Wartburg 353 Knight

Despite its name and GDR origins, the Wartburg was a hit with Brits, says Andrew Roberts

Tuesday 31 July 2007 00:00 BST

Many a social pundit will relentlessly (and boringly) tell you that 1963 was the year that the Swinging Sixties really started: the Please Please Me LP; Profumo; That Was The Week That Was, et al. However, for British car enthusiasts, the exciting news was the fact that, at that year's London Motor Show, alongside the all-new Hillman Imp, Lotus Consul-Cortina, Humber Sceptre and Rover and Triumph 2000, was the stand for Industria Ltd, whose sales team was ready, willing and quite possibly desperate for your order.

Its offerings for that year comprised of a small car known as the Trabant and, making its UK debut, a mid-sized four-door saloon that also hailed from East Germany and bore the peculiar name of Wartburg 311. This was clearly the car that had the greatest sales potential in the UK: it was big, cheap, well-appointed and, very importantly, wasn't made of cardboard. (Even in 1963, motorists were appreciative of this last quality.)

Some 18 years earlier, the BMW works had found itself in the Russian-occupied zone of post-war Germany, and for the next seven years the factory built its own version of the 1938 328 as the "EMW 340". By 1952, the Red Army had finally departed from the Eisenach Works, and the GDR's need for foreign currency, combined with irate legal representations from BMW, saw a new car with a new name – the Wartburg 311.

It was essentially a pre-war DKW chassis surmounted by rather stylish modern(ish) coachwork, powered by a 900cc two- stroke engine. Wartburg had originally tested the right-hand drive market with a handful of export models sent to Cyprus, but in the UK, the marque seemed doomed to lurk within small ads for obscure provincial garages in The Motor: "Tel. Hamble 598 to book a test drive for the exciting new Wartburg!"

Still, the firm's all-new offering for 1966 was designed to alter this distressing state of affairs. The Wartburg 353 eschewed the duotone paint and chrome of its predecessor in favour of minimalist cuboid styling inherited from the Warszawa 210, an abandoned Polish prototype of the early 1960s. As an example of Eastern Bloc automotive collaboration, the result was not unpleasing, as the 353's crisp lines made it look not unlike the BMW 1800's small cousin.

However, for all of the 353's apparent modernity – independent suspension with telescopic torsion bars and a floor-mounted gear lever, no less – its chassis was still reassuringly pre-war, its transmission initially remained three-speed, and its engine was still guaranteed to belch out clouds of blue smoke in time-honoured two-stroke fashion.

But for the UK market at which the Wartburg Knight was aimed, these anachronisms barely counted. For less than £700 – or the price of a fairly sparsely equipped Ford Anglia or Vauxhall Viva – the proud Wartburg- owner gained a five-seater Cortina-sized car, complete with two-speed wipers, a cigar lighter, reversing lamps, reclining front seats, and many other items of standard equipment with which to wow suburbia.

At a time when less than 10 per cent of all new cars on British roads were imported, the apparent value for money offered by the Knight was enough to counter any accusations of being unpatriotic – and in any case, there was a certain cachet in owning a car with a name your neighbours couldn't pronounce.

In 1967, there was also the delightfully named "Knight Tourist", a five-door estate that cost less than a Morris 1100 Traveller, and came with such innovative touches as auxiliary tail lights for when the tailgate was open. At a time when a bottom- of-the-range small British car might still have a heater on the extras list, the Wartburg did not lack for showroom appeal, and in terms of space per pound sterling, it could not be faulted, but its dynamic abilities were another matter. Knight owners soon learnt to check the BBC weather forecast before leaving their homes, for although the Wartburg's handling was reasonable in the dry, rain caused a Jekyll & Hyde personality change.

Wet roads incited the Wartburg to plough on regardless, leaving the hapless owner desperately anchored to the steering wheel, although the potential for disaster was slightly negated by the Knight's top speed of 76mph.

Even the most committed East German Marxists were known to find driving the car a slight challenge, having often waited 10 to 15 years to take delivery of their new Wartburg in the first place. And there was the additional problem that the diminutive engine often found itself somewhat overstressed. The result was an overall fuel economy of 28mpg, and the fact that the Wartburg owner seemed doomed perpetually to travel in a cloud of blue smoke, but even this did not deter some 19,000 British Knight owners.

The 1970s was not exactly a peak period for reliability in British mass-produced cars, and even the most ardent patriot was known to make his way to his friendly Industria dealer after only a few months of experiencing the many and various joys of Morris Marina 1300 De Luxe ownership. Sadly, in 1976, British imports came to an end. However, the Knight's export success continued in countries as far apart as as South Africa, Argentina and Malta. For people living there, the fact that the Knight's 900cc engine had only seven moving parts and required servicing at 30,000-mile intervals was considered to be of far greater importance than its refreshing approach to roadholding.

Meanwhile, back in the GDR, Knights were variously employed as highway patrol cars (not an implausible choice given that they mainly pursued Trabants), Stasi staff cars, taxis, Stasi staff cars, middle-ranking Party official transport, and Stasi staff cars.

The millionth 353 Knight was built in 1985, but the inevitable end of the Wartburg came with glasnost, and even the 1989 VW Golf engine 353 1300 was not enough to stave off the acquisition of the Eisenach Works by Opel in 1991. The final years of Wartburg production had been plagued with financial problems, even resulting in crates of Wartburgs being left on the quayside at the Cairo docks for two years, and used as unofficial company cars by the delighted port workers.

In the UK, the surviving Wartburgs largely vanished in the mid-1980s, together with many other once-popular relics of the previous decade, while in the unified Germany, the 353 was seen as a shadow of a tragic era in the nation's history.

Come the 21st century, and Knight enthusiast clubs had emerged across the world, with each member being dedicated to throwing off the shackles of market-driven conformity through the ownership of a boxy saloon car that would actually backfire impressively at regular intervals – and that was less of a cliché than owning a Trabant.

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