Frank “Bongo” Rotzsch has music in his blood. After studying vocals and percussion in Dresden, his life took a surprisingly free course beyond the restraints of the GDR’s organisations and collectives. A string of tours across the country with various different bands brought colour to the often grey everyday life of East Germany’s citizens.
This, of course, meant he was viewed with considerable suspicion by Stasi agents, who labelled artists of Frank’s ilk Klassenfeinde (enemies of the people). And then there was his uncle, who had fled to the West in the 1950s and kept Frank generously supplied with information and brochures from their favourite car maker (BMW) from the other side of the divide.
From BMW to EMW
BMW started building cars not in Munich, but in Eisenach, having bought the heavily indebted DIXI factories in 1928. Iconic models such as the 326, 327 and brilliant 328 roadster rolled off the assembly line here. In the aftermath of World War II, the Eisenach factory found itself in the Soviet zone and cut off from HQ in Munich. Car production soon restarted, though, essentially picking up where it left off before hostilities, with just a change or two to the odd detail. The BMW badge even remained on the cars’ bonnets initially, before giving way to EMW (Eisenacher Motorenwerk) after a short but decisive “difference of opinion”. Gone was the white and blue of Bavaria, usurped by white and red.
Cue the music (of six cylinders)
The EMW 340-2 was a stately limousine hewn out of the pre-war BMW 326. Its capacious four-door body offered ample space for those on board, while the six-cylinder engine behind the scenes provided smoothness and power in spades. That was just the ticket for Frank, who sometimes had to transport himself and six other band members across the country, with a trailer and roof-rack helping to help carry their gear. The EMW was almost always sold as a taxi or government vehicle, so Frank’s cars had already done plenty of living by the time he took them on. That made spare parts – notably torsion bars for the rear axle – an essential addition to the kit list, given the notoriously poor condition of the GDR’s roads. Six or seven of these grand old EMWs passed through his hands during this period.
The EMW 327 dream
The EMW 327 was a special car alright, a carbon copy of the pre-war BMW 327 down to its square-edged indicators. Produced in small numbers up to 1955, it was the ultimate fantasy motor for the population of the “workers' and farmers' state”, as the GDR became known. So when the opportunity presented itself to own one – a car in reasonable condition, as well – Frank decided to indulge. Some years later, though, his head was turned by a BMW 1800, and the 327 was on its way. Sadly, the seller of the fancy 1800 was a bit of a crook; the car was not his to sell and Frank had to give it up again – with no reimbursement of funds. He subsequently bought back his EMW 327, meaning he had effectively paid for it twice.
Overcoming every obstacle
With the help of his father-in-law, Frank then achieved the impossible: he managed to import his dream car from the West – a BMW 323i of E21 vintage. It made quite the statement amid the slate-grey sea of Trabants and Wartburgs. This was a car denied to regular people by the GDR authorities, with only Frank’s father-in-law’s status as severely disabled nudging the door ajar. And his critical role in Frank’s motoring history wasn’t over yet, as he later smoothed the way for a 323i – a later E30 model – onto Frank’s driveway. This was a doughty exercise in resistance against a state whose every sinew strained to prevent such things taking place – even as late in GDR history as the summer of 1989. Not long afterwards, the need to seek permission was consigned to the history books.
Farewell – and hello again!
Frank’s EMW 327 didn’t turn a wheel for some time, the longed-for restoration still as far away as ever. By now it was in such bad condition that only a complete overhaul would yield a genuinely sound result. This was an expensive jolly-in-waiting, which even Frank’s son – an automotive mechatronics engineer – shied away from. Frank sold the rare convertible and bought a rather dapper BMW R 1200 C motorcycle with the proceeds. What better way to cruise around a country tasting freedom at last.
When Frank was unexpectedly reunited with the car in 2020, it was an emotional moment. His EMW 327 had been restored to stunningly beautiful effect, just as he had always hoped, but never thought possible. The car’s first owner, who had sold it to Frank, also got in touch. Time to revisit all those dreams for a man with the white and blue of Bavaria and BMW in his heart, but who was only allowed to see the red of Communism.
Now 68, Frank’s thoughts might justifiably be turning to retirement. But that would be far too dull. As DJ Bongo, he continues to tour clubs and venues, doing what he does best: spreading good humour – and driving party guests around his local vineyards in an old GAZ-69. The gnarled old Russian military machine was almost certainly not one of the vehicles in Frank’s fantasy garage back in the day, but now it brings a smile to faces far and wide. A fitting end to a fine story.