The tension must be mounting at this point. Driventowrite is nearing the summit of the European motoring pantheon.
The thin air makes every upward centimetre a struggle against gravity. The cold gnaws into the core of your bones. To put it another way, the competition is fierce as more and more cars struggle to be near the epicentre of the best European motoring has offered. So many vehicles and only one can be number three.
That position belongs to the Wartburg 312.
History is written by the winners. That means those car companies that fall by the wayside get forgotten, no matter their contribution to motoring history: Alvis, Wolseley, Matra, Borgward and Talbot, Simca, Panhard to name but six.
Wartburg produced the 311 from 1956 to 1965. It came in a variety of formats, all produced at the factory in Eisenach, Germany: saloon, roadster, coupe and pickup. Wartburg’s engineers developed the car from AutoUnion, adding some length to the chassis and ends to make a spacious and comfortable car, well-suited to its target market. Had history not intervened, this car might have been more common in W. Europe than it was.
These days we see two-stroke engines as something of an oddity but Saab, DKW, VEB and Suzuki offered this format. Its advantages include a high power to weight ration and having fewer parts. While increasingly stringent emmissions standards killed the format off in the 1980s, in an alternative future electronics and catalytic conversion might have allowed further development but these did not emerge in time to save the concept.
The Wartburg 311 has a body-on-frame chassis and this, coupled with its suspension design of transverse leaf springs meant it was very comfortable. Having seen one move over the cobbled streets of eastern Germany, I can say the vehicle veritably glides much in the manner of a Citroen.
The elegant, Americanesque styling is attributed to Hans Fleischer. Born in Eisenach and trained at BMW, he produced a car with a distinctive form and a commodious and well-appointed interior.
Where would Wartburg be today if they had not been suffocated by the inefficiencies of communism and the sudden introduction of the market economy in the 1990s? Based on the character of the 311, Wartburg could have been a purveyor of comfortable, mid-price cars.
Alas, that space is intensely fought over: Ford, Opel, Renault, Citroen and many others. Alternatively, based on the form of the succeeding car, the 353, Wartburg could have offered some form of uncompromising modernism.
I like to think the 311 and a similarly smooth-riding 353 might have tipped the balance of car handling a little more towards comfort than it is at present along with another approach to engine design: an electronically managed, catalysed high-output two-stroke driving a light and spacious shell. The leaf-spring concept is not entirely dead either. You can find a nice introduction to the concept here.
Cars like this remind one that there are other formulae for adapting to the motoring environment. While typically, sports cars get the most prominence as landmarks, they are sold in small numbers compared to practical, all-around transport like the 311.