By on June 16, 2011


At the height of the Second Red Scare, a Southern California man named Willy Witkins imported and sold East German Wartburgs and Škodas. The hate mail came rolling in.

I don’t know how anyone could hate the beautiful Wartburg Sports, regardless of its birthplace on the other side of the Iron Curtain, but many patriotic Americans gave Mr. Witkins a piece of their minds.

Thanks to tipster Terrence in Switzerland (who mailed me some 1:87 scale Wartburg 353s), I can share the fascinating Wartburg USA website with you. Enjoy.

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44 Comments on “What Kind of Person Would Sell a Communist Car?...”


  • avatar

    Wow, great find! I love the semi-ironic hate mail that says “the more of our cars you sell the more money we have to dig their graves” and “comrade, we will rule the earth.” It’s like someone thought the situation through and realized that an insincere love letter might be worse for the Wartburg business than a sincere hate letter. Clearly this was one “realist” who didn’t prefer the Wartburg Combi…

  • avatar
    Lemmy-powered

    In the early 1980s, when Lada 1500s and Nivas were a common sight on Canadian roads, there were all kinds of stories floating around about U.S. service stations refusing gasoline to anyone who took their Lada into the U.S.

    I doubt those stories had any truth to them, but I guess you never know.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      They’re probably true. I got some pro forma grumbles when I drove around western New York in my Niva, and this was well into the mid 1990s. I can only imagine what it must have been like pre-glastnost, and in less progressive parts of America.

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        @psar, there is a shop in Hillsburgh that still sells Ural motorcycles (and often has Nivas parked outside):
        http://www.uralontario.ca/ural.html

        That Gear-Up model is pretty cool … maybe we could get Jack Baruth to do a review of one?

      • 0 avatar
        Slow_Joe_Crow

        If you want a Russian motorcycle test the logistics are probably easier for a Niedermeyer, since there is a major Ural dealer/tuner in Salem. OTOH Baruth’s writing would be more colorful.

      • 0 avatar

        Psar,

        Remember that diseases are progressive too.

        Considering the many millions of people oppressed, imprisoned and murdered by the communist regime in the USSR, painting Americans who objected to those policies as somehow benighted seems to me to lack perspective.

        The fact that some people see providing hard capital to oppressive regimes like the USSR and Cuba as aiding in that oppression shouldn’t be surprising. It might offend those that have made a point of doing business with the Soviet Union and with Castro’s Cuba, but people are free to make their own moral judgments about those who aid totalitarians.

        It seems to me that helping totalitarians is worse than folks grumbling about someone’s choice of cars.

        YMMV

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        If you complaining about Russian built cars sold in Canada being filled with gas in Western New York in 1995 because of Communism then you really need to pick up a newspaper. Or an Atlas printed after 1991.

        A 1994 Niva has as much to do with the USSR as a VW Beetle sold in the 1960s had to do with the Nazis, or a Toyota 700 did with Imperial Japan.

  • avatar
    th009

    The later Wartburg 353 was considerably less charming, though …
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wartburg_353

    • 0 avatar
      friedclams

      I kind of like that 353! And it was a two-stroke?! They made a million of them and I have never heard of it, thank you!

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        I never did drive one, but I did get a ride in one while still too young to drive … it’s definitely a unique design, an East German vision of a modern car in the 1960s!

        In East Germany it was used by police and government officials while regular people would need to drive Trabis. Waiting list for a 353 was something like 10 years. They did have enough to export some of them, though!

    • 0 avatar
      Garak

      My grandparents had two of those when I was a kid, it was the cheapest car in Finland – even cheaper than a Lada 1200 or a rear-engined Skoda. The 353 was a truly atrocious piece of garbage with little power,no comfort or luxury features, horrible fuel economy, and it made a lovely gray smokescreen on every start. Apparently the handling was very bad also, and with a freewheeling clutch they had no engine braking – good for fading the brakes…

      I’m glad they don’t build them like they used to.

  • avatar
    jnik

    I appreciate the irony, reading those letters on my Communist Chinese made computer while watching my Communist Chinese made TV.

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    These read like the comments section of a right-wing website: same grammar and syntax skills, not to mention the same logic. Plus ca change …

    • 0 avatar

      Yup, we right wingers are so damn dumb.

      Gosh you guys are so enamored of your own moral superiority and intellectual pretensions that you fail to see the danger of underestimating your opposition.

      I always assume that folks I disagree with are at least as smart as I am. But then I also know that some ideas are so wrong that only smart people could have thought of them, like communism and its slightly less obnoxious younger brother, “progressive” left wing policies.

      I’ll tell you what. How about we match up prominent right wing intellectuals and prominent left wing intellectuals and have a debate? Let’s start with two men with similar jobs (both are professors) and somewhat similar backgrounds.

      Arguing for your side is Cornell West.
      Arguing for my side is Thomas Sowell.

      Now which way do you think the smart money will bet?

      • 0 avatar
        MoppyMop

        Okay, but for the next round, we’ll take Krugman and you can have Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

        It’s not really a “debate” if you get to cherry-pick your opponent.

      • 0 avatar
        rocketrodeo

        Is there such a thing as a right-wing intellectual?

        I think you’ve probably overestimated ME. I don’t even know who Cornell West is. I have read a bit of Thomas Sowell, though. I’m pretty middle of the road politically, though I intend to vote for Obama again just to see the spittle continue to fly on the far right.

        Wingnuts of either stripe annoy me. I can usually respect an honest political discussion of either left or right orientation, but those are getting rarer. I’m trained as a journalist and as a historian, in both cases by folks were were very concerned about professional ethics, so I don’t really identify either left or right — though I have worked in politics. Republican politics. Once you filter out the layers upon layers of logical fallacy that pass for political speech these days, there really isn’t much left at all.

    • 0 avatar
      MikeAR

      Rocketrodeo, keep on insulting. You may get called out on it or not.

  • avatar
    taxman100

    Interesting evidence on how much this country has changed. People today are more concerned with wealth, pleasure, and self-gratification vs. higher ideals about government, morality, and personal rights vs. personal responsibility/self control.

    Maybe that is why our federal government has more in common with Moscow 1960 than Washington DC 1960.

  • avatar
    rnc

    I well remember being taught in elem. school in Texas during the early 80′s the evil of communism, greatness of our government, we were really trying to help the indians, etc.

    • 0 avatar

      The natives were at least as brutal as the colonists. There’s plenty of evidence that North America was originally settled by a more diverse population than was found when the Europeans arrived. There are artifacts and DNA that show there were people here from Polynesia, Australasia, Southeast Asia, and possibly Europe and Africa as well. When the European arrived, though, all those previous groups had been wiped out by people originated in Siberia. The North and South American “natives” present when Europeans arrived were descended from people who used advanced military technology (better spear points) to wipe out those who came before them.

      Though I don’t necessarily identify with European culture, I have a hard time saying that the Europeans who settled the Americas were any worse than those who came earlier. There were at least as many massacres started by “natives” (both on other tribes and on the new European settlers) as there were by colonists and later Americans.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      The natives were at least as brutal as the colonists

      That somewhat true, but that’s not rnc’s point. He’s saying that his school was engaging in rewriting history and whitewashing the settlers’/missionaries’/governments’ motives: that it wasn’t about territory or power but about “helping them out” somehow.

      This is why arguments about who is morally superior come completely unglued, and why things eventually descend into name-calling and whitewashing/blackballing as appropriate. Someone, on one side or the other, is going to claim moral high ground and then assume that excuses anything he/she wants to do, or any explanation he/she cares to make.

      • 0 avatar
        86er

        This is why arguments about who is morally superior come completely unglued, and why things eventually descend into name-calling and whitewashing/blackballing as appropriate. Someone, on one side or the other, is going to claim moral high ground and then assume that excuses anything he/she wants to do, or any explanation he/she cares to make.

        Then why bother?

  • avatar
    Advance_92

    What kind of person sells a communist car? A capitalist, obviously! Letters like that opener border on the same fervor you used to see over civil rights, and it’s just as disturbing.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    At least once we’d come out of a store and find that someone had spit on the windshield of our then-new 1961 bug. WWII veterans, I’d suspect. When anyone bugged us about our German car I’d tell them “We bought it from a local dealer who bought it from an American distributor. It has Goodyear tires and a (I don’t remember the brand, but US) battery. The gas money it saves helps me to pay my college tuition.”

    And we heard the old saw that capitalists would sell to the communists the rope they’d use to hang us with. It doesn’t seem to be working out that way except in the minds of some leftists and statists.

  • avatar
    fredtal

    I had a coupld of VW Beetles in the 1970s and every once in awhile some old guy would give s&^% for owning a car made by Nazis.

  • avatar

    I scanned an ad from the 50s for a Skoda distributor on the East Coast.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveseven/4328935631/

    I owned three Lada Nivas and they where fine vehicles with the exception of shockingly cheap interiors.

  • avatar
    MattPete

    Cripes, those read like the comments section of the Washington Post. Some things never change.

  • avatar

    I think we’d see similar tirades if someone opened up a Nasr 128 dealership in the US nowadays, since Islam has replaced communism as Demon #1 these days.

    • 0 avatar

      Murilee,

      Some demons are real, they just look like other humans. Look at the Venona decrypts. The Soviets were indeed engaged in an effort to compromise and infiltrate the US government. McCarthy’s exaggerations and false accusations damaged what was a righteous cause.

      Likewise, there is no question that Islamists want to destroy America. Now how much the wahabbis, salafis and other Islamists are extremists and how much they are truly representative of mainstream Islam is open to debate, but there’s no question that they have made themselves our enemies. It might help distinguishing between mainstream Muslims and the Islamists if more mainstream Muslims actually made it clear that they don’t aspire to a worldwide caliphate under the rule of sharia. The problem is that the Islamists may actually have a point, that they indeed are representative of normative currents within Islam.

      Not all religions are the same. Just because Christianity has a concept of rendering unto Caesar that which is Caeser’s, which ultimately provided the foundation for the American concept of separating state and church, does not mean it exists in Islam. Jewish law also distinguishes between the temporal and the spiritual, between the actions of a legitimate Jewish monarch and that of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic high court. Such distinctions don’t really exist in Islam. The head of state, the Caliph, is also the head of the ummah, the Muslim community.

      As for the reaction to opening up a dealership selling Egyptian cars, most folks would yawn (though I’m not sure about an Iranian dealership). There are hundreds of businesses in this region that cater to Arabs and other Middle Easterners. There are storefronts within a 20 minute walk from where I sit right now that have Arabic signs. Nobody’s throwing any rocks through their windows.

      I think it’s almost funny. If someone objects to buying a car from a communist country, or let’s say, from Iran, a country that has declared itself to be our enemy, they’re perceived by “progressives” and others on the left to be troglodytes, narrow minded bigots. Those same “progressives” though, are all for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions when it comes to Israel. Now that some Scottish regional councils are voting to boycott Israel, and books by Israeli authors are being banned by some Scottish libraries, I’m going to have to check where my favorite single malts are distilled.

  • avatar
    Forty2

    Eh… we sold (a few) Commie Czech Jawa mopeds at my parents’ shop in the late 70s. They were basically disposable as once you seized the 2-stroke engine through lack of oil in the gas, it was mostly impossible to rebuild unlike the engines of Motobecane and Puch mopeds. I could rebuild a Moto engine in 45 minutes. We dropped Jawa and replaced em with Yugoslavian Tomos mopeds which were pretty reliable, at least as much as the more luxurious Motobecane Mobylette. The Puchs were the most reliable but unpleasant to ride. The Moto was the plush Cadillac of mopeds.

    Nobody ever threatened us for selling Commie merch, but this was So California.

    Oh and your high-school yearbook was possibly printed on an East German Planeta 4-color 40″ printing press, if you grew up in the southeastern US. Planeta presses were not uncommon in the US and were reliable workhorses. KBA bought them after the wall fall.

    Commie tech was usually derivative and low quality, but there were exceptions.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Back in Johnstown, PA my buddy’s motorcycle shop (originally Indian, then Triumph and Royal Enfield, when it closed it was Kawasaki and Yamaha) carried CZ Jawa motorcycles back in the 70′s. Before the Japanese got on their high tech kick in the early 80′s the Jawa was a killer motocrosser (still is in the vintage classes), easly the equivalent of a Bultaco or Husquavarna, and miles ahead of what Honda, etc. were doing at the time.

      Simple, a bit crude, but damned effective in competition. I’ve always found that, back in the day, Czechoslovakian products were a serious cut above anything else that came out of the Eastern Bloc.

      Except for Czechoslovakian rum, that is. I still have memories of the drunk I had on a bottle of that . . . . and the way I woke up the next morning.

      • 0 avatar
        Advance_92

        There’s a good history of manufacturing in what’s now the Czech Republic, mainly because they were lucky enough to be part of the Austrian side of Austria-Hungary, which didn’t have all the cultural hangups of Magyarization to stunt their growth. They did very well during the Cold War as well, at least until the mid 60s when the Hapsburg-era industrial base started to wear out.

      • 0 avatar
        tech98

        My dad had an East German MZ motorcycle when I was growing up in Australia. A piece of crap that leaked oil and belched blue smoke.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      I lived in the Netherlands in 1984, where they’ve been making Tomos mopeds since 1966 according to Wikipedia. I didn’t know they were originally Slovenian until today.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The fact that some people see providing hard capital to oppressive regimes like the USSR and Cuba as aiding in that oppression shouldn’t be surprising. It might offend those that have made a point of doing business with the Soviet Union and with Castro’s Cuba, but people are free to make their own moral judgments about those who aid totalitarians.

    That’s a nice sentiment. Now, let’s see it applied uniformly. For every Castro that was scorned there was a Pinochet who was nutured. For every Communist rattletrap there are millions of gallons of Saudi oil, sub-Saharan diamonds and all sorts of blood-oiled goods.

    Be very, very careful about claiming the moral high ground here, mostly because your side of the political spectrum, just as mine, has all sorts of politically-convenient skeletons in your closet and the truth is that all sorts of regimes and all sorts of awful people were given tacit support, if not outright backing, because they were ideologically acceptable (or they shared a border with someone who had the wrong ideology).

    I don’t mind people who take that stance for economic reasons (eg, I see communism as a threat to enterprise). That’s fine. I get really tweaked when people tell me they don’t support totalitarianism and how awful I am for, eg, giving a couple of bucks to Cuba or buying a Russian-made car when they are, in turn, curiously silent when it comes to condemning totalitarian murderers who they (or their masters) agree with.

    And please spare me the “greater good” nonsense. That’s just hypocrisy with a spoonful of sugar to help it go down easier.

    It seems to me that helping totalitarians is worse than folks grumbling about someone’s choice of cars.

    Yeah, well, I don’t see the “helping totalitarians” argument getting much play when they’re your pet totalitarians. Just sayin’.

    • 0 avatar

      I get really tweaked when people tell me they don’t support totalitarianism and how awful I am for, eg, giving a couple of bucks to Cuba or buying a Russian-made car when they are, in turn, curiously silent when it comes to condemning totalitarian murderers who they (or their masters) agree with.

      Sorry if your self-image of being a moral avatar is smudged by those who insist on pointing out that you make a moral choice in deliberately supporting the Castro regime. Next time you’re in Havana, how about paying a visit to Oscar Biscet?

      I have no masters and think for myself. Anybody that’s ever had any kind of authority over me will tell you that. Ask our esteemed ed Ed or Farago.

      Pinochet and those on the right actually have a slightly better track record of transitioning to democracy than left wing dictators, who tend to be in power for life (or close to it in the case of Fidel).

      I agree with Natan Sharansky in that governments who don’t treat their own people well are not trustworthy partners in negotiation, and I’d rather not do business with creeps. Still, reakpolitik exists and while the enemy of my enemy may not be my friend, sometimes you have to fight on the same side as Stalin.

      I just hope that the folks on my “side of the political spectrum” back a better quality thug than those on the left. As I mentioned with Pinochet, I believe that to be the case.

      Actually, upon reading the phrase “your side of the political spectrum”, I’m struck by a consistency of policy on some matters that transcends partisan US politics and that you would have put JFK and Harry Truman on the other side of the political spectrum than yourself.

      You go out of your way to do business with communists. That’s clear. You see yourself on the same political side as they are.

      The truth is that Wartburgs and Trabants are fascinating because of how crappy they were. The communist system had trouble producing basic consumer goods.

      The sad truth is that if folks like you had their way, life would be waiting for years to get a grey Trabant, if we were that lucky. You want it both ways. You want to be left wing politically while enjoying the benefits of living in a mostly capitalist society. Everyone that I know that has first hand experience of living in socialist societies did what they could do to escape.

      • 0 avatar
        Zykotec

        ”The sad truth is that if folks like you had their way, life would be waiting for years to get a grey Trabant, if we were that lucky. You want it both ways. You want to be left wing politically while enjoying the benefits of living in a mostly capitalist society. Everyone that I know that has first hand experience of living in socialist societies did what they could do to escape.”

        Welcome to europe, where we have to wait months for our specially ordered BMW (maybe even grey, out of a selection of hundreds of colours) while you drive your, hmm Chrysler 300c, bought right of the lot? (I don’t think so :P) And while I’m waiting 6 weeks for my broken hand I get payed for not working, and I get free medical help, at the expense of some taxation offcourse…

        Honestly, both sides in the cold war had their share of flaws, it’s over now, and both sides were wrong, but the ‘winners’ write the history books. Stalin was a sich f**k indeed, but american doctors go to Cuba to get proper education.
        Totalitarian communism is not a goood thing by far, killing Allende and replacing him with Pinochet isn’t necessarily a good thing either, and selling guns to Iran while supporting Iraq isn’t either, and neither is killing the crazy bastard Hussein when you don’t need him anymore (and then realizing why the country needed a ‘strong’ leader to not go into a everlasting civil-war again….).

        And yes, a capitalist would sell a communist car. And this is a czr blog, not a political chat site :P

  • avatar
    mikey

    I got something to add here. I was a Canadian GM autoworker, and back in 1984 we went on strike. Within weeks we had a tiff with the UAW and the CAW was born. Thats another story.

    Anyway, we were all out on the picket lines. For many of us it was the first real strike we had ever experienced. We were,for the most part,young and full of pi$$,vinigar,and lots of beer.

    Oh yeah…we had heard all the stories of the 1970 strike and the big one of 56.

    Well, we were gonn’a make our own mark. So we already had a big bon fire going. Somebody shouts out…”lets find a Lada to burn”

    Okay, lets remember that we were part of a left leaning orginization. Our local fully supported the NDP party. At that time, the far left NDP sat slightly right of Lennin and Marx. Very slightly.

    Psar….I know your going to disagree, but I’ll move on anyway.

    So explaining the difference of the degree of political ideology between the NDP, and USSR would have been lost on this beer soaked crowd.

    So we get the idea to pass the hat and buy an old Lada. That didn’t pan out. So doesn’t some poor soul pick this moment to drive by the picket line….with a Lada. I’m “thinking this could get real ugly,real fast”. My buddy grabbed my arm and I quote..”Mikey! lets get to f outa here,…. right f—-en now! We did…and so did the dude with the Lada. Me thinks he had to change his undies,when he got home.

    Cooler heads prevailed, somebody showed up towing an old Pinto. The general thought was “at least we new it was gonn’a burn”

    That was a long time ago, but thats my “Commie car” story.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    As usual ;

    The comments meander all over the map , making this particular site both entertaining and educational .

    I rather like the lines of both the Rag Top and the Kombi….

    -Nate


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