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Essex restoration in East Germany during socialistic times

From Hagen Schweitzer, Gefell, Germany

After the end of World War II several people restored cars in East Germany just to use them for their daily business. It was the time of Socialism and the Cold War between East and West. With the increase in the standard of living in the fifties and sixties more and more people could buy modern cars. During this time an increasing number of classic car fans started to collect cars just to preserve the historical vehicles. This was also the time during which my grandfather started his collection. At the end he had five cars (three were fully restored) and about 30 classic motorcycles. My grandparents lived in an old farmhouse. Since they stopped farming they had enough space for this collection.
Essex parts were imported during the twenties to Germany and assembled in a factory in Berlin [1]. It is easy to see that these cars were built in Germany. The technical information of the engine on the fire wall is in German and in metric units. The speedometer is in kilometers and kilometers per hours while the gas, oil, and temperature gauges are in non metric units. In the sixties my grandfather bought an Essex Super 6 built in 1928. It was actually in terrible condition. It was completely rusty and it was not possible to see the original paint. It took him around 20 years to restore it.
Restoring and collecting classic cars in East Germany during Socialism was completely different from today and especially restoring the Essex was really hard. There were not many Essex automobiles left in East Germany during the Sixties. There was also no internet to get worldwide information and no shops for the restoration of classic car parts. Because of the cold war it was difficult to get parts and information from western countries.

Very important for the restoration was to know a lot of people working in state owned companies who could restore or rebuild parts during their work hours in exchange for a case of beer, some money or anything else they needed. My grandfather was fortunate to have a lot of contacts. He was a carpenter and owner of a small carpentry business. Since in East Germany nearly everything was rare he was a much needed person. In return other people helped him during the restoration of car parts in order to get a new wooden door or a new staircase. The Essex for example had no rear springs but my grandfather knew someone that worked in a factory manufacturing springs for the East German standard car ‘Trabant’. He had an old book containing the drawings of the springs of several classic cars including the Essex and was able to rebuild the springs.

My Grandpa Helmut Theil (insert) and during the restoration of the Essex Super 6.

The Essex Super 6 in summer 2010.



Another nice story my grandfather likes to tell is
how he got the fabric for the restoration of the Essex seats. He wanted to have something of high quality that fits the classic appearance of the Essex. He knew the female boss of a textile store, went to this shop every week, talked to this girl and checked if they got a fabric he could use. He was so often in this store that there was a rumor of an affair going around. Eventually he found the right fabric.

There were also situations where the restoration of parts was impossible in East Germany. This was the case with the radiator of the Essex. My grandpa had a good friend in West Germany and he smuggled the radiator to West Germany. My grandpa had to provide some other classic car parts that his friend could sell in order to pay for the restoration. Smuggling was actually the most dangerous way because the Secret Service had always an eye on the classic car collectors. If they found any suspicious facts the collector could lose the full collection. The government considered the cars to be the cultural heritage of the country which may not be sold without permission. This was told to my grandparents in an official letter.
My grandfather finished the restoration of the Essex 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because of changes in the traffic rules for classic cars he never drove the car on a public street. He is now 89 years old and sold most of the motorcycles and cars of his collection. I got the Essex Super 6 and I like to preserve the great restoration work he did. I’m currently working to get the car ready for the technical inspection that is required to register it. I hope to get the car back on the street within the next year. It will be its first drive after a break of more than fifty years.

[1] Hudson Essex Motors Company m.b.H, Berlin-Spandau/ Berliner Chaussee. Company name follows from German owner’s manual.



Footnote: Unfortunately, we received word from Hagen that his Grandfather Helmut passed away on the 20th Oct 2010 before he could see the article published.