On The Road column with Kevin Hogan – remembering the Wartburg

Unusual vehicle: My first car was a Wartburg, a car from communist East Germany.
Unusual vehicle: My first car was a Wartburg, a car from communist East Germany.

I have owned lots of cars over my 35 years of driving and regularly driven even more.

Most of them have faded in my memory and I am sure I could not come up with a list, but there are a few that stand out for all different kinds of reasons.

My first car was a Wartburg. It is difficult to think of a more novel car to have as your first car, unless it’s a bubble car, but the Wartburg was a car that worked well for me and turned out to be a wise choice.

The Wartburg was a car from communist East Germany. It was definitely a step up from the plastic Trabant, being built from steel, but like the Trabby had a three-stroke engine. This is an engine more common in motorbikes, where you add oil in with the petrol.

Its engine was just under a litre but had a reasonable amount of power, in fact this was the only car I ever drove at 100 miles an hour. It was on a downhill stretch of empty motorway in the days when it was possible to find an empty stretch of motorway.

Stupid, I know, but I was young. I also gave my maroon car a go-faster stripe, though admittedly this was only a centimetre or so wide and tasteful, which is not the point of a go-faster strip at all.

One of the Wartburg’s many idiosyncrasies was that when you took your foot of the accelerator it would freewheel. This gave you next to no grip going around corners, which was a bit scary, and I soon learned to brake before a corner and accelerate slightly around it – which is good practice for any car. I blame the Wartburg for the fact that, to this day, I feel wary of downhill corners where the road tilts to the outside.

One of its redeeming features was all round independent suspension.

Only a Rolls Royce had something similar. At the time I was carrying out a survey of the conservation value of farmland in East Essex which involved driving on dirt tracks out onto areas like New England Island and Foulness (I was lucky enough to see Avocets there when they were still a very rare sight in Britain). The Wartburg was the perfect car for the miles of dry and bumpy tracks and I tootled along very comfortably with no worries for my car or the condition of my spine. In fact, I was told off by a farmer for driving too fast on his land.

Repairs were very easy and reasonable. There was a Wartburg Owner’s Club that had bought up lots of every conceivable spare item from East Germany and they were very cheap and easy to access, better than most foreign cars, or even some made in Britain at the time. When you passed another Wartburg going along the road, it was compulsory to smile and wave.

I’m sure we all have similar memories of cars that we have owned, particularly our first cars. I think it interesting that the cars we remember best were probably not the best cars we have owned, they just worked for us and fitted into our lives at important times.