When you think of East German cars, chances are the first name that springs to mind is Trabant. It’s an equally safe bet you’ve never heard of the Wartburg 353 (also known in some markets as the “Knight”). The latter was hardly a stellar offering but, to be fair, it was a better, more sophisticated car than the cartoonish ‘Traby’.
Built by East German manufacturer AWE for their Wartburg brand, the 353 was available in saloon, coupe and wagon formats, with all variants sharing their front-wheel-drive platform and wheezy two-stroke 993cc engine. Incidentally, the ‘Wartburg’ name was inspired by Wartburg Castle, which is perched on one of the hills overlooking the town of Eisenach, where the cars were built.
In many ways, the Wartburg 353 (manufactured from 1966-1988) wasn’t such a bad car, particularly when judged by the standards of the mid-Sixties – the era of its debut. The 353 was relatively cheap, sensibly packaged and its proportions looked okay, if a little frumpy. The body-on-frame chassis was also rugged and durable.
But the utilitarian Wartburg’s handling wasn’t the nimblest — it was said to suffer from terminal understeer on wet roads. However, the real bugbear was the two-stroke engine which had only seven moving parts (crankshaft included)! Apparently, this led to a saying among Wartburg owners that “one simply drives a car but must only maintain a motorcycle”.
The simplistic engine was reliable enough, but it belched copious exhaust emissions (especially when cold or overfilled with oil), prompting the unfortunate nickname of “Farty Hans” by owners. There was also little in the way of sound/vibration damping in the cabin, so occupants were virtually deafened and numbed into a stupor by the racket and reverberation of the two-stroke motor. Not surprisingly, very few Wartburgs were equipped with a stereo because it couldn’t be heard in any case.
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