After returning from one of her periodic forays back in the early ‘80s into the German Democratic Republic—a.k.a. East Germany—at the wheel of her Volvo 343, my mother mystified me at first by complaining about the number of warthogs she had encountered on the roads of the workers’ paradise. They traveled in convoys, she said, and were all over the place, and moving at high speed, too. Only Trabants could slow them down. At the mention of the GDR’s iconic crapmobile, it dawned on me that she was referring not to bristly African piggies but to East Germany’s other automotive icon, the Wartburg, named after the ancient castle that dominates the town of Eisenach (birthplace of J. S. Bach). They were less famous abroad than the Trabis, but were much better cars, all around, coveted by the citizens of the little dictatorship, and even had sporting ambitions. Alas, they were still East German, made by and for committees, and, like their pocket homeland, were doomed after ’89.
But they had quite a heritage. The first Wartburg on wheels was made in 1898, when most of what became East Germany was still known as Prussia: the Wartburgwagen, with a two-cylinder, 765-cc engine and a top speed of 25 mph. The name was soon dropped but re-appeared in the early 1930s on a BMW, of all things, then disappeared until the Eisenach automobile factory was in the hands of the Communists, post-1949. Like its West German counterpart the DKW (proto-Audi), the Wartburg had a three-cylinder, two-stroke 962-cc engine that went PUT-put-put-put and managed a heady 52 to 57 horsepower, depending on the efficiency of the carburetor. (Two-stroke engines relied on a mixture of special oil and gasoline at a ratio of 1:50 to lubricate the engine.)
A rounded, homely model, the 311, put East Germany, or at least the better-heeled segments of it, on wheels in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s; it made its way West, even into West Germany, where I first saw them, and conjectured that unrepentant Communists and other fellow-travelers must be the owners. I mean, why would you drive a Wartburg if you had BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and VWs as alternatives?
Still, the 311’s successor, the 353, racked up respectable sales figures in the West; in the UK it was known as the Knight, and became a quite common sight, especially on the streets of working-class towns in the North and Scotland. It caught on in France and Switzerland, too, at least in limited numbers. One of our neighbors in Geneva ditched his Ford Cortina and bought a sparkling new cream-colored Knight; this must have been in 1967 or so. “You see?” said my father, triumphantly. “Didn’t I say he was an East German spy?” And indeed I always thought Dad’s Cold-Warrior hypothesis regarding this neighbor was feasible. Geneva, after all, teemed with louche characters from everywhere (and no doubt still does). And this man lived alone in a small dark house with shutters usually closed and a towering ham-radio mast on the roof, and he kept odd hours, often wee ones: the PUT-put-put of his Wartburg at 1 a.m down our otherwise silent suburban street was a giveaway to his comings and goings. Too, we lived near the airport, and on certain nights the drone of a plane taking off about an hour after the Wartburg had put-putted past led me, rendered sleepless by the fanciful imaginings of childhood, to muse about secret encounters in safe houses; top-secret U.N. materiel being spirited away behind the Iron Curtain; spy swaps on the airport tarmac; messages in cigarette packs in the telephone booth at Checkpoint Charlie …. Then one day he was gone, and so was the Wartburg, along with the ham-radio mast. He was replaced by a Swiss family of excessive respectability—both teachers, with a boy and a girl—and they drove a Peugeot. My father lost interest entirely.
The final Wartburg, the 1.3, had the same boxy body style as the old Knight, but featured a fine 64-hp VW Golf engine under the hood. It was well-built, thoroughly revamped by West German engineers, and reliable: in short, a pretty good car. It should have found its saviors earlier, however. The year was 1988 and history was on the march; a year later the Wall came down and East Germany, warthogs and all, was one with Nineveh and Tyre.