It’s time for another delve into the automotive curiosity cupboard that is the Eastern Bloc, a Communist alliance renowned for the oppression of millions, waiting lists that stretched into decades, and cars that were almost comically bad. This is one of them, the Wartburg 353.
As with many Communist creations though, the Wartburg was not a bad car when it launched in the late 1960s. A weird one perhaps, but not bad objectively speaking.
The 353 started production from a pinched BMW factory in 1966, and was powered by a 1 litre, 3-cylinder, 2-stroke engine that had its roots in a 1938 DKW. This made it as torquey as the larger engines in the west, and meant it had only seven major moving parts, but also made the car incredibly unrefined and polluting, leaving a cloud of burnt oil behind it whenever it went.
A unique freewheel system meant the 353 required no clutch to change gear, and the car was also front-wheel-drive, still fairly novel at the time, although the set-up imbued it with terrifying understeer characterises in the wet.
Despite the niggles, the Wartburg 353’s low price, reliability, and the fact it wasn’t a Trabant, led to success, and meant that – due to the ‘planned economy’ of East Germany – the waiting list stretched out to fifteen years for private citizens.
The 353 was also exported to several countries as the Wartburg ‘Knight’, presumably to bring in foreign currency (which must have been frustrating for those on the waiting list), as well as being used by the police and East German government.
Of course as time passed the 353 became increasingly outdated, and little was done to keep pace with Western products that were out of reach for those trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The government even repeatedly refused to upgrade the polluting 2-stroke engine, despite Wartburg’s engineers having developed working alternatives.
By the late-’80s the writing was on the wall, both for East Germany and Wartburg. The eventual addition of a modern 1.3 litre engine from the Volkswagen Polo in 1984 came too late, and the reunification of Germany finally killed the 353 – alongside many other long-obsolete East German offerings – in 1988.
This splendid Model Team recreation of the Wartburg 353 ‘Tourist’ is the work of previous bloggee Legostalgie, who has captured the East German family car beautifully in period-correct brown.
Opening doors, hood and tailgate, plus a detailed engine and interior all feature, and there’s lots more of the model to see at Legostalgie’s ‘Wartburg 353 Tourist’ Flickr album. Click the link above to join a fifteen year queue in East Germany sometime in the 1970s.