This is a 1991 Wartburg 1.3. It’s a car so aggressively car-looking it’s almost weird. I mean, look at it. The wheels are round, the windows are square. There are mirrors, there are wipers, bumpers at either end. The doors, presumably, open and close in a very door-ish manner. It has an engine. It makes me a little uncomfortable, truth be told. It almost reminds me of one of those those mashups of a bunch of different people’s faces, to the point where there all distinguishing features are removed, and it just looks like one, robotic, committee-approved face. Staring. Staring at you. Staring at all your lost truths and forgotten accomplishments. Staring eternally. Staring.
So why is this car on Forgotten Metal? Well, I should probably explain that there’s a reason for all this bleakness. You see, at the moment we’re in East Berlin, and East Berlin between the years of 1945 and 1989 was under Soviet control, and the center of a decidedly chilly war. It was also separated from West Berlin, which itself was split into three, albeit free, sections controlled by the Americans, British, and French. The equally imposing and depressing symbol of this separation is of course the Berlin Wall. We’ll get a little more comprehensive in a future post, but for now the Sparknotes are that west of the wall is where you wanted to be, and east of it was full of communism going horribly wrong. They also made some cars.
The Wartburg name can be traced back to the very dawn of the car itself, being affixed in 1898 to a two-cylinder, 765cc motorized carriage built by a company named Automobilwerk Eisenach. The name briefly reappeared in the 1930s on the very first BMW sports car, the 3/15 DA-3 Wartburg, which was, incidentally, based on an English Austin Seven (hooray for British sports cars!). This Wartburg begins in 1956, as a replacement for the Automobilwerk Eisenach F9. It must be said that what they came up with, known as the Wartburg 311, was actually quite a looker, especially in wagon form.
Less than a decade later however, the 311 was replaced by the 353, which was effectively the same car but with more brutalist, East German styling. This meant a 1 liter, two stroke, three cylinder engine driving the front wheels and developing something like 48 horsepower and an 80 mile per hour top speed. This was pretty terrible for the time period, especially when compared with some of the cars the Wartburg competed with. Not that it mattered anyway. East Berlin residents weren’t spoiled for choice when it came to, well, choice. Of anything. The state manufactured everything from clothes to toys to condoms to cars. And when compared with their capitalist contemporaries just over the wall, the communist products just didn’t stack up.
Mercifully, that’s all over now. This particular Wartburg is known as the 1.3, which made use of a Volkswagen-derived 1.3 liter four-cylinder. The engine was never designed to fit in the Wartburg, so in 1989 the whole front end of the car was redesigned, at great cost, to accommodate the new unit. A few months later, the Berlin Wall fell, thus unifying East and West Berlin and ending the Cold War. It also nullified the need for cars designed by the state, and the Wartburg died a few years later in 1991, with styling from the 1960s and the heart from a VW. It’s almost sad.
- You know what’s funny? This was one of the nicer cars you could buy in East Berlin, being favored by well-connected Communist party officials.
- Wartburgs also were the cars of choice for the Stasi, the East German secret police. Police-spec Wartburgs developed about 7 more horsepower than standard Wartburgs. It is said that for every five citizens during the Cold War, there was one secret police officer or informant.
- The Wartburg’s name and decidedly distressed performance earned it the nickname “Farty Hands.” Again, one of the nicer cars you could buy at that time.
- There were noises towards a “performance” Wartburg 1.3 in mid-1990, to be designed by a famed Opel tuner and called the “New Line.” For better or, perhaps, worse (who knows? It could’ve been great) the idea was dropped. Two prototypes did escape, however.