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Willy Witkin's Wartburgs
August 1, 2003, by Bill Cawthon
I just got an advance look at a model that will be coming from Herpa this fall. My good friend Marc Schmidt sent me one of the brand-new promotional models of the equally brand-new BMW 530i. Say what you will about Chris Bangle's styling of the prototype; I promise you'll like the model. Herpa did a spectaular job of capturing the full-size original in 1:87 scale. While the BMW promotional models are not currently available in North America, Herpa has announced the regular models will be among their September-October releases.
However, this time the focus is not months in the future, but over forty years in the past. As you will see, though, there is a connection between the awesome new 5-Series, a little 3-cylinder sedan and a Southern California business venture that must have been regarded as more than a little crazy.
In the late 1950s, the anti-communist sentiment was strong in America. Tensions were increasing between the United States and the Soviet Bloc. It was a time still heavily influenced by the spirit of Joe McCarthy and the ruthless crushing of the Hungarian uprising by the Red Army.
Yet it was at this time that a Los Angeles car dealer named Willy Witkin decided to import the Wartburg, a car designed and built in East Germany. I guess Witkin figured that if Americans would buy cars like the BMW-built Isetta, there was a market for a line of more conventional cars, even if they were from the wrong side of Checkpoint Charlie and had a name that might be considered at least unusual from an American point of view.
The Wartburg is named for Wartburg Castle, which overlooks the town of Eisenach in western Thuringia. The castle was built almost a thousand years ago by Ludwig the Springer, a German landgrave, a title roughly equivalent to a count. Somewhat more recently, Reformation leader Martin Luther hid from Catholic authorities at Wartburg Castle while he translated the Bible from Latin to German.
While the car's roots don't go back to 1067 or even 1521, they do stretch back over a century to a company established in 1896 by a successful German arms maufacturer named Heinrich Ehrhardt. The Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach AG (Vehicle Manufacturing Company of Eisenach) originally made bicycles and larger motorized vehicles like military trucks and buses, but it wasn't long until Ehrhardt decided to build a car. The first car from Eisenach made its debut at the 1898 Düsseldorf car exhibition.
Unfortunately, public response was underwhelming, so Ehrhardt gave up on his original design and obtained a license to produce the French Decauville. This arrangement lasted only six years. In 1904, Ehrhardt decided that supporting the French cars, which were plagued with problems, was not a good plan and he dropped the license and left the auto business. [Author's Note: Ehrhardt wasn't alone; an Englishman named Frederick Henry Royce was so unhappy with his Decauville, he designed his own car and showed it to a young nobleman named Charles Stewart Rolls. Today, their car is produced by BMW.]
After Ehrhardt's departure, automobile production continued at Eisenach, but now it was a new car with a new name: Dixi. Dixis were built in a variety of styles and enjoyed a reputation for quality. They also did well in competition and set a world's record in 1923 by completing a 20,000-kilometer (12,427 miles) race at an average speed of 32.6 mph. Dixis were sold as Leanders in Great Britain and Reginas in France. The company changed its name to Dixi Werke AG in 1920, the same year it was bought by Gothaer Waggonfabrik, a manufacturer of railroad cars.
The best-known Dixi was also the last one to wear the name. In 1927, Dixi negotiated a license to build the Austin Seven, a small British car. According to some sources, the German Dixis were better built than the English originals and sold quite well.
Not long after beginning production of the new Dixi, the company ran into financial troubles. In 1928, BMW, then a successful motorcycle manufacturer, bought the Dixi license and took over the factory at Eisenach. Within three years, the little cars were wearing the BMW Roundel logo and a sporting version called the BMW-Wartburg had been introduced.
The link between BMW and Wartburg wasn't severed until after World War II. BMW's managers had fled to the West and the heavily damaged Eisenach factory was in the Soviet Sector. The Russian Army had flooded the plant during the war and it remained in a shambles until 1952. However part of the facility was still usable and automobile production was restarted.
For a year the factory was the "Eisenacher Maschinen- und Fahrzeugfabrik," but in 1946, the Communist government gave it a new name, "Sowjetische AG Maschinenbau Awtowelo, Werk BMW Eisenach."
The "Awtowelo" name appeared on some cars, but the most of the cars produced were pre-war BMWs; they even carried the BMW name since there was nothing the formers owners could do about it.
In 1952, the Russians turned the factory over to the East German government. By this time, BMW was producing cars again and was complaining about the use of their name. The cars were renamed "EMW," for Eisenach Motor Works, and the logo was changed to a four-pointed star on a red and white background.
EMWs were produced until 1955. At the same time, it acquired BMW's Eisenach plant; the Soviets also got the Audi Sachsenring plant in Zwickau. At that plant, workers had been building the IFA F9, an updated version of a pre-war DKW design, but they were now busy developing the new Trabant. The Eisenach plant, now called "VEB Automobilwerke Eisenach," or AWE, took over the F9 engine and created its own new car.
In December 1955, AWE introduced the Wartburg 311. Larger and more solid than the Trabant, the Wartburg was well built, with body-on-frame construction. It was powered by a 900cc, 3-cylinder, 2-stroke engine and had a 4-speed transmission. Top speed was about 70 mph.
Wartburgs were offered in eleven configurations, including sedans, coupes and station wagons and were ultimately exported to 55 countries. While its styling was reminiscent of a GM car from the early 1950s, the Wartburg was actually a fairly good-looking automobile. During its eleven-year production run, 258,928 Wartburg 311s left the Eisenach factory.
This was the car that attracted Willy Witkin. While it would seem unlikely that an East German car would appeal to an American, Witkin was determined. After convincing AWE to make a few changes, including two-tone paint, he posted a notice about the availability of the new Wartburg in Playboy magazine.
Witkin made a reasonable living selling Wartburgs for a few years, even though he occasionally had trouble getting financing for his customers from reluctant bankers worried about the car's durability.
Unfortunately, relations between the East and West continued to deteriorate. On August 13, 1961, the East German government closed the border and built the Berlin Wall. Soon, pickets began to appear at Witkin's dealerships and he began to receive hate mail and threats. Witkin dropped the Wartburg line and no more East German cars were ever imported to the United States.
In the short time it was available, Americans bought a total of 1,215 Wartburgs. There are a few still running today. Probably the biggest collection belongs to Californian Victor Birschansky, the owner of sixteen Wartburgs, including a 311 convertible that he drives. To keep them going, he bought Willy Witkin's entire inventory of spare parts and has made three trips to Eisenach to get more.
In spite of the loss of the U.S. market, the Wartburg was one of the most successful vehicles produced in any of the Communist nations. Until production ended in 1991, well over a million Wartburgs left the Eisenach factory. It became the premium East German car, getting better materials than the Trabant. The 311 series lasted until the late 1960s, when the 353 replaced it. In response to government demands for increased production, the 353 was designed to be cheaper and faster to produce and is rather plain compared to its flashy predecessor.
The 353 was the last major model change for the 2-stroke Wartburg. An improved version, called the 353W, made its debut in 1974 and, while there were many attempts to upgrade the styling and design, none ever made it to full-scale production. In 1988, AWE introduced one final product, the Wartburg 1.3, which used a Volkswagen Golf engine and was the only 4-stroke Wartburg model.
After the reunification, several Western automobile companies were competing for facilities in the former DDR. The fate of the Eisenach plant came down to a contest between Volkswagen and GM's German subsidiary, Opel. On March 26, 1990, the AWE staff chose to ally the plant with Opel and formed a joint venture named Opel-AWE Ges.m.b.H. Later, GM bought out the join venture and the company is now Opel Eisenach GmbH, a wholly owned subsidiary of Opel.
Although it had been the finest car built in East Germany, the Wartburg
Today, little remains of the AWE factory. However, a new museum, the Automobilbau Museum Eisenach, celebrates the city's more than 100 years of automotive history. Among the exhibits is a faithful 1:87-scale model of the AWE plant in its later years with rows of miniature Herpa Wartburg 353s lined up, ready for shipment.
Herpa makes models of the 1966 and 1985 Wartburg 353. While I am sure they are not prototypical for an American layout set in the same period, the 1966 model could be imported as it was built before 1968, when strict federal standards went into effect. Whether or not anyone has done this, I don't know, but some fairly unlikely vehicles have shown up in U.S. garages.
I will be adding a Wartburg 311 to the inventory at Oddball's Autos. Artapo and Brekina have produced HO-scale Wartburg models. Artapo made the largest number of body styles but finding them can be a challenge. Brekina makes only the 4-door sedan, but Brekina models tend to be a bit easier to find in North America. The Brekina Wartburg comes in a several versions, including a snappy two-tone like the real cars Willy Witkin brought to America forty-five years ago.
Quick Update: Just as I was getting ready to wrap up this column, I received the very welcome news that the Boeing 307 Stratoliner (see: An Aviation Legend Lives Again, July 2001) had taken off to start the first leg of its flight to its new home. If all goes as planned, the 307 will be on permanent display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.
Last year, the fate of the Stratoliner was in doubt, following a crash-landing in a lake during flight-testing. The team of Boeing retirees and employees that had done such a magnificent job on the original restoration went back to work and repaired the damage and the Stratoliner took to the skies once again on July 27, 2003.
The Stratoliner will take about ten days to make the trip from Seattle to Washington, D.C. On the way, it will make stops in Great Falls, Montana, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In Oshkosh, the Stratoliner will be displayed at the Experimental Aviation Association's AirVenture show through August 4. If you are in the area, check it out.
Special thanks to Tom Brabant and Ken DeJarlais of Boeing for their help with the photograph.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.
In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.
Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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