Curbside Classic: 1988-1991 Wartburg 353 1.3 – The East German Audi, In More Ways Than One

Wartburg 353 1.3 1988-1991 fqposted at the CC Cohort by r0b0tr10t

This car has a long and fascinating history, if we can get past the usual stereotypical comments of it being a perfect example of what happens to cars in a Communist command economy. True enough, but let’s wait until the guffaws have died down some, and then I’ll take you on a tour of its convoluted past. There’s a bit of a surprise here: this version is not a two-stroke. And as it turns out, that title has more relevance to this car than I realized when I first came up with it.

dkw _f9_saloon_prototype_large_28311

DKW (full history here) was the world’s pioneer in adapting the two-stroke engine to successful front-wheel drive automobiles. In 1940, the unveiled the highly advanced and aerodynamic F9 prototype (above), with a CD of 0.42 and a new 896 cc three-cylinder set in front of the axle.

Since DKW was located in Saxony, the factory found itself in East Germany after the war. DKW was re-organized in the West, and eventually began a long line of two-stroke cars based on the F9. DKW had to be “rescued” by Mercedes in 1958, and then “sold” to VW in 1964, by then re-named Audi. And all Audis since have kept the same basic configuration of longitudinal engine just ahead of the front transaxle.


The F9 was put into production in DKW’s Zwickau plant by the new East German Industrial Association IFA, as the IFA F9. But eventually, the Zwickau plant was designated to produce the smaller entry-level Trabant beginning in 1955, also using a two-stroke engine but with two-cylinders. So the larger three-cylinder cars were commanded to be built in the former BMW factory in Eisenach (renamed EMW). For a few years after the war, BMW/EMWs were basically continuations of pre-war BMWs, but the market for such pricey cars was turning out to be much too small for East Germany’s communist economy.

Wartburg 311_(1963)_02

The F9 got a completely new body, and went into production in 1956, now named Wartburg, after the castle overlooking Eisenach, as well as the name of a car built in the same factory during the early part of the century. The Wartburg 311 was quite a decent effort for the times, and very comparable to the DKW/Auto Union cars of the time. In fact, its body design was more contemporary, as DKW/AU held on to its basic F9-derived body until the early sixties.

The Wartburg effectively became the DDR’s upscale car, and one ordinary folks might not readily be able to afford. Very much the East German Audi A6, or A8 even.

Wartburg -353-W-02

In 1966, the Warburg got a completely new body, and was called the 353. In some export markets, its name was Wartburg Knight, and a RHD version was made for the UK.  The engine by now had 992 cc, and power levels continued to increase, from 50, to 55, to ultimately 57 hp.  Top speed was some 150-155 km/h (95 mph).

Wartburg girls

Advertising was racy….

wartburg -353-combi-02

There was also a wagon version,

Wartburg 353 pickup

As well as a pickup.

wartburg 353-10

By the 1980s, needless to say, the two-stroke engines of the Wartburg and Trabant had become very obsolete, and environmentally unfriendly, with their perpetual plume of blue smoke trailing behind. Fuel economy was also sub-par. In 1988, Volkswagen offered to move a surplus engine manufacturing line to East Germany. That engine was the Audi-designed EA111 small four-cylinder OHC four, originally designed for the Audi 50, which also became the VW Polo. It was still a very modern unit by then, and had a long life in a variety of VW cars, including the European version of the Golf.

Watburg 353 1.3 rq

A 1.3 L version making a modest 64hp was installed in place of the two-stroke, and gave the now-named Wartburg 353 1.3 a new lease on life, beginning in 1988. But the collapse of the Iron Curtain and re-unification of Germany quickly made the Wartburg and Trabant–which also got a 1.1 L version of the same VW engine–irrelevant. The Wartburg soldiered on through 1991, and then the plug was pulled. The Eisenach factory was acquired by Opel shortly after.

When I first came up with the title “The East German Audi”, I assumed this was a two-stroke Wartburg, and based it on the historical connection to DKW . But since this turned out to be a 353 1.3, and actually has an engine designed by Audi, the circle is really complete, and the title takes on additional meaning. Now back to the guffaws…