. They had a service station in Metro Detroit for 40 years. A friend of theirs gave them a Trabant. I begged, begged, BEGGED him to let me buy the car from him. I thought it would be hysterical to take it to the Woodward Dream Cruise.

He flatly refused to allow me or his daughter to even think about getting into the car, let alone drive it, it was so awful.

The story he told is that you’d order one, wait years for it to arrive, and when you’d finally get it, it would have little burn holes in the body, caused by embers from the smokestack on the trains that shipped them landing on the cars.

He ended up giving it to another friend of his, also Romanian, just to get rid of it..

CPL Rabbit
CPL Rabbit
3 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Green

Not good enough for his daughter or his Trabant, I guess.

Last edited 3 months ago by CPL Rabbit
Cyko9
Cyko9
3 months ago

I’m a fan of the 2002, but I read through to give the Trabant a chance. It’s definitely rare, and conservation-worthy, but it’s just not for me at that price. The Bimmer isn’t cheap, but it’s in decent condition with a load of extra parts (where would I keep 3 extra sets of wheels?). The matte paint makes it look kinda beat, so it might be tougher to get that price.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
3 months ago
Reply to  Cyko9

If you have space for one wheel on the floor you have space for another nine or so stacked up on top of it.

I think at its peak I had nearly 50 wheels in my garage. I’m down to just 24 now, only 8 of which fit any of our current cars. So maybe don’t take my advice on wheel storage.

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