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These cars were crude from day one. The East German automobile industry’s brief existence left no mark on the world other than to serve as a reminder of how bad a car can be. The Wartburg and Trabant were East Germany’s long-standing domestic cars, and people only bought them out of necessity. Once consumers had a choice, it was anything but these two. As the Berlin wall fell so did the East German automotive brands.
We were in Germany last winter as part of an extended test drive of Opel's Insignia
for our sister site MotoBullet
. It seemed only fitting to use the latest in German sedans to go explore a world of cars that spent decades frozen in time. There are plenty of automotive museums in Germany, even in places that were once behind the Iron Curtain. However on this trip we not only wanted to see the cars, but experience the atmosphere from which they came.
While neither brand lived 40 years, the Wartburg and Trabant were the two makes that kept an entire country mobile. Each car’s resistance to change is linked to the culture that produced them. Almost two decades after production ceased, enough time has passed to turn these cars from cheap appliances into artifacts from an almost forgotten period.
First stop was the Automobilwerk Eisenach (AWE) in Eisenach, Germany. This is the former home of the Wartburg, the Cadillac of oppressed motoring. The factory already had a long history before the Iron Curtain divided Germany. It began producing Wartburg cars in 1899, and went through a few name changes until an aircraft and motorcycle producer named Bayerische Motoren Werke bought it in 1928. Eisenach became the first home for BMW cars.
When the Iron Curtain went up, this factory was on the wrong side for a company wanting to participate in capitalism. In 1945 the Soviet-controlled factory produced variations of pre-war BMWs without BMW’s consent. This continued until 1952 when BMW was reestablished in West Germany and regained control of its car production. The East German factory in Eisenach still produced cars that had their roots in old BMW designs, but the name was switched to EMW for Eisenach Motor Works. The similar name and logo didn’t sit well with BMW in the Munich, and it continued to push for reform. In 1956 the factory was renamed Automobilwerk Eisenach and began producing new designs under the original Wartburg name.
It is a cold, and dreary day when we set out for the former AWE factory. It sets the mood as we arrive at a facility that is only a shadow of its former self. Much of the multi-building complex was torn down soon after the plant closed in 1991. All that remains is the entrance gate and two factory buildings, one of which is used as archives and a museum.
The museum is one floor of a three-story building that was once used by the company’s management. For its small size, the museum houses many of the significant cars built in Eisenach. The main exhibit hall showcases the cars in chronological order and emphasizes the social climate of the time with period-appropriate signage (including border boundary warnings from the beginning of the East German period.)
The museum includes the original cars from the turn of the century, the Austin Sevens built under license as Dixi, some pre-war BMWs, and some post-war EMWs; but the emphasis is on the cars designed in the Communist era. From 1956 until 1991, there were basically only two Wartburg models produced by AWE. The first followed Communist protocol by utilizing one mediocre platform for all versions. The Wartburg 311/312 came as a wagon, van and pickup truck. There was even the 313-1, a handsome sports coupe/roadster. Everything was based on the same simple chassis and three-cylinder, two-stroke engine that peaked at 45 hp.
In 1966 a new sedan called the 353 replaced the previous car. While the design was much more modern, coupe and convertible options were no longer offered. It used a similar chassis and the same smoke-belching three-cylinder engine as its predecessor, but the engine was enlarged to offer 55 hp at its peak. No fun versions of this Wartburg were ever offered, and the company settled into the Communist image of ‘one car for all’ for the next 25 years.
This resistance to change is directly reflected in the museum. It features row after row of cars of various ages but similar styles. This is fascinating from a historical standpoint, but the same perspective can be downright depressing when imagining having to live with this automotive lifestyle.
This is not a museum for people looking for glamorous cars, but it does house plenty of extraordinary metal. With few Wartburgs left on the road, each car on display is rare by default. Plus the museum features a few surprises like the 1.5-liter racecar from 1956 (pictured right) or a few Wartburg prototypes. These vehicles show the more creative side of AWE that the public rarely saw.
The other factory building doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. It was abandoned almost two decades ago when the workers went to the new Opel factory, but the building’s decay goes back much further. A few yards away an old steel press was taken out of the building and was anchored in front of this factory. We came looking for a taste of what it would be like work in this factory forty years ago at the height of Communism. Trying to imagine a cramped room filled with the gigantic steel presses had the desired effect we were seeking. The chill we felt went beyond the cold and wet weather…it was time to leave this place.
Next stop was Zwickau and East Germany’s most famous vehicle.
The Trabant was East Germany’s equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle. While both were cars for the masses, the Beetle was a symbol of West Germany’s post-WWII economic miracle. The underpowered, smoke-belching Trabant was the Beetle’s exact technological opposite, but still accurately reflected East German society at the time.
The factory in Eisenach had a natural progression of going from large BMW-based sedans to Communist-grown sedans. This didn’t happen in Zwickau. Automobilwerk Zwickau (AWZ) went from building prestigious large cars for Auto Union before the war to becoming famous for an economy car made from cotton.
The Trabants began rolling off the assembly line in 1958. Unlike the Wartburgs that were decedents of pre-Soviet cars, the plans for the Trabant were drawn with Communist ink. The car was launched with contemporary touches such as front-wheel drive and an independent suspension, but its pre-war DKW two-stroke engine that made 26 horsepower (or less) ensured that the Trabant would never be seen as in-step with modern times.
Today, the main factory in Zwickau still produces auto parts, so the best place to view the Trabant is a few blocks away at the August Horch Museum. The museum is named after the man who founded two of the four rings in the Auto Union brands (Horch and Audi). The Horch Museum is split into two floors. The tour begins on the top floor, which is large and spacious enough to pass for a car museum more typically found in the U.S. It is mainly devoted to the Auto Union brands DKW, Wanderer, Audi and Horch, which were mostly larger sedans, coupes and convertibles.
The lower floor is like descending to a basement, where the tighter space approximates the world of post-WWII East Germany. Here the featured car is the Trabant, including sedan and ‘Kombi’ wagon versions as well as a few related cars that briefly preceded it.
The rumor is that Trabants were built out of cotton or cardboard, and there is some truth in that. The body components were made from Duroplast, which combines cotton and cardboard with a resin to make a hard plastic similar to fiberglass. All of this seems like a rational way to make car parts, but actually watching it happen will bring doubts.
The Horch Museum features archival footage of workers shaping the body panels. A material that looks like a thick wool blanket is carried (in one arm) to what looks like a large cookie cutter. With little effort a large shape is cut that is recognizable as the rear half of the Trabant. The panel is still wooly and wobbly as it moves further into production.
The video also showed the panels treated by resin and a high pressure stamping to create a solid car body. But the image of auto body parts made from a bedspread makes the thought of a Trabant getting into an accident with anything other than a pillow factory a horrific idea.
Today the Trabant is an iconic automotive symbol of the former East Germany. But it wasn’t always so beloved. A few hours away at Volkswagen’s Autostadt, VW’s Skoda brand houses a sculpture depicting life in 1989 East Berlin as the Berlin Wall was falling. It shows owners electing to use their Trabants as stepladders to get over the defunct wall instead of transportation across the boarder.
This may be the ultimate moral to these cars’ story. Once Communism was abandoned, so were the cars of East Germany. In a time of repression the Wartburgs and Trabants provided the momentary freedom on any open road. But once all roads were open, it became clear there was no place for them in a modern world.