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Car Crash: 1959 Wartburg Model 311 Convertible

A feature here at the Daily Driver is the Car Crash. Breathe easy – no actual cars were harmed in the making of this crash. That would be a crime, and a cryin’ shame. Our Car Crash is much more fun – in a “crash a party” kind of a way. If you’ve ever seen a vintage car and wanted to see the interior or wondered about its restoration process, then the Car Crash is just the post for you. Join us as we explore the details of a gorgeous vehicle…

How do we spice things up on our Car Crash installment?  By bringing you a controversial car from behind the iron curtain!  We met this Wartburg, and its delightful owner, Vic Berschansky, at the fabulous Main Street El Segundo Car Show.  Amidst all of the brilliant cars on display, this convertible had people stunned and scratching their heads… “What is it?” was the most common question.  We wanted to know too, and it’s a good thing that we stuck around to find out.

Between hate mail, comrades, and even a response from Playboy… this Wartburg has one heck of a history!


The East German Wartburg was introduced in the United States in 1958.  It shared the three-cylinder, two-stroke engine design of the West German DKW.


Horsepower: 37.  Years Manufactured: 1956-1966.  Place of Manufacture: Eisenach, East Germany.


As with most German cars of the day, its well-padded convertible top formed an immense stack when folded.


Just 140 Wartburgs were sold in America in 1958.


A year later sales had risen only to 400 cars and Wartburg withdrew from the American market in the early 1960s.


This convertible has been in the family since 1992, however, the love affair with Wartburgs began years ago in ’74/’75.


When he was just 14 years old, Vic’s brother brought home a Wartburg station wagon, which Vic used for driving practice.


Vic was originally bitten by the Wartburg bug out of necessity, as he was initially just looking for parts to keep it going.  Over time, he sought out more parts and found more Wartburgs.


The Wartburg has become a true obsession for Vic.  The convertible is from the collection of Vic Berschansky and Jesse Glover.  Over the years, the collection has grown to 16 different cars, shown above.


Vic finds the car from behind the iron curtain fascinating, and the hunt for Wartburgs even more thrilling.  He says that once in a while, something shows up, be it a rare part or a whole car.  Over the past 30 years, Vic has enjoyed pursuing and preserving this small automotive niche.

We noted above that this car was a bit controversial.  Willy Witkin, mentioned in the advertisement above, was the only dealer in America selling Wartburgs.  With McCarthyism and the second Red Scare ever-present in the minds of the public, the Wartburg and Mr. Witkin received quite a strong reaction to the sale of Wartburgs in the U.S.


It’s not often that you see a car and dealer with this much hate mail.  Both the car and the dealership received scads of angry letters.


In addition to hate mail, Witkin also received responses from “comrades” who supported the idea of pushing business “to the wall.”


Here, in a letter dated from 1959, we see the Merchandising Manager at Playboy responding to a strong reaction from a Wartburg advertisement that ran in the magazine that year.

So how did Vic end up with all of this literature and controversial Wartburg mail?  Years ago, a trip to Texas to buy a Wartburg went awry.  He and a friend had an accident while towing the car, jackknifing the cars and flipping the Wartburg.  After turning the car over, Vic decided to have the it shipped home.  A chance stop in Banning on that trip yielded a connection only fate could have dealt, as a man saw the Wartburg on a flatbed and passed along a business card, stating that he had parts for this unusual car.


That man was Willy Witkin, owner of the original Wartburg dealership.  Vic made many trips to Banning over the years, scouring Willy’s five-car garage to pull rare parts for his beloved Wartburgs.  Since then, Vic has made six trips to Germany, and one to England, all out of love for the Wartburg.


Years ago, Vic’s convertible was on loan to the Petersen Automotive Museum, where it was on display for a special exhibit.  To play up the Wartburg’s heritage, they had an image of the Brandenburg Gate painted as a backdrop for the vehicle.

Today, Vic spends his time with the red sports car in his collection, patiently and painstakingly restoring it to perfection, and we have no doubt that he’ll have another fine specimen of the Wartburg line when he’s through.

Special thanks to Vic for taking the time to chat with us and share the wealth of information that accompanies these vehicles.  All sales literature, vintage photos, and mail courtesy of Vic and his site, Wartburg USA, which is filled with more info, photos, brochures, and yes – more hate mail – for this car.

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