Journal: The Borgward Brand Is Back

The Borgward Brand Is Back

By Jennifer Clark
March 26, 2015

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.”

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1 year ago

I have owned two TS’s, the first of which I paid 2000 South African Rand and the second one I paid 30,000 SA Rand and the difference between the two, although 14 years apart, was to my mind, negligible. Both cars that I absolutely loved. I have also owned two BMW 2002’s and they were also magnificent cars and if the BMW did originate from Borgward, then it shows.

Marius Venz
Marius Venz
9 years ago

Congratulations to Jennifer Clark on a well-written, well-researched article.
There can be no doubt that BMW benefitted from Borgward’s demise, but then so did Ford Germany (who took over most of Borgward’s dealers) and Mercedes Benz (who have finished up with the Borgward factory, a very important part of their current manufacturing facilities.) However, I do not believe that BMW was the instigator of the disaster; Semler may have been on their payroll, but there is a lot of evidence that he was working independently, or for someone bigger or more powerful than the nearly-bankrupt (at that time) BMW. Don’t forget that Opel and Mercedes Benz had every reason to tremble at the thought of the Big Borgward P100, which posed a major threat to their highly profitable Kapitän and 220SE models, respectively. The P100 was technically far more advanced, better looking and very competitively priced. However, the real behind-the-scenes string-pullers may well have been outside the automotive industry. There were, apparently, some people who deeply resented Carl Borgward because of his working-class origins, or because of the way he took over the nearly bankrupt Hansa-Lloyd works for a fraction of their value (and treated its directors with contempt.) According to Georg Schmidt, the files on the case remained closed when he tried to research who the string-pullers were. Somebody is desperate to keep the facts covered up – and to see the blame placed on poor old BMW. Just for the record, I drive a 1990 BMW E30, because it’s the closest I can get to a modern Borgward! If Borgward really does get back into production, that will give me reason to change – but not if all they have to offer is an SUV.

9 years ago

what borgward model is pictured on the first photo from the left above the dealership photograph ……. also for future interests I think you should find some way to sign the ….. model and make or in case of events like godwood maybe names of important persons ….

Vincent Kemp
Vincent Kemp
9 years ago
Reply to  Adam

It’s a Goliath GP 700 Sport.

9 years ago

Thanks for the write-up on a very interesting marque! Good to see them back!

It’s for years been a public secret among some euro car enthusiasts that a struggling BMW “helped” Borgward go bankrupt and survived mainly because of Borgward disappearing. I’m not so sure BMW’s [i]Neue Klasse[/i] would have been a success if Borgward had been around. Borgward was the go to marque for many people, whereas BMW seemed to lack both direction and a model lineup.

As for inventing the sports sedan, I think that prize must be given to Alfa Romeo. Their 1900 model hit the market three years before the Isabella and was quite a bit faster.

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