Loved, Warts and All ; CLASSIC CARS ++ WARTBURG 353 KNIGHT ++ despite Its Name and GDR Origins, the Wartburg Was a Hit with Brits, Says Andrew Roberts

By Roberts, Andrew | The Independent (London, England), July 31, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Loved, Warts and All ; CLASSIC CARS ++ WARTBURG 353 KNIGHT ++ despite Its Name and GDR Origins, the Wartburg Was a Hit with Brits, Says Andrew Roberts


Roberts, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)


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 prewar 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 [pound]700 - or the price of a fairly sparsely equipped Ford Anglia or Vauxhall Viva - the proud Wartburgowner 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.

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Loved, Warts and All ; CLASSIC CARS ++ WARTBURG 353 KNIGHT ++ despite Its Name and GDR Origins, the Wartburg Was a Hit with Brits, Says Andrew Roberts
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