A 46 year old brochure prompts some thoughts on – arguably – the most idiosyncratic Comecon car to cross the Iron Curtain.
It is neither big, nor French, nor Italian, and had an embarrassingly prolific production of over 1.2 million, but the Wartburg 353 is deservedly a DTW favourite.
The price list accompanying the brochure is from April 1971. The £749 asked for the Knight (the name was only used for the British market) deluxe saloon was £26 more than a Mini 1000. A four door Viva deluxe was £883, the equivalent Avenger was £20 dearer. More off-beat choices were the Morris Minor 1000 4 door at £775, the Skoda S110L at £775 (The Octavia wagon was still available at £710), and the new 1500cc overhead camshaft Moskvich 412 matching the Knight exactly for price.
The concessionaires, Industria (London) Limited had been selling Wartburgs in the UK from 1964, with the 353 taking over from the 312 in 1966.
By 1971 the Knight had reached Mk.3 status with a reworked engine and transmission, round instruments, and a matt black radiator grille. The brochure is something of a half-way house, the old strip speedometer puts in an occasional appearance and the original Buick-like radiator grille still features – perhaps the matt black version was a concession to early ’70s British tastes.
It is unashamedly German, with the cars pictured in the verdant Thuringian countryside, and a smattering of the tongue of der Vaterland. It looks as if the UK concessionaires produced the text, which notes that the cars are fitted with “British made radial tyres and 12V battery”. Possibly the original-fit DDR tyres had already achieved well-deserved notoriety. The Pneumants fitted to MZ motorcycles were probably made with the same rubber compound as the battery casings.
The seats are described as being “upholstered in high grade British made expanded PVC”. And what seats! They look substantial enough for a Mercedes-Benz, or at least a big Opel. It’s one of several reminders that this was a car for those comrades of a status ‘more equal than others’.
The 991cc two stroke triple lets down the “Mercedes of the East” pretensions, but at the same time defines the car more than any other feature. The engine’s simplicity has some appeal, along with the two-stroke smoothness, but it was thirsty, and noisy – it did not win its DDR epithet “Farty Hans” without good reason.
East German cars and light commercial vehicles had two-stroke engines foisted on them more or less by decree, after the last Sachsenring (née Horch) P240 was produced in 1959. Perhaps the decision-makers were seduced by the amazing work being done at MZ by Walter Kaaden, the wizard of the expansion chamber. However at Eisenach (and Zwickau) the evolutionary progress was more sedate than at Zschopau. The quoted 55bhp at 4500rpm is an SAE figure, equivalent to the 48-50bhp net or DIN figure for most European 1100-1200cc engines of the day. With a more conventional engine, the Knight would have had a wider appeal.
There is plenty to interest and excite about the rest of the car. In the words of the brochure: “Here is a sturdy family car, with a body which is the acme of modern styling, mounted on a strong rigid chassis”
All of which is true – the styling has endured better than its ‘coke-bottle’ era British contemporaries, the practical features put French cars of the time to shame, and the attention to passive safety rivals that of upmarket Swedes and Germans. It’s the perfect eccentric’s car, a working man’s Bristol, and not just in terms of historical confluences.
That “strong rigid chassis” deserves a mention. The cutaway is of the final Wartburg 1.3 iteration, with a transversely mounted VW EA111 engine, but it demonstrates that the chassis is neither a platform, nor a perimeter frame. In fact, it is an evolved version of the DKW F9 platform, a car which lived a parallel existence in East and West Germany.
The DKW / IFA F9 chassis underpinned the 1956 311. Coil springs took the place of transverse leaves with the arrival of the 1964 312, a short-lived interim model, in essence a 311 body on 353 mechanicals.
Regrettably, despite its sophistication, road tests from the time suggest that the 353 was deficient in matters of road dynamics, with an alarming tendency to understeer, particularly in wet conditions. The distance of the engine forward of the front axle centre gives a clue, and those hard-compound East German tyres would have not helped. A successful career in rallying and circuit racing suggests that the 353 chassis was capable of bring tamed, or at least mastered.
Industria’s story is worthy of mention. In the post-WW2 period they were importers of industrial meat-processing machinery from Czechoslovakia. In the early 1950s they diversified the business, to importation of light motorcycles, Jawas and CZs from Czechoslovakia, and Hercules from West Germany. The latter were re-branded as ‘Prior’, as Tube Industries Ltd. had the rights to the Hercules trademark in the UK.
Industria’s venture into the four wheeled world began with Wartburg, but five years on, in September 1969 they announced that they had secured the concession for Toyo Kogyo Co. Ltd’s Mazda cars.
Mazda were Japan’s third largest car manufacturer at the time, producing 400,000 vehicles annually. Inevitably, the Wartburg activity would be consigned to the sidelines. Looming emissions legislation and the stagnation of product development in Eisenach weakened the Knight’s prospects. UK imports continued until 1976; in October of that year the Knight saloon was the cheapest new car in the UK by a considerable margin at £949. A Moskvich 412 cost £1025, a Škoda S100 £1079. The cheapest Western car was the Fiat 126 at £1162.
In the UK, the Knight had had its day. Around 19,000 had been sold in the UK, but its market had diminished to a hard core of Eisenach loyalists and two-stroke fiends. Even fellow-travellers had deserted, seduced by the allure of Lada and Polski-Fiat.
I’ll conclude on an intriguing diversion. For those who couldn’t live without valvegear and dipsticks, or were overcome with environmental guilt, the ‘Ryman conversion kit’ was available to replace the two stroke with an Austin A-series engine.
It comprised a subframe for fitting to the chassis, a new flywheel, an alloy engine-to-gearbox adaptor plate, engine steady bar, a fabricated exhaust manifold, and some very long rubber hoses. Information on the kit is hard to find, but it seems to have had some sort of semi-official status.