Classic Cars Wiki
Classic Cars Wiki

The Wartburg 353, known in some export markets as the Wartburg Knight, is a medium-sized family car, produced by East German car manufacturer Wartburg. It was the successor of the Wartburg 311, and was itself succeeded by the Wartburg 1.3.

The Wartburg 353 was produced from 1966 to 1988, becoming the Wartburg model with the longest-ever production run. During its lifetime it saw several changes and improvements, the most notable of these coming in 1985 with a slight front facelift and a new one-step carburetor.

The Wartburg 353 was the creation of the former German BMW production facilities (called EMW under Soviet occupation). It was based on a 1938 design, and powered by an engine with only seven major moving parts, including the crankshaft. Hence the popular saying among owners that one drives a car, but only maintains a motorcycle.

Domestically, it was used for government transportation, sometimes as a police car. Delivery of consumer builds often could take ten to fifteen years.

Like other Eastern European cars, it was known for its low price and comparatively well-equipped design. Because of its forward center of gravity and front-wheel drive, the car had specific road handling, sometimes displaying significant understeering, especially in wet conditions. Wartburgs were exported to the UK, Cyprus, Malta, and South Africa (no doubt helped by the fact that right-hand drive models were already being produced for the UK.)

The Wartburg 353 was powered by top-most agile for its time 1 litre displacement, 3-cylinder two-stroke engine that took almost two decades to develop and refine. Not surprisingly, while yielding only about 55 bhp it was capable of very competitive acceleration, even by modern standards. The transmission was equipped with a freewheel, obviating the need to use the clutch between gears. This turned out so popular with owners that it's become almost symbolic for a 353, along with the gear stick on the steering column. Designed as a fuel efficiency measure and as means of protecting the engine from oil starvation, the device disabled engine braking; the car effectively coasted whenever the throttle was released. Drivers had the option of turning the freewheel off through a switch under the steering column to benefit from engine braking. Useful when going down a long hill in hot weather for example, since the front brakes were prone to overheating and fading. However, most drivers never disabled the freewheel, because it made shifting gears significantly easier and smoother, though not quicker.

It is notable that even today the 353 is capable of, and is driven at well about 200 km/h (125 mph), whereas the original design called for a speed of 150-155 km/h and 12 seconds to accelerate to 100 km/h (62 mph), which was dealt with in second gear due to the high-rev engine.

The 353 was an immediate success throughout the Eastern bloc, and with good reason; for approximately the same price, it significantly outperformed Soviet vehicles of its class in almost every aspect: safety, drag, acceleration, top speed, fuel efficiency, ergonomics, handling, ease of use, maintenance, trunk and inner space, reliability, off-road capability, and even dynamics, despite its less powerful engine. Evidence of the latter are the multiple rally wins it scored over the course of decades, whereas the more powerful Ladas and Moskviches usually failed to achieve success in that arena.

The Wartburg 353 was commonly nicknamed "Trustworthy Hans" or "Farty Hans" by owners due to its durability and copious exhaust emissions when cold and/or overoiled. Noteworthy characteristics of the model are: simple design, dependability, occasional and cheap maintenance, strong chassis-based car frame, front-wheel drive, rear ABS, a 525-litre trunk that was very large for its class, and, after 1983, innovative electronic gauges.

Over a million Wartburg 353s were produced overall, many of them still roadworthy and functional today.