Not just Trabant

Erhardt purchased the licence to produce a car locally from the French company Decauville.  The name he chose was Wartburg, inspired by the name of an ancient castle located in the area.

When we think of the cars from former East Germany, what usually comes to mind is the funny one, the Trabant, or Trabi as it’s known to its fans.  In fact in addition to the manufacturer of the famous plastic car there was also another car manufacturer, whose name was Wartburg.  Originally founded as Automobilwerk Eisenach (Eisenach Automobile Factory) in 1896 at the behest of industrialist Heinrich Erhardt, they initially concentrated on producing bicycles and pistols but in 1898 they entered into the world of four wheels.

Erhardt purchased the licence to produce a car locally from the French company Decauville.  The name he chose was Wartburg, inspired by the name of an ancient castle located in the area. In 1903 the Erhardt family left the company, which changed its name to Dixi, which was then later, in 1928, bought by BMW. The company’s acquisition brought BMW into the car world as up to then it had only produced motorcycles. Subsequently, after the Second World War, the factory was nationalised and in 1952, with the transfer of the factory to the new East German state, BMW forced Autovelo, the company making the cars, to find a new name for the cars they produced. Hence the name EMW (Eisenacher Motoren Werke) came into being but was used only until 1956 when the company reverted to the Wartburg name when introducing their 311 model.

The subject of this article is the 353 and its subsequent evolutions, since this model remains the most significant of the brand’s cars, both for its 23-year production run and because it represents the last model branded Wartburg. The 353, also known by the name of Knight, came into existence in 1965 to replace the 311. The project for the 311’s replacement, which had already begun in 1962, was envisioned as a car with simple lines, but much more modern than the outgoing car.

It was built on a frame with two side members joined together by three steel cross-pieces. Such an oval-shaped structure was the result of the evolution of the previous 311’s chassis, whilst the engine, in contrast to the types of engines available at that time, was derived from the two-stroke DKW. It was proposed both in a three-volume version and as a family variant named Tourist. The first series was produced up to 1975 with the second series following on the same year; it was the 353W (Weiterentwicklung, German for Evolution), which adopted disc brakes and a new steering column as well as a more rigid structure to increase safety. In 1981 the 353W Trans versions, the pick-up version of the car and the 353W MED ambulance version developed from the station wagon were introduced. In 1985 a further update arrived which aesthetically adopted a new grille and plastic bumpers. In the same year an agreement was reached with Volkswagen for the supply of a more modern engine, which appeared in the final evolution of the 353, the 1.3.

After 23 years of honourable service the quintessential Wartburg reached its final evolution in 1988, the aforementioned 1.3, which was basically a major restyle of the latter with a more modern engine and a new gearbox. Unfortunately the 1.3 was not successful and was discontinued, leaving just the Trabant since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The final defeat of the car was the ability of the GDR’s residents to be able to choose far more modern cars than only those which used to be offered in the former East Germany, and the final Wartburg 1.3 left the assembly line in 1991, bringing an end to the brand name and the whole era of East German cars.

Text by Tommaso Lai

Translation by Norman Hawkes

Copyright © Cars Forgotten Stories. All rights reserved.


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