For years, East German cars relied on two-stroke engines, which, however, turned out to be outdated and, above all, non-ecological. At the end of the eighties, help came from the West, when Trabant, Barkas and Wartburg cars used Volkswagen engines as part of a trade agreement between East and West Germany. However, it did not extend the life cycle of older models much.
The use of technology from the West was the only way East German automakers could regain interest in export markets. Since the 1970s, more and more countries have banned two-stroke engines in cars for environmental reasons. East German manufacturers thus began to lose the necessary financing from abroad, even because of the bans, there was often nothing left but to sell cars planned for export at home. At the same time, the East Germans did not know how to develop their own technology at the time, they simply did not have the finances to do so. For example, the intended 16-pin for the Wartburg was ultimately not put into production.
Specifically, Wartburg bet on a petrol four-stroke thirteen-cylinder with an OHC distribution from the Volkswagen workshop, which at that time was used by its Polo or Golf models. The water-cooled unit of the EA111 family provided an output of 43 kW, later 47 kW. It was paired with a four-speed manual transmission.
At the same time, it was not at all easy for the designers to replace the existing two-stroke three-cylinder with a more modern four-stroke four-cylinder. It turned out that the engine simply does not fit under the hood of the existing Wartburg 353. This resulted in various prototypes that used a transversely and longitudinally mounted four-cylinder. Longitudinally mounted engine cars were given an extended nose, which earned them the nickname “nosál”.
Lateral storage turned out to be structurally simpler. In addition, with a longitudinally mounted engine, the Wartburg was too heavy for the bow. Even so, the change required significant modifications in the engine compartment. Both the frame and the front axle had to be adjusted, which also meant a different wheel track. However, the suspension solution itself, with a trapezoidal front axle and triangular trailing arms at the rear, was retained.
At the same time, structural changes are visible at first glance. Due to the increased wheel track, the car was eventually named the Wartburg 1.3 due to the engine volume, and received extended fenders, which were no longer smooth like the previous 353. The front end was also changed.
Inside, due to the new transmission, the shift lever has moved from under the steering wheel to the “classic” place between the front seats. From a driving point of view, the most interesting thing was that the four-stroke engine was much quieter than the existing three-cylinder.
The Wartburg 1.3 finally went into production on October 12, 1988. The car continued to be assembled in Eisenach, the engines were made in Karl-Marx Stadt (today’s Chemnitz) at the Barkas factory, and later they were also supplied to Volkswagen from there. The sedan was the first to be produced with the new engine, followed a few months later by the station wagon and pick-up.
Even with the VW engine, the Wartburg had no chance
However, the car arrived on the market at an inopportune time, which affected its sales results. When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989 and Germany reunified on October 3, 1990, Wartburg did not stand a chance in the situation.
Extensive design modifications due to the installation of a four-stroke engine and the expensive production of the Wartburg 1.3 drive unit made the Wartburg 1.3 more expensive, it cost half as much as the previous 353. It was still a design-wise hopelessly outdated car, after all, it was actually just a modified version of the 353, which was produced from 1966 .
The Wartburg was not even good enough for Eastern European competition, when it was similar to the much more modern Škoda Favorit or Lada Samara, let alone competing cars from the West. For example, the Wartburg 1.3 did not even officially reach the Czechoslovak market, or only used cars were imported here. The final nail in the coffin was the opening of the market, when East Germans preferred cars from the West over the outdated Wartburg.
Such a situation was unsustainable in the long term, so Wartburg production had to end. It finally happened on April 10, 1991.
However, it cannot be said that they did not try to turn the situation around in Eisenach. A 14-seat Renault car was being developed, which was supposed to make production cheaper. The project of a sporty looking Wartburg from the tuning company Irmscher was also interesting, which used a decent rear spoiler or 14″ light alloy wheels.
Production continues in Eisenach
However, even that could no longer help, and so the history of the Wartburg came to a definitive end in the early nineties. However, car manufacturing in Eisenach continues – perhaps thanks to its rich history. It dates back to 1896, before Wartburg, Dixi and BMW cars were produced in this city, renamed EMW in the 1950s.
In the Wartburg factory, Opel cars began to be assembled on October 5, 1990, specifically the then-generation Vectra model. However, this production only lasted until 1992, as Opel had already started building a new factory in Eisenach, where it subsequently moved production completely. The Opel Eisenach plant started producing the Corsa and Astra models on September 23, 1992. Auto parts were produced in the existing premises until 2018, later a large part of the buildings was demolished, but the automobile museum remained.
The Opel company is still operating today, although there have been several speculations in the past about its possible closure. Today, however, its future is secured for the following years, thanks to a massive investment. From 2024, the successor to the Grandland model will be produced here, which will also offer a purely electric version.