Unholy Trinity: A Wartburg Tries to Complete Three Grueling Events

Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it’s published by reading the print edition of Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

Misfit Toys Racing had come to a consensus by the time they reached Florida: “Driving the Wartburg is like being waterboarded. It doesn’t kill you, but it feels like it should.”

Maybe that’s what a 1959 Wartburg print ad meant when it promised the car would “provide an entirely new motoring sensation.” The rest of the ad reads like something written by a watch-dangling hypnotist: “Your joy will begin when you sit at the wheel of the Wartburg. You will be proud, and rightly so, to own a car of such fine quality and superb mechanical ability.”

Maybe attempts at mind control were necessary to advertise a car with Soviet ties to Americans at that time. The postwar political climate in der Vaterland would eventually lead to the building of the Berlin Wall, dividing the democratic West Germany from the communist East Germany. Many Americans needed serious convincing to throw money anywhere near the hammer and sickle.

The ad wasn’t exaggerating, though—the cars really were well built, as Wartburg producer Automobilwerk Eisenach had experience building BMWs. In fact, their factory belonged to BMW before they packed up and fled west. The Soviets took ownership of the works, and BMW had to sit back and watch as their brand name, designs and production techniques were used to pump out cars in the East. By the time BMW had reclaimed their rights, the Eisenach factory was set to produce something as glorious as the Wartburg.

Luckily, one dude in Jersey was destined to teach the car the meaning of playing well with others.

Life Hands You LeMons

Six decades later in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, Jim Thwaite fell under the Wartburg’s spell when he saw that the culprits behind the 24 Hours of LeMons were giving away a 1958 model. This particular Wartburg 311 sedan once belonged to a German diplomat; he brought it to the U.S. and, perhaps wisely, never brought it back home.

To sweeten the deal, the recipient of the car would also get to enter the car in a LeMons enduro for free with a guarantee of zero BS penalty laps. (Read: flagrant cheating allowed.) To win the car, hopefuls simply had to submit an essay stating why they deserved it.

Several masochists—including one guy on the verge of being enveloped at last by a wave of estrogen in his female-dominated house—threw their hats into the ring, but Jim’s extensive and obscene history with weird cars helped push him to the top.

Jim has a large, corroded spot in his heart for oddball vehicles—always has, he says. One of his prized creations is a wide-body Yugo.

“Did I mention I have owned one of every body style Lancia Beta ever made: Coupe, Zagato, Scorpion and HPE?” he wrote in his winning essay. “I’ve suffered through Alfas, Fiats, Triumphs, Austin-Healeys, MGs and a myriad assortment of other misfits, but up until now something has been missing. Today I realize, that something is a Wartburg. Choose me and I will be able to look you in the eye and say, ‘You complete me.’”

Mission: Improbable

Perhaps the biggest selling point of Jim’s essay, though, was that he had a clear mission in mind for this car. He vowed to enter it in what he called the Trifecta of Crap.

Shortly after LeMons entered the scene, Jim came up with the idea for this low-buck gauntlet. It involves entering a single car in three consecutive crapcan events: the Big Apple 2 Big Easy Rally, a five-day drive from New York to New Orleans ($500 build limit); a 24 Hours of LeMons beater endurance race ($500 build limit); and the Grassroots Motorsports $2K Challenge, an autocross, concours and drag racing triathlon (build limit is equal to the year the event is held). The Wartburg would be the first car to complete this survey der scheiss, and it would all go down in 2010.

Aiding and abetting Jim would be his faithful teammates. He indulges his obsession as part of Misfit Toys Racing, a joke that unfortunately didn’t stay that way. The team’s other core members—Chris Abbott, Jim Wakemen and Jeff Wakemen—first came together to enter the 2006 BABE Rally and, besides Jeff, they’ve been 100-percenters at the event ever since. LeMons and the $2K Challenge were mostly uncharted territory for the Misfits, however, though they’d followed both since the beginning.

Conglomeration of Crap

Despite his passion for unusual cars, Jim had never heard of a Wartburg before the contest. “Of course, now that I have completely disassembled one I may be one of the foremost experts on the car in the U.S.,” he jokes.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Jim is heavily invested in building cars with solid performance and strong visual appeal. His goal throughout the Wartburg build was to transform it into something close to art. “I love the idea of taking a car that is considered undesirable and boring, and turning it into something that is both visually stunning and has the mechanical engineering to back up the looks,” he explains.

He had several initial visions for the build, including shoving a Studebaker inline six in the engine bay, transplanting a C4 Corvette chassis, and adding wildly flared fenders. After seven months of scheming and improvising, the end product was a bit different.

This creation melds six cars from six different decades. Aside from the Wartburg itself, it contains a steering rack from a 1969 Porsche 911; a rear torsion suspension, transaxle and front tie rod ends from a 1972 VW Bug; front and rear brakes, front lower control arms and struts from a 1984 Porsche 944; an engine, wiring and lots of sheet metal from a 1994 Subaru Legacy; and a radiator and fuel pump from a 2001 Honda Civic.

Working with his fellow Misfits plus a revolving door of teammates, Jim removed the entire Wartburg body from the chassis, leaving a bare frame for grafting on the 944 suspension placement. According to Jim, it kind of looked like it was meant to be there, even though the Wartburg never had a strut-based suspension.

Jim also got crazy regarding the engine. The original Wartburg two-stroke, three-cylinder engine had only six moving parts. Let us pause for a moment to appreciate the coolness of that.

And we’re back. So, Jim chucked that engine and installed a flat-four Subaru. Then he converted the Wartburg to a rear-engine, rear-drive layout. Take that, conventionalism.

The Sparks Fly

With the body back in place and the interior stripped, the bodywork began. According to Jim, every part of the car was modified except for the two front doors—they happened to be the only components that didn’t need changing.

The idea of flaring the fenders sadly went out the window, but they didn’t escape modification. The team elongated the wheelbase by 12 inches, so Jim needed to move the wheel arch to make the body fit. He accomplished this by transplanting a couple metal scraps, leaving about a finger’s width of clearance between the fenders and rear tires.

Jim is proud of the car. He had to work through several challenges, all of which helped bolster his mechanical skills. This is the way he’s always learned to play with cars, as he augments trial and error with books and advice from fellow enthusiasts. “Some of the biggest challenges were around the front suspension and steering,” he explains. “I really had no experience in designing suspension and steering systems.”

He was quite pleased with his solution for covering the VW center spine and shift linkage. It involved scalping sheet metal from the donor Subaru’s roof, hitting it with some origami techniques, and then torching it into place. Hand shears, a drill, an old 4x4 for bending, and a welder got the job done. “Once the car is painted inside, no one will ever notice it’s even a modification,” Jim says.

Adapting the Subaru stalks and wiring harness to work with the Wartburg steering column was another difficult process. The team also managed to weld a homemade Kafer bar—a truss that keeps the suspension in place—using $15 in hardware store supplies. Not bad.

The Trifecta Tour

After the build itself, the Misfit Toys team hit the road toward New York to begin fulfilling the Wartburg’s destiny. Whether due to poor judgment or a hunger for adventure, last spring’s 3000-mile-round-trip BABE Rally would be the car’s shakedown run.

Not surprisingly, the team got off to a bad start. After making it about 60 miles, Jim had to take the Wartburg back home to figure out why it insisted on leaking oil. The rest of the team continued on in the chase car.

Jim ended up performing a bleary-eyed engine swap and driving 18 hours solo to catch up with the rest of his crew. He stayed alert with help from the rain dripping into the Wartburg’s cockpit as well as the constant fight-or-flight response that comes with piloting a 60-year-old car bent on self-destruction.

The oil problems persisted even after he reunited with his team: A PCV valve gremlin was ultimately to blame. However, the team discovered that the issue would stay under control at speeds below 75 mph. They survived the journey with their bodies and minds intact.

Then it was off to Summit Point, West Virginia, for the LeMons Capitol Offense race June 19-20. “With just four days to turn the car around after BABE,” he recalls, “we had to remove side windows, headlights, taillights, switch from a road seat to a race seat, change out brake pads, and perform general maintenance and repairs from the rally.”

The car performed better than expected at the event, he says. Despite its lack of anti-roll bars, the Wartburg offered predictable and controllable steering, and it was nearly untouchable on the straights.

The team ended up earning a midpack finish as well as the event’s highest honor, the Index of Effluency. “[LeMons organizer] Jay Lamm specifically noted our composure during adversity, which we chalked up to our BABE Rally experience,” Jim explains.

Before heading to Gainesville, Florida, for the last leg of their crapcan tour, the team gave the Wartburg a paint job. After all, the $2K Challenge has a concours judging portion, so they took advantage of the break before the September 30-October 2 event. “It was all about making the car look better, but we wanted to balance that with showing the ‘history’ she had picked up on the other events,” Jim explains.

While they painted the upper half of the car to disguise rust and blend the fiberglass hood and trunk, the bottom half went bare to showcase the metalwork on the fenders. “All the ‘scars’ and markings she had gathered at LeMons—like the obligatory ‘I blew my head gasket’ stencil—were retained,” he adds.

The judges were on board with the battle-weary aesthetic, and the car earned 15th place out of 54 entries in the concours portion of the event. A 41st-place autocross time and a 15.538-second quarter mile added up to 34th overall—just behind an arguably weirder modified Isetta. By the time the sun had set on Gainesville Raceway, Mistfit Toys Racing had officially completed the Trifecta of Crap.

Wartburg 2.0

With the Trifecta behind him, Jim wants to build the Wartburg his way, without a tiny budget or time restrictions. This phase will be more about street manners than cheap speed.

“The end goal is to make a very presentable car that looks more like a street cruiser and less like a race car,” he says. That means a full interior, comfortable seats with integrated seat belts (maybe from a Cadillac), and professionally rechromed bumpers. Hell, he may even add heat and air conditioning. The roll cage will go, the car will get a proper two-tone paint job, and the fiberglass hood and trunk will probably be replaced with the original steel pieces. Subaru WRX 2-liter turbo power is also on the menu.

Defected GRM employee Greg Voth has supplied Jim with a set of hulking CCW Classic wheels—16x10-inch fronts and 16x11 rears—and Jim thinks fender flares may be in the car’s future after all. “The body will be finished off with the addition of a threefold ragtop, Frenched headlights, a custom grille with Hella driving lights, and other custom touches along the way,” Jim adds. “I still expect the full project will come in under $5000 for a car that will hopefully shock people with its level of performance.”

Jim Thwaite would like to thank those people who helped make the Wartburg a success: “Along the way, old friends and teammates have shown up to support us at LeMons, including one of the original crew, Rafael Amaya; my 2009 BABE teammates, Eric Phipps and Jesse Congdon; and many others from BABE, GRM and other car forums I frequent.

“GRM [message board] members and friends Chris ‘Mental’ Ward and David Culberson joined us as drivers for LeMons, and Jim and Jeff’s father (also Jim) provided the RV and full camp support as cook, camp coordinator and levelheaded mentor during the LeMons event. Chris Abbott’s girlfriend, Chrissy Mittura, provided support along the way as well. Of course, any recognition would be incomplete without the mention of my wife, Kelley, who managed to keep things running smoothly on the home front while we did all this craziness.”

Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it's published by reading the print edition of Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more $2000 Challenge and Wartburg articles.
View comments on the GRM forums
Patrick MegaDork
1/16/18 12:38 p.m.

Wonder where it is now...

JThw8 UltimaDork
1/16/18 1:13 p.m.

In reply to Patrick :

Hmmm.....one never knows.... ;)

Mndsm MegaDork
1/16/18 1:14 p.m.

In reply to JThw8 :

Jesus, don't tell me you have it again.....

JThw8 UltimaDork
1/16/18 1:16 p.m.

In reply to Mndsm :

Nope, not me, I've converted to a life of normalcy....

Patrick MegaDork
1/16/18 1:33 p.m.
JThw8 said:

In reply to Mndsm :

Nope, not me, I've converted to a life of normalcy....

My arse

Indy-Barely Functional-Guy
Indy-Barely Functional-Guy SuperDork
1/16/18 6:09 p.m.
Patrick said:

Wonder where it is now...

I would LS swap your mom if it were legal

After seeing your magic with Darth Nader, I'm looking forward to the build thread. wink

MotorsportsGordon New Reader
1/16/18 6:37 p.m.

The Wartburg engine was later used in a sports car the Melkus rs1000 it used 3 carbs instead of one and had higher compression ratio.

MazdaFace Reader
1/17/18 8:58 a.m.

cool article yes

littleturquoiseb HalfDork
1/17/18 4:28 p.m.

The headline is a bit misleading ... we actually accomplished all three events!

JThw8 UltimaDork
1/18/18 8:27 a.m.
littleturquoiseb said:

The headline is a bit misleading ... we actually accomplished all three events!

Indeed we did, first ever "trifecta of crap" winners

But...trivia time.....who was the 2nd? And yes kids there was a 2nd, because we weren't the only nutters.  The 2nd place finishers "lost" only because they had their run at Lemons scheduled for after the GRM Challenge.

JThw8 UltimaDork
1/18/18 8:28 a.m.
Patrick said:
JThw8 said:

In reply to Mndsm :

Nope, not me, I've converted to a life of normalcy....

My arse

No really, I drive a hybrid now.... ;)

Patrick MegaDork
1/19/18 11:24 a.m.

Can a vw trike mashup really be called a hybrid?  

JThw8 UltimaDork
1/19/18 12:12 p.m.

In reply to Patrick :

lol....ok, well I do still have that little oddball running around.   Hopefully starting paint on that soon.

Our Preferred Partners