Published on Tue, Feb 28, 1995
By: Len Frank
A few years ago, Bob Hall, one of the many fathers of the Mazda Miata called me at 7am to ask what it was like owning a two-stroke car—he had smooth-talked some Finnish friend into sending him a Wartburg—it never arrived. Lucky him. – Len Frank
Why call me? Maybe I had confessed to him that I had, in a former life, seen, played with, wanted to buy, a Goggomobil 300; been a Wartburg salesman for about a month; a Maico salesman before that, finally sold Saabs when they were really iconoclastic cars with magenta high beam warning lights and powered by two-stroke threes, that I actually attempted to race a Berkeley 500, lusted after a DKW Monza, drove coast-to-coast-to-coast in a Saab 93…depressing enough, but there’s more.
I have saturated all of my clothes in two-stroke oil, changed grosses of spark plugs, scraped bushels of carbon, broken pecks of porting stones, lost a single needle roller in the middle of the night, chased a thousand miles back and forth across the L.A. basin looking for enlightenment from go-kart fiends, dirt bike desert rats, outboard racers. I was told, “boy—the world is your expansion chamber.” An odyssey through blue smoke.
A few common features tie all of the two strokes in my experience together, whether the first Ohlson and Rice 23 model airplane engine that I owned, or the latest, trickest road racing rocket motorcycle. They are all possessed by some malevolent mechanical spirit that responds not to engineering but to exorcism and magic—the spirit lives in the blue haze that surrounds them all. That, and they all have a group of True Believers—those so dedicated, so convinced that Truth is seldom seen, lost as it is, in the blue haze.
Two-strokes (engines where every downward movement of the piston is a power stroke so that a two cylinder two-stroke has as many firing impulses as a four cylinder four-stroke) are supposed to have overwhelming advantages. Maybe.
A regular piston-port two-stroke is a deceptively simple device. The piston goes down simultaneously uncovering the transfer ports which connect the crankcase to the upper cylinder and sealing the intake port. The crankcase, pressurized by the the downward-moving piston, sends gas/air/oil mixture through the transfer port into the upper cylinder (some lost through the now-opening exhaust port). The piston bottoms, begins to move back up creating a low pressure area in the crankcase which is filled when the intake ports and transfer ports are uncovered.
All ports sealed by the piston, the plug fires, the mixture is ignited, the piston moves back down and all the world is happiness and symmetry.
There is the quiet, joyous feeling of actually getting something-for-nothing, of owning a private piece of perpetual motion.
Interest in two-strokes has been growing for some years—GM, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, and, most lately, Jaguar, have either bought into the patents of Australia’s Orbital Engine firm or developed two-stroke technology of their own.
The highest unblown horsepower per liter (somewhere over 350) resides in one or another two-stroke road racing motorcycle. Two-strokes put out more horsepower per pound, they’re more compact, they waste less power on internal friction and pumping, they have fewer moving parts–all advantages compared with the faithful old four-stroke engine. So what.
This isn’t meant to be a history of the two-stroke or, for that matter, a history of freak cars—at least not all two-strokes or freaks, just the ones that have altered my life. This is a simple little story of misspent youth and misplaced faith, of internal combustion folly, and mechanical ignorance.
Old advertisements tell us that a piston port two-stroke has three moving parts per cylinder, so that a three cylinder Saab or DKW has only seven moving parts (three pistons, three connecting rods, one crankshaft).
Always left out of the equation were the handfuls of needle rollers, the ball bearings, the failure-prone ignition parts often with one point set and coil per cylinder (working twice as hard as in a four stroke), the thirteen-piece crankshaft that can be assembled in a hundred destructive ways and only one useful way. Isolated from the mainstream as they are, two-stroke designers seem drawn to devices like the dynastart unit—a combination generator/starter that drives the crankshaft directly without benefit of reduction gear. Since there is no reduction, it takes a great battery just to turn the engine over, sometimes leaving not enough power to spark the oil-soaked plugs.
Sometimes, all too often, two strokes have no moving parts at all.
Before there was Car and Driver there was Sports Cars Illustrated, and before I left Ohio for California they had an article titled something like “Nine Dual Purpose Sports Cars.”The idea was that here were cars that one could drive to the races, race, drive home again. As best I remember, at one end of the scale was a Ferrari 250GT swb Berlinetta, at the other end was a Berkeley 500. You’ll know instantly which one I bought.
About the Berkeley: first, always pronounce it “Baarkeley.”
Second, “Berkeley” follows just after “Bentley” in the want ads. Third, any interesting engineering in the Berk was offset by lousy execution of that engineering. It was a car designed specifically to produce mass frustration and funny stories. Alas.
I had not been long in L.A. when I found the Berkeley dealership.
In the showroom was the real clincher—the Berkeley that had won the six-hour enduro at Torrey Pines (a real road course near San Diego, now sorely missed). It was blue and white with red pinstripes, had big numbers on it, and the trophy on the hood. I was very impressed. What should have impressed me was that someone had gotten a Berk to run for six consecutive hours. What did I know then?
I traded my worn-out 356 coupe, got a brand new Berkeley and a thousand bucks. I had only paid $1800 for the 356 and a new Berkeley was supposed to sell for $1795 so I thought I was doing just fine.
The Berkeley was a British roadster designed by an innovator named Laurie Bond. It had an attractive fiberglass shell bonded and riveted to an aluminum undertray that was shaped like a shallow punt forming a near-monococque. In front (in mine) was a 492cc Excelsior, air-cooled, three cylinder two-stroke with three Amal Monoblock carbs—36 bhp (or thirty…or none). It was mounted transversely across the very front with a primary chain back to a four speed with a drive chain from there to a differential that fed the power (if any) to the front wheels.
Dynastart? Naturally. Three point sets and coils? Sure. To check the points, jack the front of the car off the ground, remove the left front wheel, the points cover, then lay on the ground with a dark cover like an old portrait photographer, have someone start the engine, and with a screwdriver and plastic feeler, adjust the point sets, then the hard part, rotate the point plate itself 9/64 of an inch before some mark I could never find. 9/64?
I put it on a scale once at a dragstrip (testing after rebuilding the engine yet again). With the windshield in place, a couple of four-foot lengths of 4X4 bolted across the front bumper mounts with a tow bar bolted to that, and a sort-of-legal SCCA rollbar in place, it weighed 825 lbs. Turned about 68 in around 19 seconds in the quarter–faster than a VW Beetle, faster than a Bugeye Sprite. Road racers need to go more than a quarter mile–commuter cars even further. And speaking of commuting, driving a Berkeley on the road means getting a hubcap-height view of the world, not following too closely (the Excelsior overheats when the airflow is reduced even slightly), and not parking anyplace where otherwise normal citizens can pick the car up and put it someplace embarrassing. Two strong men can lift the front off the ground, anyone can lift the rear.
Front drive cars were an unknown quantity, two strokes were (and are) a mystery, fiberglass was in its infancy. The rest of the car was a combination of spurious craftsmanship and obscure motorcycle bits. In the next year I learned about drive chains, two stroke oils, expansion chambers, the finer points of making small holes into bigger holes, secondary compression, crankcase stuffing, caged and uncaged needle bearings, Amal carburetors.
None of it really came to anything. I ran at Willow Springs, Riverside, San Luis Obispo. I ran, but not very far. It was a succession of holed pistons, stuck pistons, burned pistons, blown crank seals, dying ignitions, dead batteries.
My next-to-last race was on the airport in Las Vegas. I explained to my boss the importance of racing, about needing Friday and my half-Saturday off, so he fired me. It gave me an entire week of twenty-four hour days to work on the car. I had a tech inspection in Vegas at the latest, 8am Saturday, first practice 9am. After fine-tuning the car in L.A. one last time late Thursday, I got in, revved it a bit, and spun the wheels halfway across the parking lot. I swelled with ill-founded joy.
It had never run so well. I pushed it up on the little trailer, hooked it to the back of my old wagon, and went home to sleep the sleep of the just. I took off for Las Vegas at seven the next morning. I was there at 3pm—the first time I had ever been early for tech. When I unloaded, I pushed the car through the inspection line, everything was, for once, clean, buttoned, wired, tight. They put a little green sticker on the roll bar.
I started it for the first time since Thursday night—it ran on two cylinders. “Think nothing of it,” I thought, “it’s just a fouled plug,” I thought, “two-strokes foul plugs all of the time…a speck of carbon, a teaspoon too much oil…”. Fear gnawed quietly. My tools and faithful pit crew were not going to be in Vegas before night. I borrowed a plug wrench. There was a fouled plug. I changed it, started the engine. It ran on two cylinders. Pulled the plugs again. Same plug fouled.
Fingernails for dinner. The pit crew and tools finally arrive. Check everything, finally decide it must be the points. Jack the car, take off the left front wheel, no dark cloth needed—it’s almost midnight. All three sets of points seem fine, all arcing merrily. Shut it off, put the wheel on, take the car off the jack. It idles on all three. Get in to drive it around the parking lot. It’s back running on two.
My pit crew begins to fade away. I’m obsessed, frustrated, confused. By 2am I have gone through two flashlights, the carb sychronization, blown the fuel lines, pulled the heads and looked at the pistons, pulled the exhaust pipes and looked through the ports at the rings to make sure they haven’t come unpinned, pulled the safety-wired drain plugs at the bottom of the crankcases to see if one might be loaded up. No luck. It has to be the points.
Jack the car, take off the left front wheel, start the car, crawl under, all points arcing, Berkeley idling on three. About this time the security guard wanders over to see what’s making all of the noise (the Berk sounds like a three-cornered shotgun duel). I have the guard reach in and blip the throttle, one point set stops arcing. Turn the engine off, poke at the points with a screwdriver–the phenolic rubbing block is L-shaped, one side riveted to the plate, the other rubs against the point cam. Right at the angle of the L is a crack—at anything over an idle the rubbing block flexes and the points don’t open.
I want to tell my crew about it but they’re out doing all those things normal people with no taste do in Las Vegas. The security guard wanders off. I’m alone in the dark.
Next morning at eight, after instructing my hung over crew chief to hold the race steward off so that I don’t have to qualify at nine, I’m off to find a new point set. Joseph P. Lucas (Prince of Darkness, etc.), supplies all of the points for every other English car. The Berkeley uses Siba. Never heard of Siba? Neither has anyone else. The odyssey takes me to every motorcycle, scooter, lawnmower, generator, and imported car emporium in the city. No luck. Frantic calls to L.A. Still no luck.
Back to the paddock, borrow epoxy, stick the damned thing back together with a little bit of toothpick for reinforcement. Convinced myself it was going to work. Let the epoxy set in the sun. This being Las Vegas, the heat is setting the epoxy at about the same rate it’s melting the asphalt. The stewards have agreed to let me start the Saturday afternoon race without qualifying—from the back, of course.
Put the points back in just before the race. Air temperature is about 100o, asphalt about 130o, the wind is like God’s own blowdryer and gritty besides. Lying on the ground, I’ve scorched myself through my coveralls. The Berk is black and too hot to touch. I shrug into my driving suit–my crew chief, mostly recovered, hands me my helmet, straps me in.
Turn on the key, punch the starter, and it’s running—on three. Find reverse, start to back out–my crew chief screams “stop stop stop.” I kill it, fearing god knows what, unbuckle, get out. He’s down on his hands and knees on that blistering, molten asphalt muttering. He has lost a contact lens. I start to help him look, stop, get back into the car and think about backing over him.
Emergency averted, he finds the lens, straps me back in, I make my way to the grid. I have yet to make a lap—I don’t even know which way the track goes. Standing starts back then—the flag goes down, I stand on it and pass a couple of cars spinning their wheels on the slimy asphalt. The first turn is a 90o left, very wide, a bunch of cars spin on the loose surface, I go wide and I’m in mid-pack.
Then the car starts to run on two. At first I don’t even care. I try to make it go through sheer will. The vibration gets so bad that I’m afraid I won’t be able to finish the lap, but I do. I’m very tired. The next day, I just let the Berk sit in the sun and wind while I half-heartedly watch the races.
Two weeks later the points have been replaced and I’m still unemployed. Off to Riverside. My first lap of practice, I actually pass a Lotus 7 going down the mile-long back straightaway. Long before we reach Turn 9, he has re-passed me and, I don’t want to believe it—little by little, I can feel my internal combustion engine turning itself into an air compressor. I watch the rest of practice from the outside of 9. Back in the pits, pull the heads, one piston has a big hole, the other two are well under way.
It was a full year before I touched the Berk again. By this time I had a 356 Speedster, which, while it had its problems, were at least those understandable by mortal man. Pulling the Berkeley apart, I found sand, sand and dust everywhere, especially in the carbs where it seems to have settled in the jets. This made it run lean, hot, cut off the oil, who the hell really knows…
One story at a time: a bunch of us, rowdy, maybe after a few illegal high school beers, careening up Market St., Youngstown, Ohio too many decades ago when, in a used car lot closed for the night, we see this very small car surrounded by the usual rust-belt Plymouths and Pontiacs and Packards. We screech around the block, stop, gawk.
Not just very small; tiny—maybe nine feet long. It’s a Goggomobil 300—the sporty one that looks like a combination ’53 Studebaker Starliner, Lancia, and Disney cartoon fugitive—Cloyingly cute, like a Nash Metro. I need one—this one.
It has little steel rims (10inch diameter) bolted to the outer edge of the aluminum drums—very sporty—an air-cooled 300cc two cylinder two stroke nestled between the rear wheels with the obligatory German swing axles. The real clincher is an electric transmission with a four pole switch instead of a shift lever—speed shift by flicking with a finger, reverse (all four speeds) by pulling a little knob under the dash. Wow.
I went back the next day when the lot was open and despite my obvious youth and insanity, they were anxious to make me a great deal. Unfortunately they couldn’t get it started and by the time they did I had graduated from high school and joined the Air Force and moved to South Carolina. Some genetic disposition to weird cars was becoming evident even then.
My first job out of the Air Force was at Moe’s Auto Sales, part time while going to college full time. Moe’s was another of those gritty, mid-western used iron lots but with a difference: Moe was a franchised Maico dealer.
The Maico was an ugly little wart—a two door body straight out of a junior high shop class, twelve inch wheels, with, what else, a two cylinder, two-stroke rear mounted, this time water-cooled. Of course it had swing axles—did you doubt that it would? The Maico was, we were told, a much improved version of the Champion. Of course on one in this country (nor many in Germany) had ever heard of the Champion.
Since Mickey and Moe, the lot’s owners, and Cadillac Charlie, the manager were, kindly, portly, all Maico demonstrations fell to me. Cadillac Charlie, whose tastes ran to bright brown suits, blue suede shoes, and hand-painted ties decorated liberally with cigarette ashes, had sales advice that went something like:”Dis car has instant start and, hey, overdrive, and see dis ting here—don’t touch it it’s da heater and it don’t work.” Mickey and Moe just told me to “sell the little prick.” I seldom did.
Instant starting (when it started at all) was the result of just as Citroen engineers are to hydraulic pumps or German engineers to swing axles. More genetic problems doubtless. Eventually, carbon dust from the dynastart brushes would build up and short the unit out. This meant pulling the engine, removing the dynastart cover, then using a special factory puller available only in Pfaffengen, Germany.
On those rare occasions when everything was perfect, a touch of the key and the engine was, like magic, running. Since lubricating oil is mixed with the fuel, there is no oil pressure, no cold, thick oil to drag. You just drive away–no warmup needed.
On the usual bad day (generally cold), the battery wouldn’t have enough juice to fire the plugs and turn over the engine at the same time. Once oil-fouled, the plugs would never clear. Quick-charging the battery allowed just enough time for a plug change and a customer exit.
By studying the Maico owners manual I discovered the heater didn’t work because a little switch on the engine fan hub had been left in the summer position. The switch reversed the pitch of the fan so that they blew air through the radiator and back seat into the car. In summer, the engine fan was supposed to draw air through the car, radiator and out the back—neat.
Unfortunately about the third time I demonstrated the switch, the blades flew off the hub as if programmed by a berserk knife thrower, ventilating the engine lid and a back fender. Again, the customer left.
The twenty-or-so horses drove through a noisy little four speed worked by a fragile shift lever with a vague action. It once was broken off at floor level by a a prospective customer who not only declined to buy a Maico but insisted on walking back to the lot.
There was supposed to be a sports version of the stiffly sprung, oversteering, under-braked little Maico. According to the one 8X10 we had, it looked a lot like a small Karmann-Ghia. No one I know has ever seen one. No one I know has ever heard of one–except me.
On to Wartburgs and Hirsch’s Select Autos—”Home of YOUR Next Car.”
Cadillac Charlie left Moe for Hirsch and put out a call for me to follow. I was flattered and besides, the half of the lot that wasn’t covered with Buicks and Mercurys was filled with bootleg VWs. This was the late ‘fifties, VWs were hot and hard to get.
Probably because we had the VWs, the Wartburg Guy stopped by one Tuesday, early. Charlie and I eavesdropped as long as we could–Hirsch was resisting the whole idea. Hirsch presumably came around—before the day was over, a truck dropped a couple of Wartburgs, sedan and wagon, on our doorstep.
Wartburgs were based on a pre-WWII DKW prototype. DKW, later Auto Union, still later, Audi, also used the same three cylinder two-stroke front drive layout. Strangely, the Wartburg was, in those days, more modern than the “Deke,” with its `thirties “streamline” styling like a small “Baroque Angel” BMW. Wartburg styling was as modern as anything made in the U.S. and a long way ahead of any contemporary Mercedes or Volkswagen. Enough praise.
The `Burgs were a bizarre mixture of modern and German period design—they had the strangest fake wood interior trim in memory, large, typically German overstuffed seats upholstered in garish red bulletproof vinyl. Big on expensive things like sun roofs and (in the wagon) glass that curved up into the roof, they cut corners by leaving out all sound deadening.
Driving it was a matter of clanging the door shut, sliding around on the hard vinyl (in fairness, no harder than the VW vinyl—but the ‘Burg had bigger seats), pulling out the choke, kicking over the conventional starter, then letting the engine settle to a lumpy idle and waiting for the smoke to clear.
Force the column shift lever into low and pull away. All controls either felt like plastic binding or had no feel at all. Constant velocity joints being what they were at the time, pulling away from the curb was a series of steering wheel jerks.
Cruising, though, you began to understand why two-strokes were attractive. The engine felt pretty strong–stronger by far than the 36hp VWs we had even though the `burg was under 1000cc. It also seemed uncannily smooth and quiet, inaudible over the clanging and road noise.
We learned to change the plugs often, to keep the engine warmed so that we wouldn’t have to use the choke (which resulted in a dense blue cloud) in front of prospects, to avoid roads with potholes and gravel, to amuse people with the standard short wave radio. Still, while we sold three or four VWs a week, nobody was ever serious about one of the Wartburgs. Maybe it had something to do with Red-phobia (it was, after all, a product of the DDR), maybe it was just something, well, unnatural.
At the end of the month, the Wartburg Guy came back—this time we didn’t have to eavesdrop—Hirsch, in a bullhorn voice told him to get them off of the lot. It was a close thing–it took more than a week to get a truck over to pick them up—we were afraid he was going to abandon them. If we had managed to have sold one in the extra week, we might have remained Wartburg dealers, we might have gotten in one of the Wartburg Sports (a very little like a 300SL roadster), I might have truly fallen in love, I might have bought it, searched out Melkus speed equipment, lost what little contact I had with the real (Chevy and Ford) world…
One last aside. If there was ever a worse name for a car to be sold in the U.S. I don’t know what it might be. “Wartburg” was always pronounced (by me and all other Americans) as if we were holding our noses—an ugly word, an ugly sound to American ears.
A couple of years ago I was in Hamburg having lunch with an American friend and his fantastic-looking German girlfriend. We were talking about German cars—he told me that, since the dissolution of the eastern border, Trabants and Wartburgs were beginning to clutter the western roads.
His girlfriend, Mira, looked puzzled and asked what kind of car we were talking about. I said “Wartburg” again and again she looked puzzled, so I wrote it on a napkin. “Aaah,” she purred, you mean “Vaartbourg.” At that very moment, I wanted one again. Or maybe something else. Mira, Mira.
Top image: Glas Goggonmobil T300 two-stroke, two-cylinder sedan (public domain advertisement illustration)
The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano