Curbside Classic: 1957-61 Borgward Isabella Coupe – Was It Too Good For This World?

CC has covered Borgward and the Isabella series before, but I sense that we like Borgward, we have empathy with the intriguing Borgward story of entrepreneurship, perseverance and unexpected ending; we certainly like 1950s icons and an example like this should not be ignored. I mean, just look at it and tell me why I don’t want it? See, that’s not easy is it?

I’ll start this CC with an observation. I’m unlikely to state anything significant you haven’t read previously on CC – you can’t follow up on Tatra87 by making corrections or adding details – and this will be my first CC for a German car. I’ve covered various British, French, Italian, Swedish, Japanese, Dutch and even an Australian car but this will be the first German car I’ve covered in depth. So, let’s see how it goes, using an example I saw in France about five years ago as a feature car and the treasure trove that is the CC Cohort.

The Borgward group was brought together in 1929 when Carl Borgward was able merge his business Goliath-Werke Borgward & Co with Hansa-Lloyd-Werke A.G. Borgward’s Goliath business was in the driving seat; Hansa-Lloyd was close to bankruptcy. Both were based in Bremen in north west Germany.

Incidentally, the name Hansa-Lloyd tells of the origins of the business – Hansa denoted that it was established in a Hansastadt, or Hanseatic City, one of a chain of cities, including Bremen, linking along trading routes through the Baltic and the North Sea, from the Tallinn in Estonia, the Baltic States, Germany, the Netherlands and the Great Britain, from the 12th to 15th centuries. Lloyd denoted its roots in the shipping line Norddeutscher Lloyd; in the mid 19th century, the term Lloyd was used in Germany for a shipping line, deriving from the Lloyd insurance market and its coverage for losses of shipping. Hapag-Lloyd AG is a surviving example.

The combined business was building vehicles under the Goliath and Hansa brands. Goliath were also building the Goliath light trucks and the Pionier microcar, which was built around a wooden frame covered with a synthetic fabric, and powered by a 198cc or 247cc single cylinder 2-stroke engine.

Hansa meanwhile had been producing some serious luxury cars but in comparatively small volumes.

Borgward stopped these, and focussed Hansa on trucks and the mid-size Konsul and Matador range. This was replaced by the all-steel Hansa 1100 in 1933, which grew to be the Borgward Hansa 1700 and then 2000 by 1939.

From then on, the Borgward name was usually used as the marque and Hansa as a model name, albeit with exceptions. After WW2, the Lloyd name reappeared as well, for an entry level car, the LP600, with a synthetic fabric body and transverse 2 cylinder 2 stroke engine and for the later (steel) Arabella saloon. The 1949 Hansa 1500 saloon did well enough as Germany recovered and got back on its wheels, or on its wheels of the first time, as private car ownership in Germany had always lagged most of western Europe.

But Borgward’s big success was the 1954 Isabella. This was a car that hit that sometimes elusive spot – conventional and sharply contemporary but well executed and a seemingly good value with it. More thoroughly engineered than contemporary Opels or Fords, more affordable than a Mercedes-Benz, larger than a VW or NSU, more modern than the DKW 3=6, BMW were not in the market then….the sweet spot was found.

Actually, it wasn’t originally called the Isabella. It was the Borgward Hansa 1500, but the Isabella name, chosen by Carl Borgward himself and in fact the formalisation of a project code, came shortly after production started. The Hansa badge was still evident on the cars until 1957. But the Isabella is the name that is remembered.

The car inherited the engine and drive train from the preceding Hansa 1500. This meant a 1493cc four cylinder overhead valve engine, driving the rear wheels through a four speed gearbox, operated by a cable column change and with synchromesh on all four gears, unusual for the time. Early cars had 60 bhp and 80lbft of torque, at a usefully low 2400rrpm. This was Borgward’s first monocoque (unibody) with coil springs and wishbones, with an anti-roll bar at the front and, being typically German and of the period, a swing axle at the rear. Extensive rubber bushing featured around the suspension and differential, along with separate front and rear sub-frames.

CC Cohort photo by Hannes

Size wise, at 176 inches long on a 102 inch wheelbase, this car was bigger than the contemporary Opel Olympia or Ford Taunus P1, as well as more powerful, and with more sophisticated transmission and suspensions. It was significantly cheaper than a (slightly later) Mercedes-Benz 190, but had a style and level of engineering that could stand comparison with most, if not quite all.

The styling was not dissimilar to that seen from several other European brands – Morris, Fiat, Simca and Peugeot, arguably Volvo and Alfa Romeo all had similar themes going on, and to me there’s a bit of the Hudson Jet in there too, albeit one of the gussied up versions. But I suggest it was a fully competent execution of the then contemporary style and format and has stood the test of time well. The surprise may be that it was only offered as a two door saloon, although similar cars from Ford and Opel such as the Taunus P1 and Olympia Rekord also came as two door only.

CC Cohort photo by moethebartender

There was also a station wagon, known as the Combi in German tradition and with that very Germanic style of station wagon glasshouse, but there was never a four door option, aside from a few prototypes.

Borgward added some glamour with the Convertible from 1955, converted by the Karl Deutsch company and, being a conversion of a monocoque that had not been planned in, was inevitably expensive to produce.

Borgward also offered a high performance model, the Isabella TS with 75bhp and 84lbft, thanks to a twin choke Solex carburettor and some larger valves. With added chrome and extra equipment, this was a car that could almost get to 100mph on a downhill section of autobahn. Stirling Moss, who had an unmatched reputation for racing and winning in just about anything with wheels, was able to use the engine to solid effect.

Let’s check a period road test. The UK magazine Motor Sport has a most tremendous digital archive.

Bill Boddy was the editor from 1936 to 1991, and was still contributing when he died in 2011 at the age of 98, and was known for penning a firm but fair road test, and the Isabella got this largely positive review.

CC Cohort photo by turbocontinental

But the car that is often cited as Borgward’s high point is the Isabella Coupe. Some say it was intended to add some glamour and separation from the Ford and Opel rivals, some say it was an affordable Mercedes-Benz 190SL and some say it was to stop Frau Borgward buying a VW Karmann Ghia.

Confession time – I’ve never been a Karmann Ghia fan. By the time I was an active Curbivore, any Karmann Ghia I saw was almost certainly a little tired and certainly dated, visually. Add the unusual rear engine and air cooling to the mix, and it wasn’t working for me. Not sure it does yet, but YMMV. But perhaps it did for Frau Borgward.

The Karmann Ghia came in 1955; the Isabella Coupe came in 1957, which is a pretty quick response but there is clearly some of the Karmann style in the Isabella. But my observation is that maybe Carl Borgward, for he styled all his cars, or at least had a key and final say on the styling of all cars, was after some of the Studebaker “Loewy” Coupes’ appeal. The rear deck, the clear front engine profile of the car and stance of the wheels all say something to me, which the Karmann Ghia doesn’t.

This car was sold at a class and price break above the Karmann Ghia, and could be seen not just as a smarter Karmann Ghia but an affordable Mercedes-Benz 190SL. The Federal Republic was by now building an impressive economic recovery and logically Carl Borgward wanted to take part in it.

The Isabella was a commercial success for Borgward. By 1958, over 100,000 had been built and this rose to over 200,000 by the time production stopped in September 1961, with a peak of 38,000 in 1959. This includes almost 10,000 Coupes, of which 5,000 went to North America. There were separate importers on the east and west coasts, and I suspect most of the sales would have been close to the coasts. Having said that, Hemmings has a feature on a car originally sold in Billings, Montana, which cost the same as a contemporary Thunderbird – around $3700.

CC Cohort by moethebartender

In terms of driving, the experience was reportedly better than many of the period. Interior space is generous for the size and format, the chassis is apparently agile and the steering sharp, the column shift easy enough if a little long of movement. It may not have kept up with a Thunderbird, but it sounds like a car that you could enjoy in Montana.

The interior comes in for praise too, with style and durability. And, yes, those are separate heating controls for driver and passenger.

I think you can easily see the appeal to this owner.

Time for another road test, again from Bill Boddy of Motor Sport, who clearly liked it, albeit he noted some foibles.

The car had to be refuelled from a special can, the boot release was on the passenger door jamb and the novelty of screen washers.

Overall, the press reaction was positive, although £1996 was a lot of money compared with, say, a Sunbeam Rapier or a MG Magnette saloon. Not as sophisticated maybe, but they didn’t cost what was soon to be close to Jaguar E Type money.

The end story of the Isabella and Borgward is well known and well chronicled on CC. In the US Import Boom of the late 1950s, Borgward had some success (helped by the glamour of this Coupe, no doubt) but as the boom ended and the imports’ market share halved, Borgward was stuck with over production and cash flow issues.

These were compounded by cost over runs and lower than expected sales and profit from the new small Lloyd Arabella, and the cost of developing the P100, a Mercedes-Benz 220 (W110 Heckflosse) competitor, complete with pneumatic suspension. After a costly development programme, Borgward sold just 2500 in the first year. Significant costs were also being expended on a new Lloyd 1500, to sit between the Arabella and the Isabella, and on early thoughts for a new Isabella. Who said BMC had a monopoly on complicated product planning issues?

Carl Borgward had no significant relationship with the major banks, or apparent desire to do so, instead relying on the Bremen State Senate. And perhaps using his suppliers as banks too, not always with their consent. When stories of late payments appeared in the press in early 1961, the State stepped in and took control, ultimately winding up the entire business. By September, car production had stopped and the businesses were all wound down. Carl Borgward died a year later, and the story was over. Personally, I don’t really buy the idea of a great conspiracy to close down Borgward. Why would the company’s competitors do that if its suppliers (also their suppliers of course) were effectively doing it for them?

But dabbling with helicopter projects probably didn’t really help any claim of focus and control on the prevailing structural issues.

There is an undeniable appeal to the Isabella, especially in Coupe form. From this distance, the saloon now appears unremarkable, with little to significantly separate it from, for example, the MG Magnette, Sunbeam Rapier or Fiat 1400. The Coupe, though, has that extra something, especially when presented like the feature car.

Borgward reminds me in some ways of the British Rootes Group. Controlled by one family with a clearly strong figure at the centre, build around a group of historically separate organisations and covering a wide range of the market in cars and trucks.

The businesses were of similar size in the late 1950s, and the role of the key Isabella was also similar to that of the Hillman Minx and its derivatives. Both businesses had a solid performing product in the mid range (Hansa and Isabella, or a series of Minx and derivatives), a larger, if dated, car to top the range (Hansa 2400 or Humber Hawk), supporting van and truck activities and later a technically ambitious but commercially unsuccessful new car (P100 or Hillman Imp). And ultimately a financial failure that perhaps could and should have been foreseen.

CC often celebrates a product from an independent or from an underdog, or from the largely forgotten or overlooked. Maybe Borgward can be classified in all these categories; certainly for me it is a true CC. Even in bright green and white two-tone.

The last Isabella came down the line in September 1961, with a banner stating “Du warst zu gut für diese Welt“. Perhaps it was too good for this world.

CC Cohort photo by Ralf K