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The marque dates back to 1898 when a car made by Automobilwerk Eisenach was named the Wartburgwagen. It consisted of a two-seating cane chair, four mudgards, two headlamps, and a two-cylinder, 765-cc engine. Its top speed was 25 mph. The name was dropped in 1904 when the company changed hands but re-appeared briefly in the early 1930s on the BMW 3/15 DA-3 Wartburg, which was BMW's first sports car.
The name was revived in 1956 by VEB Automobilwerk Eisenach and given to an updated version of their IFA F9 car which had been in production since 1950. The new car had a more powerful version of the three-cylinder two-stroke engine driving the front wheels and a completely new body. By this time, Germany had been divided into two countries (the West and the East) and the Wartburg factory was in the communist East.
Exports to West Germany started in 1958, and by the early 1960s the car was exported to many other countries, including the United Kingdom and United States. Right hand drive models were first made in 1963 and exported to Cyprus, with British buyers being introduced to the car in 1964. However, just 550 examples (450 saloons and 100 estates) were sold in the UK. These were well-equipped two-tone luxury models sold at the same price as a basic Austin Mini, appealing mostly to older people.
The 311 model was manufactured in a number of variations, including pickup, estate, and two-seater roadster. A convertible was advertised in the GDR in 1957 but its production never exceeded 350 units.
The engine was enlarged to 992 cc in 1962 and a completely new body was manufactured after 1966. This version was sold as the Wartburg Knight in several countries, including the UK, where the estate model was sold as the Tourist. It remained on sale until 1976, by which time nearly 20,000 had been sold. This marked the end of right-hand drive Wartburgs, but left-hand drive versions continued to be imported to the UK and at least one model was converted to right-hand drive.
Also, in 1966, the gearbox gained synchromesh on all speeds and was designed to freewheel as an engine protection measure, which had the unfortunate side-effect that the car did not benefit from engine braking. Because the engine was a two stroke unit, it relied on the passage of the petrol mixture (a mixture of special two-stroke oil and petrol, at a ratio of 1:50) to lubricate the engine. Without the freewheel device, on long down-hill runs the engine could be starved of lubricant and seize unless the throttle was opened briefly from time to time. Nevertheless, it was possible to disengage the freewheel device, recommended to give engine braking in snowy/icy conditions.
The new car, the 353, was known in some export markets as the Wartburg Knight. There are four editions of Wartburg 353:
There are three models of Wartburg 353 - Limousine (sedan), Tourist (combi) and Trans (pickup). The 353W modification had a new, round-shaped dashboard and black-coloured grille. It was also fitted with disc brakes on the front axle. The 353S modification featured new rectangular headlights integrated into the grille of a new shape. In the De Luxe version you can see electronic ignition, 5-speed gearbox, front and back fog lights, alarm system and central lock door. Usually this model can reach around 150-155 km/h but some modified versions can reach over 210 km/h. Moreover, the radiator was moved from behind the engine (353, 353W) to the classic position behind the grille. The engine of the car was with 50, 55 or 57 HP (depending on the year of production and the carburettor type). Fuel economy was barely acceptable for run-about driving. The offer of Volkswagen to move a surplus engine assembly line to the GDR to be paid off by manufacture was accepted by the SED government on account of fuel economy. In 1988 the new model Wartburg 1.3 therefore replaced the old model 353S, featuring the reliable though bulky engine from the Volkswagen Golf. Being larger than the compact 2-stroke unit, this needed considerable reconstruction of the engine compartment.
The VW engine gave 64 horsepower. Unfortunately the new Wartburg's life was short, with the nail in its coffin being the runup to German reunification during 1990. The introduction of the Deutsche mark (DM) pushed the cost of producing the car up to 20,000 DM. In spite of its attractive proportions, West German working-hour wages precluded the production of a family car built on a pre-war type frame as opposed to a self-supporting body. Although it was unlikely that there would have been a place for Wartburg in the reunified economy, given the amount of pollution the two-stroke engine produced, the renovated 1.3 version with the VW Golf engine might have at least changed that on account of its ancient tooling that had long been written off. Unfortunately, no progress was made in transferring this as a package to a low-wage country. Regarding ease of maintenance and repairability, combined with the Wartburg's adaption to bumpy roads this might have been an attractive proposition. Production ended in April 1991, and the factory was acquired by Opel.
There are still many cars in drivable condition and Wartburg owners' clubs exist throughout Europe. Many Wartburgs are still used as rally racing cars.
Wartburg 353 at the Stanford Hall Eastern European Car Rallye in 2006
The Wartburg 353 based Melkus RS 1000 racing car
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