If you live in the U.S., you most likely won’t see a Borgward Isabella Coupé cruising the boulevard or on display at your local classic car show. It’s relatively rare for a car built by a manufacturer that was one of the largest automakers in Germany, second only to Volkswagen. So why did it take me 49 years to see my first one?
The Isabella is powered by a 1.5 L I-4 engine that produced 75 hp and is backed by a 4-speed manual transmission. The powertrain allowed the Isabella to achieve a top speed of 81 mph, but still obtain fuel economy ratings of 28-34 mpg. Weighing in at 2,230 lbs., what the Isabella lacked in power and agility, it made up for in ride comfort, offering four wheel independent suspension. In addition, its wider passenger compartment, and amenities like a clock and cigarette lighter, helped the Isabella gain even more favor among the automotive touring set and the press alike. Price wise, the Isabella was positioned above Opel and Ford, but well below Mercedes, and with the aforementioned luxuries was considered a good value. In 1955, 35 percent of production was geared for the U.S. market, and approximately 5,000 of the 9,537 Isabella Coupés produced were delivered to the U.S., so what happened?
Borgward Company History
The company was founded in 1921 by Carl F.W. Borgward (1890-1963) in Bremen, Germany as the Bremer Kuhlerfabrik Borgward & Co., a producer of automotive radiators. Always the innovator and a dreamer, Borgward also designed a three-wheeled motorcycle dubbed the Blitzkarren, and another three-wheeler known as the Goliath. The company name was changed to Hansa-Lloyd und Goliath-Werke Borgward & Tecklenborg oHG in 1932 upon acquiring Bremer Hansa Lloyd Werke. Borgward’s dream was to produce his own car and the acquisition facilitated this. Hansas continued to be produced until 1939, when the outbreak of World War II forced the company to shift production to military vehicles.
After the war, the company was split into three different divisions, Borgward, Goliath and Lloyd, to give them an advantage for the limited raw materials available that were being rationed out on a per manufacturer basis. Existing as three separate manufacturers ensured three times the raw materials. The Borgward Hansa 1500, introduced in 1949, became the first all-new German car to be produced after the war. In 1952, Borgward continued to be innovative and introduced the first German built automatic transmission. One has to wonder what was going through the minds of the people in charge at Daimler-Benz and Volkswagen, the companies that created the first automobile and the “People’s Car” respectively.
The Borgward Hansa 1500 remained in production until its successor was introduced in 1954. Referred to internally as the Isabella, the new Hansa 1500 was a midsize two-door sedan, and would become the most successful car Borgward had ever produced, selling 11,150 units in its first year of production.
Wanting to expand upon its success, Combi station wagons and Touring Sedans were added to the line in 1955. The TS de Luxe and the Isabella Coupé were added in 1957 when the Isabella name would finally make its way into the rhombus at the center of the grille.
In 1959, Borgward peaked with over 500 U.S. dealers. Borgward also took in $158 million in revenue in 1959, and was viewed so successful, that at one point Chrysler made a bid to gain controlling interest in the company. But in 1960, things went south quickly. A recession in the U.S. lead to the cancellation of 9,000 orders in 1960. Borgward had managed to achieve success in the U.S. in 1957, only to have it come crashing down three years later.
Throughout its history, Borgward had been plagued with “new model pains” often requiring cars to be sent back to the factory to have the kinks ironed out. A recession combined with those mechanical problems was more than what the consumer was willing to bear. Soon, with the order cancelations and mechanical problems plaguing Borgward’s sister company, Lloyd, the auto group soon found itself with a surplus of inventory, and increasing debt. Carl Borgward attempted to obtain loans to allow the company to continue, but a heavily negative press campaign brought those attempts to a close and the remains of the company were sold off to pay off its creditors.
The Borgward as Germany’s Tucker
Many believe there was a conspiracy to take down the ever innovative and growing automotive group not unlike what many suspect happened to the Tucker Car Corporation here in the U.S. Press for the car was uncharacteristically negative, seeming more like a propaganda campaign especially compared to earlier reviews praising the car for its innovations, comfort and value. The theory is that Borgward’s competitors saw the recession in the U.S. as an opportunity to remove a constant thorn in their side, and launched a heavy anti-Borgward campaign in the media, ensuring a loan would never be secured. In addition, the man appointed to oversee the Borgward Groups restructuring, Johannes Semler, only added fuel to the fire, as in 1960 he was appointed to board of BMW, a brand that was on the verge of bankruptcy itself. Many argue that by doing so, the way was cleared for BMW to fill a gap left by the demise of Borgward. BMW certainly thrived in that void, and there was now one less manufacturer continually upon the ante for the other German automakers to try and keep up.
Is the Borgward the German Tucker? We may never know. When you consider the number shipped to the U.S. in only 3 short years, but how few are seen on the street, there just may be something to the mechanical and reliability issues published by the media, meaning many may have been sent off to the crusher as they became too unreliable to maintain. Or maybe they were just too hard to get parts for without a manufacturer to back them. One thing is certain. Your chances of seeing a Borgward on the street are much greater than seeing a Tucker, leaving us to wonder which is worse: Realizing your dream and having your competitors pull it out from under you, or having your competitors squash your dream before you ever get it off the ground.
Thank You Carl Borgward
We love our dreamers, the Borgwards and the Tuckers of the world. They don’t often reap the benefits of those dreams, but their dreams often benefit the world. Whether Borgward’s competitors were behind his company’s demise or not, he did provide the dreams, and the pressure, to force them to build better cars. Thank you Carl Borgward, the automotive world would not have been the same without you.