The Borgward Brand Is Back
With Borgward promising to revive the brand with an SUV concept ready for this fall, Petrolicious thought the time was right for a closer look at post-war Germany’s most intriguing car maker.
Before it was forced to shut its gates in 1961, Borgward employed more than 23,000 people and made one of the fastest mid-sized cars on the road, the Isabella TS. It invented the mid-sized sports sedan years before BMW did. But it hasn’t made a car since.
The company’s founder, Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Borgward, pulled off a neat trick in the 1950s: to offer a winning mix of German engineering and sharp yet understated styling for an affordable price just as Europe was starting to recover from the war.
“They had small engines and big performance,” said Nick Driscoll of the Borgward Drivers’ Club in the UK, who drives his 1956 Borgward every day on Britain’s M3. “They were fast for their day, easy to repair, and fun to drive.”
But Borgward’s triumph was short-lived.
Borgward cars reflect the ambition, talent and overreach of Carl Borgward, born near Hamburg, Germany to a coal-merchant’s family in 1890. A portrait of him in his prime shows a dark-eyed man with neatly slicked-back hair, very wide lapels, and a mesmerizing stare.
Armed with an engineering diploma from a school in Hamburg, Borgward got his start in the business in 1924 with a three-wheeled delivery vehicle called the Blitzkarren, later engagingly re-named Goliath. A larger three-wheeled truck followed.
In 1949, he launched the Hansa 1500, Germany’s first pontoon-bodied car. The Hansa 2400 was the first European luxury car to offer automatic transmission option.
But it was the Isabella launched in 1954 that became a dream car in post-war Germany. The perfectly-proportioned Isabella, designed by Borgward on Sunday afternoons on a clay model, showed that a smaller family-sized car didn’t need to be dull. And it was fast. The TS was timed at 0 to 60 mph in around 15.8 seconds and had a top road speed of between 95 and 98 mph, similar to a Ford Capri in the 1970s. Compare that to the Beetle, which took 30 seconds to reach 60 mph and could barely reach a speed of 70.
Like many charismatic figures in the automotive world, Borgward was an engineering genius and a bad manager. The company’s forced liquidation by creditors in 1961 is still controversial and the actual facts may never be known. A smear campaign started by Der Spiegel in January 1961 gave the Bremen state government a pretext to renege on a promise to guarantee a loan the company needed. Faced with the choice of closing down or handing over the company to the local government, Borgward chose the latter. He died in 1963.
Not much has been written about Borgward in English, so I tracked down his biographer Marius Venz by phone in Australia. Venz, author of “Borgward,” speaks perfect German and has read all the primary sources. He is Borgward driver and member of the Borgward Australia Club.
The man put in charge of fixing the company was Johannes Semler, who was also on the board of rival (and also struggling automaker) BMW—a conflict of interest to say the least.
Semler’s cure never materialized, and the company was wound down. Its creditors were all paid off, indicating that it wasn’t bankrupt at all. Many of Borgward’s engineers when to work at BMW, Venz told me.
Here, the story takes a mysterious turn. The prototype of the new Isabella was stolen from a locked room when the company was being wound down, his children told author and family friend Georg Schmidt in in 1997 German-language book “Kaisen und Borgward.”
Venz believes that BMW’s mid-sized 1500 sedan launched in 1962 was a direct descendent of either the Pietro Frua-designed Borgward Hansa 1300 or the never-produced Isabella prototype that Borgward’s children claim was stolen. The Frua prototype was handed over to Borgward’s new owners, and Venz conjectures that the “stolen” Isabella prototype—which included a new engine—could have been too.
The link between Borgward and BMW is Frua, who designed was asked by Hans Glas at automaker Glas to design new mid-sized car shortly after the collapse of Borgward. It was produced in 1964.
“Pietro Frua came up with the Glas 1700 very very quickly, that that struck me,” said Venz. “The designs for the Hansa 1300 and the Glas 1700 are very similar.”
When asked whether the 1964 Glas 1700 was based on a Borgward prototype, Glas refused to comment (as recounted in “Pietro Frua und siene Autos,” by Detlef Lichtenstein.) Like a new Borgward would have, the Glas 1700 competed directly with the BMWs that were being introduced at the time. But Glas folded, and BMW took it over in 1966. The Glas 1700 range was incorporated into the BMW model lineup, but with new BMW engines.
The Glas 1700 was sold as a re-badged a BMW 1500 in South Africa for many years.
BMW did not respond to a request for comment. Even today, more than 50 years later, that’s why a lot of Borgward drivers feel a grudge towards BMW. “If you own a Borgward there is always a bad feeling towards BMW,” said Driscoll. “I would not show any interest in BMW. Most Borgward owners feel the same way.”