Eisenach, Germany – Eisenach is at the heart of the German Federal Republic. It is dead center on the map. The Wartburg castle dominates the hillside on the southwest corner of town while the defunct Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach occupies a section of land just north of the Hauptbahnhof, sandwiched between the rail lines and the river. And also, south of the Hauptbahnhof is the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Say what you will, but Eisenach is more than just a sleepy provincial town in Thuringia. From this town have come some truly extraordinary things. Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German at the Wartburg castle, taking the Bible out of the hands of the few and placing it into the hands of the many. Bach inspired the arc of western music from middle class beginnings in Eisenach. And BMW was to produce the all-conquering pre-war 328 at its in-town works.

This small Thuringian town has had an outsized positive impact on western civilization. And that’s before considering the automobile industry that’s flourished in Eisenach from the late 19th century to present.

In 1898 the first Wartburg automobile was produced at the Fahrzeugwerke Eisenach. It was a license built Decauville, a small French voiturette. The models changed over a six year period but in 1904, new management changed the name of the vehicles to Dixi, Latin for ‘I have spoken’.

The Dixi brand did well up until World War I, when war production took over the factory, which exposed it to reparations assessments after the war. With the German economy in a shambles after the war and into the 1920s, Dixi had to find an alternative to the expensive vehicles it was producing. It licensed the Austin 7 for production and it became the 3/15 DA-1 (DA for Deutsche Ausfuehrung, or German Version; the 3/15 being the taxable/road horsepower ratings).

In 1928 the Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach was purchased and folded into BMW. BMW took over production of the Dixi DA-1 and soon modified and rebadged it as a BMW 3/15 DA-2. From there the Austin 7 copy was displaced by new BMW models. The first BMW model to feature a twin kidney grille, the 303, was built in Eisenach. And of course, the BMW 328, the most significant pre-war (World War II) BMW, was built between 1936 and 1940 in Eisenach.

But BMW’s hold on the factory was not to last, their stewardship of the Eisenach works ending after the Americans ceded Thuringia to the Soviets at the end of World War II. BMW was on a short list for extinction after the war regardless; the chances of the company being revived were infinitesimally small. All told, BMW had managed the operations in Eisenach from 1928 to 1945, just 18 years.

The Soviets were happy to have an automobile factory in their possession, and when not shipping machine tools back to Russia, actually managed to restart operations as the Sowjetische AG Maschinenbau Awtowelo, Werk BMW Eisenach (Soviet Awtowelo Co., Eisenach BMW Works). And they used the BMW name and roundel with impunity. The factory continued to make pre-war models and some newer additions.

Then in 1948, currency reform came to the western sectors of Germany and the Iron Curtain descended for good. The Soviets transferred ownership of the factory to the Deutsche Democratische Republiek (German Democratic Republic – or East Germany) in 1952. Then BMW, having survived certain death, could intervene with international courts to regain exclusive rights to the BMW name. And the BMWs from Eisenach became known as EMWs.

EMW survived for a period, but soon the VEB Automobilwerke Eisenach (VEB is an acronym for ‘peoples-owned enterprise’) began to make a DKW copy know as an IFA 9 (IFA was the acronym for ‘Industrial Association for Vehicle Production’). The IFA 9 was equipped with a three cylinder two stroke motor, much like the DKWs of the time.

The Wartburg name was revived in 1956 on the model 311 and the name was in use until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The 311 and subsequent models retained the two stroke three cylinder power plant inherited from the IFA 9 up until the VW 1.3 I4 was sourced in 1988. After 1989 Opel Vectras were built alongside Wartburgs in the factory for a time. A new Opel works is running on the west side of town and what is left of the old Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach is now idle with the exception of a car club facility and the AWE Museum

It was when the author was at the museum that he ran across a car club gathering. Taking the time to view the array of cars, from a gorgeous BMW 3/15 to late model Wartburgs, a gentleman approached the author and asked if he would like to drive a car.

Your humble scrivener, never missing an opportunity to drive someone’s car, accepted and soon he found himself at the wheel of a 1977 Wartburg 353. Yes, it was a two stroke three cylinder and it also had a four-speed, column-mounted shifter, manual transmission. Talk about lucky days. Two items scratched off the bucket ‘to-drive’ list, a two-stroke three and four-on-the-tree.

Most people think of the Trabant when the think of East Germancars. But the Wartburg was the middle class option, the Buick, if you will, of Communist vehicles. It was front wheel drive and had four doors. A contemporary of the Fiat 128. And it doesn’t compare unfavorably to the Fiat either. In fact, the simple two stroke engine and German craftsmanship (regardless of the political nature of the state) probably provided more reliability than owners of the Fiat 128 were used to.

Underway it accelerated reasonably – no timing was attempted, and regardless of the author’s long memory, it would be hard to say if it was significantly different in many aspects than the Fiat. It was a well preserved example and once you re-acclimated yourself to 1970s ergonomics, it actually drove well (pulled a bit under acceleration, but that’s to be expected from FWD of the era). Brakes were adequate (for the period) and the clutch was light and the steering actually lighter than expected (no power steering, of course). That could be that the car’s curb weight was just over 2000 pounds (again roughly equivalent to the Fiat 128). But consider either the Wartburg 353 or Fiat 128 against the contemporary BMW 2002 and you soon begin to see the value of the

After driving the Wartburg, a tour of the museum itself presented the history of AWE over the hundred plus years of its existence. Given that the club was meeting, the second floor was open and additional cars, a model of the factory works, and several supplier displays were available for viewing. All told, well worth the time and the effort to see.

And if you happen to be the owner of an E9x 3er or a 1er, you may have a piece of Eisenach in your car. The rear sub-frame is built by a supplier, Benteler, in Eisenach (Benteler Automobiltechnik Eisenach GmbH).

One final weird fact about Eisenach. In the middle ages a singing contest was held at the Wartburg. They not only anointed a winner, but they chose a loser and then promptly hung them. Now there’s an idea for a hit TV show!