Seriously. OMG! A WARTBURG just pulled into the parking lot at a Chinese buffet in Indiana. Sorry for yelling, but seriously. A Wartburg. (Actually, at the time, I did not yell. I just said “Hello!” on seeing it, and “excuse me” to the person I was with, as I headed across the asphalt with my phone camera to document a spot I never would have expected to make on a Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of the Chinese Buffet. Or ever in my lifetime, really.)
For those who are not in the know, a Wartburg is a small, stinky, two stroke sedan made in East Germany in the days of the Soviet Union, where it was one step up the automotive ladder from the more famous Trabant. Wartburgs were driven throughout the East Bloc, and the top of the line models were sold in Europe, where they were among the cheapest new cars available and brought in a fair amount of hard currency to the centrally controlled economies of the East.
One place they were never sold and are very seldom seen is in North America. In fact, until yesterday I would have said “never seen in North America” except perhaps in a museum. But here it is – a Wartburg 353W Deluxe, one of three owned by this family and at least local enough to carry an Indiana license plate. Their Wartburgs all originated in Hungary, and were imported after the fall of the Soviet Union by a family member who had fallen in love with them while living in Budapest.
The owners very kindly opened the hood to show me the 3 cylinder 2 stroke engine. Yes, you have to mix oil in with the gas just like with a lawn mower. (The state owned Minol service stations in East Germany had gas pumps that would do the mixing for you.) It displaces just short of a liter and yields about 50 hp. Oddly enough, this is very similar to the displacement and output of the 3 cylinder four stroke motor in our much loved 1987 Chevy Sprint, Mighty Buzz.
The front wheel drive Wartburg 353 was introduced in 1966, and was produced with the two stroke engine all the way until 1989. The W (for “Weiterentwicklung”/”Advanced”) model was introduced in 1974 as revised version of the original car, with an updated dashboard and interior and improved brakes and electrics, although the body and drivetrain remained much the same.
This example is loaded with jazzy accessories from the fog lamps to the brand logo mudflaps. Note in the first photograph and this one the roll of toilet paper displayed on the rear package shelf under a crocheted cover. This is a nod to life in Eastern Europe under the Soviets where this necessity was scarce, and when found was of such poor quality, that anyone with access to the real thing carried their own supply with them everywhere they went.
Scoring the Wartburg is very difficult. Frankly, as a car, it is not hugely interesting. It’s small, it’s underpowered, it was cheap in its day, and while it is pretty enough and a good example of European automotive design trends of the mid 60s, it is not stunningly beautiful or exciting to look at. But it is so, so, so rare– pretty much a once in a lifetime spot.* So 9 points for a rare but not exciting car +1 not sold here +1 for an interesting older car being driven and used, plus an arbitrary second +1 for super rarity and “really not sold here”: Wartburg 353 W Deluxe (1976?) =12 points.
*Or maybe not. We saw the little Wartburg again at Meijer later that afternoon. If this Wartburg has come to live here and become part of the local fleet (at least on sunny weekends), this is going to make me absurdly happy,