A retrospective on the German Democratic Republic’s less well remembered automotive marque.
Those of us old enough to remember the tumultuous events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the German Democratic Republic less than a year later will have recollections of a time that seemed to be filled with hope and opportunity. Striking TV images showed thousands of East Germans flooding into West Berlin through breaches in the wall, either on foot or in their Trabants. So frenzied was the rush, so great the anticipation and excitement that not even the sound of David Hasselhoff’s singing* could drive them back.
The Trabant, with its Duroplast body made out of cotton waste and phenol resins and its smelly and polluting 500 cc twin-cylinder two-stroke, was emblematic of both the GDR and its industrial failure. There was, however, a less well known but rather more competent East German car for the masses, the Wartburg 353. Today, we look back at the company that manufactured the 353 and examine the car itself.
Wartburg takes its name from Wartburg Castle, a medieval fortification overlooking the town of Eisenach, which is situated right in the centre of the modern-day unified Germany. The Wartburg name was first used by Automobilwerk Eisenach in 1898 on a two-seater open car with a twin-cylinder 765cc engine. The name fell into disuse in 1904, when it was superseded by the less Germanic sounding Dixi.
The company struggled to sell its larger Dixi models in the 1920’s, when Germany was suffering economic hardships imposed on the country by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the settlement that followed the Great War. It decided that it needed a small car, so in 1927 a licencing agreement was signed with the Austin Motor Company to build a variant of the Austin 7. A year later, BMW took over the company and the Austin 7 became its first production car, albeit rebadged as the BMW 3/15
The Wartburg name reappeared briefly as a model name on a 1930’s BMW. That car was the clumsily named 3/15 DA-3 Wartburg, a roadster version of the BMW 3/15.
BMW was forced to surrender the Eisenach plant after the Second World War because of its location: following the partition of Germany in 1945, Eisenach found itself in the Russian controlled territory, albeit just ten kilometres from the border with the West. The cars produced at the plant were then branded EMW, which stood for Eisenacher Motorenwerk, until 1956, much to BMW’s irritation.
The automobile division of EMW was renamed VEB Automobilwerk Eisenach and the company revived the Wartburg marque name in 1956 for the 311, an updated version of a model in production since 1950 and sold as the EMW 309. The 311 was a front engined FWD medium sized car powered by a three cylinder two-stroke engine of just 901 cc. Transmission was via a three-speed manual gearbox. The 311 had a separate chassis which facilitated the production of a wide range of variants: it was manufactured as a four-door saloon, two-door coupé, three and five-door estate, and even a Sportwagen two-door roadster branded 313.
Mechanical updates to the 311 were limited to a four-speed gearbox in 1958 and a larger 992 cc engine in 1962. A revised 312 model with an updated chassis was launched in 1965. The new chassis had independent suspension with coil springs and smaller, 13″ wheels. The 312 was used to test the new chassis in preparation for an all-new model, the 353, which would be launched a year later.
The 1966 Wartburg 353 used the chassis and mechanical package from the 312, but clothed in a new rectilinear body, which replaced the 1950’s curves of the outgoing model. It was manufactured in four-door saloon, five-door Kombi estate and two-door pick-up variants. The saloon had a matching clamshell bonnet and boot lid, not dissimilar to its estranged cousin, the 1962 BMW Neue Klasse saloon. The estate had a clamshell tailgate to which, most unusually, the tail lights were affixed. To comply with regulations, auxiliary tail lights were mounted in the tailgate opening, a novel solution not seen again until the Opel Insignia A Sports Tourer was launched in 2008**.
The mechanical package underpinning the 353 was highly unusual. The engine was the 992 cc three-cylinder two-stroke unit from the 311. Wartburg boasted that it contained only seven major moving parts (three pistons, three con-rods and a crankshaft) so it was as simple and easy to service as a contemporary motorcycle. Moreover, service intervals were exceptionally long at 50,000 Km (30,000 miles).
The engine had good power and, especially, torque for its size, developing around 50bhp and 100 nm. This allowed the 353 to accelerate from 0 to 100km/h (62mph) in around 12 seconds and gave it a claimed, if somewhat implausible, top speed of about 150km/h*** (around 90mph). The downside was that, like all two stroke engines, it ran on a 33:1 mixture of petrol and oil for lubrication. Fuel consumption was heavy, typically around 28mpg, and the emissions were rather smelly and unpleasant.
One interesting mechanical feature was a freewheel, which allowed the car to coast whenever the accelerator pedal was released. It also enabled clutchless gearchanges when the car was in motion. The freewheel was intended to improve fuel economy and reduce engine wear but had the downside of removing any engine braking, putting extra stress on the already marginal front drum brakes.
The car handled in typical contemporary FWD fashion, tending to understeer even at modest cornering speeds, a trait exacerbated by the poor grip of the domestically manufactured tyres. Owners reported that both handling and ride improved when the car was fully loaded with passengers and luggage, which improved the weight distribution. The interior was roomy and comfortable, and came with unusually plush and well upholstered seats.
The 353 sold well in Eastern Block countries where competition was extremely limited and of poor(er) quality. It earned a reputation for being robust, reliable and cheap to maintain. It was even exported to Western Europe for a period, including the UK from 1967 where it was sold as the Wartburg Knight. The saloon carried the rather pretentious Limousine suffix while the estate was called the Tourist. Its major attraction was price: for little more than the cost of a Mini, one could buy a larger and considerably better equipped car.
A 1971 UK advertisement for the Knight, helpfully provided by DTW’s Robertas Parazitas quotes a price of £749 for the saloon and £849 for the estate. The saloon cost just £26 more than a Mini 1000 and was more than £100 cheaper than a similarly sized Viva or Avenger. The Knight even undercut the rear-engined Škoda S110L by £26. Its stiffest competition probably came in the form of the Moskvich 412 saloon that matched it exactly on price. Around 19,000 Knights were sold in the UK before imports ceased in 1976.
The 353 remained in production for 22 years until 1988, during which time a total of 1,225,190 were produced. Mechanical and cosmetic updates were minimal, and the car was an outdated relic by the end of its life. The 353 was re-engineered to accept a locally built 1.3 litre VW Golf engine, but this sold in trivial numbers before the Eisenach plant was taken over by Opel in 1991, marking the end of Wartburg.
* Allegedly, a West German anti-immigration weapon (although this may be fake news).
** Doubtless, one of DTW’s knowledgeable commentariat will correct me if I’m wrong.
*** When tested in the UK, the top speed was measured as 76mph (122km/h).