Castle on the Hill

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 The name fell into disuse in 1904, when it was superseded by the less Germanic sounding Dixi.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.

Wartburg 311. (c)

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.

Wartburg 353. (c)

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.

Last of the line. With four-stroke VW power. (c) vanhojamainoksia

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).

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

28 thoughts on “Castle on the Hill”

  1. To fit the transversely mounted VW engine of the last Warturgs the front end had to be completely redesigned. This redesign was more expensive then the development of a projected in-house four stroke engine would have been.
    If I remember correctly the VW engines came from VW as a bare engine and had locally (GDR) sourced ancillaries fitted.

    The average waiting time for a Wartburg or Trabant was in the region of ten to thirteen years, leading to the GDR joke that proud parents ordered a car for their newborn child so it would get it when it left school. In 1989/1990 many customers simply didn’t pick up their cars, leaving both factories with lots of ordered but unwanted vehicles, leading to a disastrous financial situation.
    One guy I knew actually took delivery of his Wartburg in 1990 (and paid nearly all his newly converted hard currency for it) and used it to travel between his East German home to his newly found job in the Frankfurt area on weekends. On nearly every trip one of the locally sourced parts failed and had to be replaced by the equivalent (mostly Bosch) VW part, making the Wartburg an incredibly expensive car to run.

    1. “To fit the transversely mounted VW engine of the last Warturgs the front end had to be completely redesigned.”

      Oh, failing by complicating halfway to the result is a tradition and also known as “German Engineering”. Porsche did the same with the 924 > 944.

  2. Good morning Dave, and thanks for the additional information. It is little surprise that East Germans abandoned the outdated Wartburg once more appealing Western models were available to them. The company did have its moments in the sun, however. The 311 was a very pleasant looking thing with its airy DLO and the 313 coupé and convertible was very pretty. Here’s the convertible with a removable hardtop fitted:

    One would never guess the modest size of the engine under that long bonnet!

    1. That’s also rather lovely, like a miniaturised 1955 Ford Thunderbird:

    2. It’s always a pleasure to see the 353 and its predecessors receiving the attention they richly deserve.

      The 353 in particular is design classic in its own right – the vibrations of the Bauhaus – which was instigated in Thuringia – were possibly even stronger in the east than the America-envying west, and by the mid-sixties industrial design seemed like both Germanys’ new religion. A major driver of the 353’s body design was the need to use sheet steel with minimal wastage, but it doesn’t show.

      Going back a bit earlier, the 311 family included some positively joyous small-series cars. I’d like to think the management at Eisenach were inspired by Borgward’s relentless and largely successful efforts to bring glamour to the Isabella family.

      The 311/3 Coupe shows some Raymond Loewy influence – there was also a 311/2 Cabriolet and ; the later, lower slung 1957-60 313 Coupe and Cabrio are a well-crafted eastern response to the VW Karmann-Ghia, Mercedes Benz 190SL and the Borgward Isabella Coupe.

      The 313’s 901cc engine was tuned to produce a useful 50bhp, and you would have to be a very special comrade indeed to be allocated one of the 469 produced. Tatras apart, was there ever a more glamorous car made in Communist-era Eastern Europe?

  3. Is there any truth behind the idea both the Trabant and Wartburg or at least certain parts trace their lineage back to the 2-cylinder DKW F8 and 3-cylinder DKW F9 respectively?

    While somewhat understanding the background behind the Trabant, wouldn’t the East Germans have been better off simply making what became the Trabant into an entry-level Wartburg under the same name and featuring similar styling instead of a separate model? The prototypes with Trabant / Sachsenring and Wartburg as well as sometimes involving Skoda were already heading into that direction of merging Trabant with Wartburg anyway.

    Did Wartburg ever look at further enlargement of the 993cc 3-cylinder 2-stroke engine, paralleling what DKW achieved with the 68 hp 1175cc DKW F102 (not to mention the V6 two-stroke prototypes) as well as what Suzuki planned to do with a 80 hp triple-carb 1100 prototype version of the Suzuki Fronte 800?

    There is a certain utilitarian appeal behind the Wartburg Knight and later models including the Irmscher-developed 1.3 New Line (that Nissan apparently drew inspiration from when designing the Nissan Rasheen), rather a shame the company were not in a position to switch over to four-stroke engines in the 1960s-1970s.

    Even though it has been mentioned Wartburg/Trabant’s own 3/4-cylinder petrol and diesel engine projects have no connection with what was developed at Volkswagen (despite the claim persisting on German language sites), one cannot help but be intrigued by the very similar capacities between the West and East German Carmakers that inevitably leads people to draw such comparisons and tie it back to an earlier involvement between the two companies.

    The more morbid minded would have felt the East Germans (possibly had Tatra being taken out of equation via Czechia being neutral/west-aligned post-war instead of part of the Eastern Bloc) could have retained the EMW marque and positioned it as the literal East German analogue of BMW with some East German equivalent to the Moskvitch 412 (plus a larger New Class sized version).

    Did not know about the Dixi/BMW connection, felt much more could have become of the OHV engine in the BMW 3/20 (which was said to have used the same transfer machinery and tooling as the Austin Seven engine along with featuring other improvements the Seven unit never receive) unless it evolved into the 4/6-cylinder engines used in the pre-war BMW 303 and BMW M78. Reliant in particular could have possibly appropriated the designs of the 3/20 or 303 engines as war reparations.

    1. Not long after our brief foray into Moskvitch ownership, we were visiting one of my wife’s relatives who had just acquired, second hand, a Wartburg Knight Tourist. He invited me to drive it and tell him what I thought was wrong with it as whenever he took his foot off the accelerator it speeded up. Having experienced the delights of a 2-stroke SAAB I was able to explain the free-wheel to him. He remained not totally convinced and soon got rid of it
      I recall that the Wartburg looked far nicer than it drove, feeling as if it would bound off into the scenery at the first opportunity. Mind you, it was empty at the time. At the risk of ridicule, I still think it looks pretty good….

    2. The Trabant is a direct descendant of the old DKW cars and was produced at the same location as those (Zwickau).
      Here’s the first post war car from them

      The old DKWs and this IFA F8 had bodies made from plywood and leatherette therefore it seemed reasonable to use Duroplast instead of a full pressed steel hull.
      I doubt that there were plans to expand the Wartburg engine. 1,200 cc in a three cylinder is about the maximum reasonable volume for a two stroke high speed fuel engine (as opposed to slow speed two stroke marine diesels) because two stroke engines with more than 400cc per cylinder tend to run inefficiently.
      Even Melkus used the Wartburg in its original size.

    3. Dixi cars originally were imported from the UK. The first 3/15 was a rhd Austin Seven built by Austin.
      The 3/15 DA (DA = Deutsche Ausführung – German version) was converted to lhd and produced locally. In the process of changing the steering everything under the bonnet became mirror imaged (and metric).

    4. JTC

      Agreed. Have to wonder to what the Wartburg would have needed to improve how it drove to approximately match how it looked.


      Thanks for clearing things up regarding DKW. Seem to recall the original pre-war plan for the F9 prototype was to carry over both the 2-cylinder as well as the 3-cylinder until WW2 broke out.

      Have read some modern looking Trabant prototypes still reputedly used Duroplast, which brings to mind whether the Trabant exterior could have been modernized to resemble the larger Wartburg 353 / Knight despite still making use of Duroplast?

      Understand Wartburg unlikely had plans to enlarge the 2-stroke 3-cylinder beyond 993cc, still worthwhile knowing it was feasible for further grow up to 1200cc.

      Seem to recalling reading about modified Trabants making use of the larger Wartburg 2-stroke 3-cylinder engine to make it go much quicker.

      Is it known whether other production engines were looked at for possible use in the Trabant such as from Renault/Dacia and others in an attempt to ditch the old two-stroke? Know Skoda-engined and 3-cylinder diesel prototypes were looked at for various Trabant projects over the years prior to the later Polo-powered models as well as a few blind alleys like the wankel prototype.

    5. IFA Wartburg as well as Sachsenring Trabant engineers preferably looked at developing their own four stroke engines.
      Proposals for new engines (and successors to both cars) were submitted for approval relatively early but the various committees of the ruling party rejected all of them and effectively stopped any further development of these cars.
      The GDR price for the Trabant was kept constant at 8,000 Marks (East). From a certain point it was more or less mandatory to buy ‘improvement’ and ‘development’ kits like the soft touch steering wheel which drove the effective price beyond 10,000 Marks in the Eighties. You still had to wait for ten years and couldn’t choose the colour of your car.

      Buying in the VAG engines was the result of some East-West trading contract which also allowed the import of several thousand Golfs. Poor Erich Honecker still had to make do with his CX Prestige or his streteched Volvo 260.

  4. What an excellent piece Daniel

    The first paragraph is probably the best description of the events immediately after the fall of the wall ever

    1. Thank you, Roberto, for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

      The closing decade of the 20th century really was a time of optimism and anticipation. The cold war was over, global warming was not perceived to be an existential threat to humanity, and the new century seemed to hold so much promise. That promise was violently broken on 9/11 and, since that shocking event, we have seen so much mistrust, fear and violence permeate our world. History will, I think, judge the first two decades of the 21st century very harshly.

      Apologies, all, for sounding maudlin. At least the sun is shining here and it’s a lovely autumnal day.

  5. Here’s a rather jolly variation on the estate, the 311 Camping, with panoramic rear side windows and a folding roof:

    Having a separate chassis allowed for such variations, although whether the dour and authoritarian DDR regime would have approved of such frivolity is a moot point.

    1. You’ll be needing to spend quite an amount of money if you want to buy a good Camping!

  6. One of the more unusual features of the Wartburg, but not one unique to it, appeared when you opened the bonnet. Not the three coils, unusual though they are, but the odd arrangement for driving the fan. A pulley at the front took drive back across the top of the engine to a fan mounted at the rear cooling a radiator mounted near the bulkhead. Why? Because the original Auto Union engine was intended to have thermosyphon cooling, relying on convection currents to circulate the water rather than a pump. This required the radiator to be mounted higher than the engine which meant it had to go behind it. In the event this proved unsatisfactory but the fan layout continued and was taken up by other manufacturers who copied the engine.
    The freewheel was a consequence of having a two stroke. Crankcase scavenged two strokes can’t use conventional lubrication so the usual solution was to use petrol/ oil mix with the oil hopefully getting to the bearings and other moving parts as it travelled through. This means that lubrication is directly dependent upon the amount of fuel consumed. Fine most of the time, but if you’re using high revs with the throttle closed very little fuel and therefore very little oil is getting into the engine and seizure is a likely result. Use a freewheel though and the engine slows to tickover speed on the overrun and no longer overwhelms the lubrication. A better solution is to inject oil directly, a development which was tried by the post war Auto Union with a singular lack of success and by various motorcycle and outboard motor makers with rather more success.

  7. The VAG-engined Wartburg 1.3 did rather well in its 28 months of production (October 1988 and April 1991), with an impressive 152,775 built, including 920 export-only pick-ups.

    Once you’ve visited what remains of the proud little factory between the East-West railway line and the south bank of the Horsel, you cannot but be impressed that it could turn out 1500 cars per week.

    Apart from VAG itself, Automobilwerk Eisenach was the only winner in the engine-building joint venture instigated in 1984 with IFA to build VW EA111 engines at the Barkas-Werke in Karl Marx-Stadt.

    The VW-engined Trabant 1.1 (May 1990) and Barkas B1000/1 only went into production after first free elections in the DDR had been held and the German Unification Treaty had been drafted. They were victims of freedom; Only 39,474 of the former and a miserable 1961 of the latter were ever made.

  8. On unrelated matters, I’m disturbed by the sight of a young Nicola Sturgeon holding down the bonnet of a 353:

    Perhaps she was attending one of Erich Honecker’s Dictatorship Masterclasses.

  9. The 353’s most redeeming feature is its no-nonsense styling (the sedan, of course, not the
    clumsy looking ‘Tourist’).

    Robertas P. described the essential appeal of the 353 design perfectly.

    Their cooling system was flawed and complicated, rendering its liquid-cooled complexity (vis-a-vis the forced air-cooled two-strokes) rather hard to justify.

    Especially bad were the post 1968- models with the decreased capacity radiators, which overheated in anything resembling even a slightly warmer climate.

    The handling was plagued by rather disparate rollcentres combined with a relatively sharp steering, which demanded a steady hand.

    Engine wise, the 353 is a rather Plain-Jane two-stroke layout, with none of the exotic, Motorsport-sourced features that the (aircooled!) Trabant engine made use of, eg. the rotating inlet discs on the crank (a.k.a. “kidneys”), the tangentially-to-crank mounted carburettor (with Ram-air effect in the race cars,
    the leafsprings that doubled as upper ‘wishbones’ (Duntow inspired, perhaps?), the partially load-carrying outer bodyshell parts (Duroplast), the digit-light gearlever enabled by a high-precision gearbox (in the ‘601’, gears are shifted without the right hand letting go of the steering wheel), etc.

    While many of the Eisenach engineers were formerly BMW employees, the Zwickau (Sachsenring) Trabant R&D team was mostly consisting of former Auto-Union/ Audi staff.

    Connect this to the (allegedly well-founded yet scarcely documented…) legend that circulates, according to which Citroën -owing to certain (political?) connections to the DDR establishment – donated, in the late ’40s, to the Zwickau management an internally-rejected project for a lightweight & robust suspension layout. Purportedly, this later became the ‘foundation’ for the Trabant 600/601 chassis.

    This could mean that the Trabant handling (surprisingly good with the right modifications), might actually be observed as an (indirect) Audi/ Citroën concoction – leading to a wholly new angle of looking at those little, ~600kg curb weight engineering gems that the ‘600’/’601′ were

    1. The disc valve design as well as having the carburettor at the crankcase of the Trabant engine is a logical consequence of the use of a single carburettor for both cylinders.
      The high set transverse leaf springs were a direct legacy of the patented DKW ‘Schwebeachse’ (hovering axle) which had the roll axis at the same height as the centre of gravity of the car, resulting in astonishingly good handling for such cars.
      GDR engineers were very good at designing two strokes (a German obsession) with Walter Kaaden at MZ making the real breakthrough by understanding the engine as a fluid mechanism with modulated interruption, leading to expansion chamber exhaust systems and harmonic tuning of the whole gas flow which are necessary for the astonishing power outputs of modern two strokes.
      When applied to the Wartburg engine in the rear of a Melkus RS it looks like this

    2. How feasible would it have been to improve the Wartburg’s handling more along the lines of what the Trabant was said to have been capable of with the right modifications?

      On the subject of the East German two-strokes and the work of Walter Kaaden, while being aware of the story with Ernst Degner’s defection and the two-stroke knowledge finding its way into the likes of Suzuki (and possibly a few other motorcycle manufacturers). To what extent was such knowledge ever applied on two-stroke production cars or are the various two-stroke Japanese Kei Cars possibly the only notable beneficiaries post-Degner defection?

    3. Dieter Degen made Walter Kaaden’s know how widely and freely available for all engine designers world wide.
      The success story of two stroke and the end of four stroke racing bikes wouldn’t have been possible without Walter Kaaden. Every motorcycle manufacturer used expansion chamber exhaust designs (as opposed to megaphones). Road bikes like Yamaha RD250 (around 35 PS) and RD350 (around 40 PS) made full use of this technology and showed it.
      Just look at the exhaust design in this picture

      Cars generally didn’t use two strokes anymore in the Seventies.

    4. Emissions legislation aside, it seems few 2-stroke carmakers had the opportunity or desire to fully take advantage of Degner’s / Degen’s dissemination of Kaaden’s knowledge. Not even DKW it seems despite them stubbornly persisting with two-strokes even when then owners Mercedes-Benz first presented what eventually became the four-stroke M118 engine.

      The 40 hp Daihatsu Fellow Max SS, 37 hp Mitsubishi Minica Skipper GT and 37 hp Suzuki Fronte SS/GT of the late-1960s to early-1970s were a few of the Japanese Kei Cars that may or may not have indirectly benefited from the spread of Kaaden’s knowledge to some extent.

  10. Good morning gentlemen. The collective breadth and depth of technical and historical knowledge of the DTW commentariat is once again in evidence and your contributions add greatly to the quality of the historical record. This is what makes DTW such a valuable resource, so thank you all.

    The 353’s last hurrah was the ‘New Line’ with body and interior embellishments by Irmscher:

    Apart from the rather clumsy boot spoiler on the saloon, it’s a pleasingly chunky looking thing, don’t you think?

    Well spotted, Robertas, on Ms Sturgeon!

    1. I was just about to remind RP that DTW avoids getting political and that it looked as if he’d got away with it this time…..
      That New Line 353 is indeed quite pleasing – the estate has has something of a scaled-down Volvo 145 about it.

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