You know what car is strangely interesting and pretty much completely absent from America? The Wartburg 353. Yes, the mighty East-German car that was the Lincoln Continental to the Trabant’s Pinto, this boxy, two-stroke, big-ish fella was actually exported to a lot of places, like the UK, where it was dirt cheap and called the Wartburg Knight. There was a nice roomy wagon version, a car that seemed to be the answer to those buyers who wanted the dynamic, shoebox-like look of a Volvo 240 but without all that tedious performance and much, much more smoke. Also, the chassis is just weird-looking.
As you can see above, it did have some cool little extra round taillights so you can drive it with the tailgate open and still be legal, or at least visible through the cloud of two-stroke exhaust that is now flowing inside the car.
The two-stroke engines used in these were three-cylinder DKW-derived engines, making between 50 and 55 horsepower and having only, per DKW tradition, seven moving parts: three pistons, three connecting rods, and one crankshaft. If you think of the con rod as part of the piston, then it’s only four parts!
They were so smoky that they earned the nickname “Farty Hans.” Seriously, look it up.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Wartburg chassis; I even wrote about it back in 2020, because it so doesn’t look like it should be under that boxy car. It looks like a lute or snowshoe, and the suspension supports for the rear wheels are just bizarre. I mean, look at it:
I guess it’s a sort of literal corner-cutting perimeter chassis? shaped like a pear? Amazing.
Also amazing is the fact that there’s a Serbian punk band who made a whole song about the Wartburg 353! It’s kinda catchy!
I can read just enough Cyrillic to see that the grave at the beginning is for a Trabant! Amazing.
You’re right Jason, it is catchy. Gives me an early Replacements vibe. 🙂
You still can’t drive with the tailgate open. Not only would you surely die from exposure to the foul fumes, but your number plate would not be visible!
Is it just the angle of that chassis photo, or do Wartburgs have that much toe-in in the rear?
And the band plays on, far from the worst thing I’ve ever heard
“The Long Drive” video game on Steam just added the Wartburg (sedan & wagon) as playable vehicles! For a very… “unique” survival driving game experience, check it out. Jank level: maximum. Tough controls and the occasional physics explosion, but worth it for mixing fuel/oil and crazy engine swaps. Also play “My Summer Car”!!!
Having grown up in an Eastern Bloc country, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in these.
The Wartburgs were quite smooth for what they were, soft cushy seats, soft suspension, easy steering and FWD, a bit like an East German Cadillac, and the water cooling quieted down the 3 cylinder 2-stroke.
They don’t have much power and especially no torque, but you can rev these out way more than you’d think.
It’s really a special feeling to drive these floaty, sedated grandpa-cars and rev them way up to 8-9k rpm.
It also had some interesting solutions, the ignition for example had 3 separate coils with 3 separate points that were placed around the crankshaft’s front end, as opposed to using a distributor. The points also needed adjustments very frequently.
On older 353s the radiator was behind the engine, above the transmission, later models had the radiator up front.
Like the Trabant, these were continued for a few years with 4-stroke VW engines, but those cars were terrible.
I lived in former East Germany for a year in college, it was right after the wall came down (early 90s). I borrowed a Trabant from a friend of mine for a few months.
Another friend who lived in Potsdam had a 353 from the last year the 2-stroke engine was made. Her dad bought it new, after waiting over a decade for it, and despite the fall of the wall and an influx of western cars, he kept his Wartburg and kept it in pristine condition. I visited her by train and one time she picked me up from the station in the Wartburg and I was blown away by how much smoother, quieter and refined it was compared to the Trabant.
If you had no access to western cars, you would never realize just how bad eastern block cars actually were, which was kinda the point of the wall in the first place…
But of course especially in the Berlin area people did see Western cars, from visitors from West Berlin for example. Also, the GDR imported some; in the early Eighties, thousands of Mazda 323s were imported and drove around the streets of East Berlin.
This feels like it should be the theme tune for the upcoming Autopian TV show…
Perhaps part of it could be the intro to the Autopian podcast….when it returns…
That song is a banger. If you had told me this was an undiscovered Kids in the Hall sketch, I would have believed you 100%. The video is grainy enough that I even think I would believe that Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Scott Thompson, Mark McKinney, and Kevin McDonald are all in this, singing in Serbian about a car.
Holy crap, that song is in the same key as the Kids in the Hall theme. This is canon for me now.
They would’ve used a Pontiac Acadian, though.
From the rear, I see a VW Brasilia. https://images.noticiasautomotivas.com.br/img/f/Volkswagen-Brasilia-1978-Motor-Tudo-8.jpg
Don’t forget these cars inspired the look of the mighty Nissan Rasheen!
That song is super catchy!
Now I want to know about the rip-off instruments that band is playing. Fender’s legal team has gotten good enough to put an end to anyone else trying to do a scroll-shaped headstock, but those ain’t Fenders. They never get in close enough on that P-bass, so not sure there, but the guitar definitely has a weird logo.
I came for the crazy Wartburg history, and was rewarded with ancient Serbian punk. I cannot imagine a more premium automotive journalism experience. Stellar.
Come on kids, grab everything, we’re going to try and run the Iron Curtain, again!
I guess the right picture is right after the father yelling at the children they’ll be adopted by gypsies. The left picture is after that threat.
I always get Wartburg and Borgward confused.
When facing the front of the vessel Wartburg is on your right and Borgward is on your left.
One is a city the other is just a neighbourhood.
I went to the Wartburg Museum in Eisenach in 1991, thankfully my dad loved two-strokes.
The 353 also influenced the design of the Nissan Rasheen, so there is that. It’s a great design, very modern looking in 1965 but somewhat dated by 1990.
It had the most “wonderful” black rubber-plastic-composite-material interior, which kept on smelling very synthetic years after the car was new. I have only ever driven in a mid-80ies light green station wagon version, but I remember it as rather quick, and not at all slowish like an old aircooled VW or a Citroën 2CV or Renault 4.
You sat a bit higher than in the Volvo 140/240, so you had a good view in traffic, probably paid for by less than optimal cornering abilities.. Kinda like a modern SUV or crossover.
I remember spotting Wartburgs in Denmark every so often; especially the lovely Trans pickups which I don’t believe were available to East Germans so as not to undermine the system by promoting small business endeavors.
My delicate artsy eyes hated those Wartburg Trans Pick Ups, with those non matching rear fenders. They were as bad looking as the Ford P100 or the home built Morris Minor or Volvo P210 flat bed pick ups..
Having once driven a Wartburg, followed by repeated washing of my clothes to get the stench of burned oil out of them, my interest diminished considerably.
Yes, I met someone — a former East German, I believe — who was not only a Wartburg fanatic, but owned two or three of the things, all 311s and 313s. I wonder if he has since added a 353 to the fleet….
Also the problem with riding two stroke scooters like Vespa.
Funny, I never found my Vespa to be particularly smokey or smelly. At least not like a chainsaw or lawnmower. Maybe I didn’t add enough oil to the mix. 😉
My two-stroke cars and moped aren’t so bad, either. If it was that obnoxious then I suspect someone was running too much oil in the mix.
Also air-cooled 4-strokes with perpetual exhaust leaks
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0vup71Sv58 if you like hilarious songs about other Eastern Bloc cars as well 😛
Speaking of Eastern Bloc automotive songs: