Kombi, German and short for Kombinationskraftwagen. That’s a combination of a motor car and a (small) truck, perfectly capable of transporting both people and goods. And indeed, way into the eighties these were often the preferred choice for the self employed: their family car in the weekends, their commercial vehicle during working days.
I caught two old variants on the Kombi-theme last April. Two classic German wagons, in a perfect condition, both of them had their first registration in the Netherlands.
The oldest, a 1960 Borgward Isabella combi.
The Borgward is powered by a water-cooled 1.5 liter inline-4 engine, 60 DIN-hp.
The 1954-1961 Isabella was more expensive than comparable Opels and Fords, yet substantially cheaper than the contemporary Mercedes-Benz 180 (W 120-series). That perfectly reflected its market position, right inbetween the mainstream brands and god Benz.
Exactly ten years younger than the Borgward, this last gasp of the Beetle concept. The 1968-1974 Volkswagen Type 4 was initially marketed as the 411 and from 1972 onwards as the 412.
The Kombi, better known as the Variant, arrived in August 1969.
The power comes from an air-cooled 1.7 liter flat-4, 80 DIN-hp instead of 68 DIN-hp, because E for Einspritzung. (Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection) And that shade of dark green was utterly Volkswagen!
Currently, the Kombi/Wagon is more popular than ever with a wide choice in the C-, D- and E-segment. But the local baker doesn’t deliver his bread any longer in any of them (successively an Opel Rekord D and E when he still did).
Automotive History: German Deadly Sins (The Bayern Cycle, Part 2) – A Four-Wheeled Titanic Named Borgward
Curbside Classic: 1971 Volkswagen 411 – Searching For Its Niche (a Variant in dark green!)
Johannes: I’ve always liked the Isabella wagon; your maroon example is particularly attractive.
Here are some German wagon questions:
1) Does the term “touring” or “turing” mean the same thing as “kombi”, or is there a difference? If it is a Ford or a Mercedes I think a wagon is called a “turing”.
2) Do you ever see the Wartburg wagons or are they completely irrelevant/gone?
Kombi, which is an abbreviation of “kombinationswagen” (combination car) is the traditional term for a station wagon, as it refers to it being able to combine both passenger car duty and LKW (light truck duty). But it wasn’t only limited to passenger car based wagons; the VW T2 Kombi was the version of the VW bus that was spartan, but had rows of seats that could easily be removed. Double-duty vehicle.
“Turing” is just something Mercedes decided to apply to their first-ever factory wagons (W123 T Type), as they term Kombi had a utilitarian down-scale image. Which all wagons did in Germany, until a new wave of more expensive passenger-car oriented wagons came along, like the Audi Avant, the Mercedes T-Type, and such. There was a reason why the premium brands had stayed away from wagons for so long, as they really were traditionally work vehicles; for the tradesman who used it to haul his tools and such during the week and then the family on the weekends.
This is why traditional kombis were made by the lower-end companies, like Ford, Opel, VW, and such. And in this case Borgward, which wasn’t really properly a premium brand, although the Isabella was something of a precursor to the BMW Neue Klasse to come.
The image of wagons changed very quickly in the 80s; suddenly they were cool, much more so than sedans, which is still mostly the case. Very few sedan versions of middle-upper class German cars are actually sold in sedan versions on the retail market; mostly fleet and taxis. Wagons became the default choice, due to their obvious advantages and image. Sedans are “old man cars”.
Wagons/kombis were hardly ever bought as passenger car only vehicles in the 50s, 60s and into the late 70s, unlike in the US, because of their tradesman-image. Kombis in essence were the equivalent of pickups in the US back then: seen as work vehicles with a poor image. It changed very quickly, just as it did for pickups in the US.
Of course tradesmen all started using vans about the same time wagons became cool.
I’m pretty sure that there was a factory wagon version of every midsize Mercedes. At least from the Fintail (W110). It was called “Universal”, not Touring of course.
Nope. Made by a Belgian outside coach firm, IMA.
The W123 T Type was the first made by Mercedes on their production lines.
1) Toyota even calls their wagon the TS, Touring Sports. Corolla TS below.
2) I can’t remember ever seeing a Wartburg wagon. In western Europe the brand was completely irrelevant.
Ford, Opel and Peugeot were the grand suppliers of wagons when I was a kid, in the seventies that is.
Thank both of you for the comments. Despite American origins I think the wagon has been completely mastered by northern Europeans – Germans and Volvo. That old Borgward seems more “turing” than “kombi” – it is a bit premium.
That new Corolla wagon is nice, sort of like the Ford Mondeo wagon I guess but maybe a bit smaller. Of course Toyota will never bring it to USA.
My own old wagon is a ’94 Roadmaster but now that I know better I crave a 124.
The Corolla is in the same segment as the Ford Focus and the VW Golf, C-segment (compacts), so indeed smaller than the Mondeo wagon.
Especially in that segment there’s a wide variety of wagons from European, Japanese and also South-Korean automakers.
Below a Hyundai i30 wagon, as another example.
I am a Borgward fan and this Isabella wagon only makes that flame burn brighter. What a fabulous little Kombi. The only place where BMW had it over Borgward at this time was the design of the front ends. The BMW twin kidney look usually came out better than that big diamond on the front of the Borgwards.
The really funny thing in the top shot is that the two cars in the background (Ford Model A and VW Bug) make for a pair that will be seen at virtually every decent car show in the US.
Our baker always had a fabulous Peugeot 404 Break in Super Luxe livery, that meant the hughe stainless hubcaps, a metallic blue color and a nice wooden luxurous yacht type loading floor. His 404 looked a hundred times better than our black Diesel sedan.
While uncle Wijbrandt who always welded my battered pedal jeep had a blue Isabella Combi. I vividly remember the rear door, not a hatch but a door and the intriguing white dashboard.
Having owned both a 404 sedan and a wagon at the same time, ultimately I came to love the wagon more. The differences in their feel and handling were substantially different; the wagon with its longer wheelbase was about the most stable vehicle I had ever driven; it just wanted to go straight as an arrow. It could be made to go through curves just fine, but its preferences for straights were quite obvious.
I too loved that yacht-style polished plywood floor and rubber loading strips. And with the giant factory roof rack, it could haul incredible loads. And of course with aplomb under all circumstances.
The Isabella sedan and Kmobi were not a rare sight in Montevideo in my late ’70s teenage memories. They disappeared during the ’80s.
411-412s were very rare down here, mostly cars of diplomats. I remember reading about them and wondering how would a “big” car sound with a small VW engine. When I finally heard one it was an anticlimax. After theat, there was a golden US-spec 412 4 door that parked in front of our house for some years. Automatic, but much more interesting, blue California plates. In Uruguay, those plates were rarer than the car. Those plates were eventually switched to new local plates. And then the car slowly rusted and then vanished. I’d always try to catch it running to hear the weird (for me) VW pancake coupled to an automatic.
Looks like the VW has US-spec headlights.
The Borgward is the prettiest thing I’ve seen in years. Might look and drive better with 14″ wheels but otherwise PERFECT.
The Japanese still make utility estate cars for the working man who hasn’t the space to park both his white van and a family car. So one vehicle has to serve both roles. The Nissan Wingroad and Toyota Probox are ones that come to mind.
The mid-size double-cab panel van has become the mixture between a family car and a commercial vehicle here, these are registered as a commercial vehicle. Like the Ford Transit Custom below.
Wagons have become “lifestyle”/cool, as Paul mentions above. Audi and BMW started that trend in the eighties, respectively with their Avant and Touring models.
The Brazilian swan song.
I would have considered the T3 (Vanagon), not the 411/412, the last gasp of the Beetle concept, what with the rear-mounted air-cooled engine for the first few years
Having owned dozens of wagons and panelvans I quite like them, though I couldnt find a good one when I changed cars last time so I stayed with a hatchback its just a little shorter inside and with the sloping rear just a little less utility, I do like that Borgward the VW not so much the underfloor engine takes up a lot of load space for tall objects and no side door like a type 2.