It’s easy to overlook how good we have it these days. Even with the global recession, most of us are working and putting food on the table. Car ownership, once an unattainable dream for the vast majority of the world’s population, is now commonplace for citizens in all but the poorest countries. The Cold War, for better or for worse, is over: the final score was Capitalism 1, Communism 0.
Things weren’t always this simple, and the 1981 Wartburg 353 found on Hemmings brings back a lot of memories for me. In 1981, I was an exchange student in Germany and had a chance to see Berlin, both West and East, before the collapse of East Germany. West Berlin was a thriving, world class city with a vibrant economy and an unbelievable arts scene. East Berlin, on the other hand, was ruled by the iron fist of Communism and populated by shy, distrustful residents who spent their lives looking over their shoulders. The paranoia was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
One of my most vivid memories of East Berlin was how few cars were on the streets. The average East German worker needed to save up for decades to buy a car like a Wartburg or a Trabant, and neither was the equivalent of offerings from Western manufacturers like VW or Audi. Styling, if you could call it that, was typically ripped off of Western manufacturers, much the same as Chinese domestic automobile manufacturers do today. Both Wartburgs and Trabants featured smoke-belching two stroke power plants that barely produced forward motion. Either manufacturer’s saving grace was this: under Communist rule, you had no other choices.
Wartburgs were decidedly more upscale than Trabants, and were often used by Communist party officials. They were also pressed into duty as police cars, since their performance and handling was reasonable compared to other East German or Soviet offerings. Wartburg actually exported cars to the UK and other right hand drive countries, where they quickly gained a reputation as cheap but relatively reliable transportation.
The 1981 Wartburg 353 for sale on Hemmings is a reminder that, no matter how bad things are, they can always be worse. The seller, located in Texas, is asking a paltry $6,500 for this rolling history lesson, and that sum buys you 993cc of two-stroke Communist ingenuity. If you’re mechanically inclined, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to keep this car running indefinitely, and the clouds of noxious two stroke exhaust are guaranteed to cull your local mosquito population. It’s not for me, since I lived the whole cold-war-ground-zero thing up close and personal, but I hope it finds the right buyer. There’s not much left of the Berlin Wall, but this Wartburg may be the ultimate souvenir of a time and place that no longer exist.