1959 Borgward Isabella
1959 Borgward Isabella; by Lothar Spurzem. Click image to enlarge

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By Bill Vance

Although Borgward is now little remembered in North America, it was once a well regarded German car builder with roots going back in the early twentieth century to a Bremen tire company. It soon abandoned tires to make products like farm implements and kitchen appliances, and components such as radiators for the auto industry. An employee named Carl F.W. Borgward rose to the position of chief engineer, and by 1921 the 31-year-old had gained control and renamed it Bremer Kuhlerfabrik Borgward & Company.

Always interested in motor vehicles, he was producing a three-wheeled delivery cart called the Goliath by 1924. The company prospered with Goliaths and some four-wheel models and in the late 1920s Borgward earned a seat on the board of luxury car maker Hansa-Lloyd, also in Bremen. By 1932, Borgward and partner Wilhelm Techlenborg, were able to take over Hansa-Lloyd, renaming it, rather awkwardly, as Hansa-Lloyd und Goliath Werk Borgward & Techlenborg.

Their first passenger vehicle was the 1932 three-wheeled Goliath Pioner minicar with a 200-cc, two-stroke 5-1/2 horsepower engine in a leatherette-clad, wood-framed body. They graduated to conventional cars, and then in 1938 the company received shock when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler decreed that each German car company must concentrate on one model size only, with the small class reserved for the state-sponsored Volkswagen. The company lost its prosperous small cars, but the impact was largely cancelled because auto production soon ended for the Second World War.

After the war, Carl Borgward, like others, was incarcerated by American occupation authorities for using slave labour during the war. He served 34 months and in his absence his colleagues revived modest truck production in the bomb damaged Bremen plant, which had ended up in the Western controlled zone. Borgward reorganized into three brands: the small Lloyd, mid-market Goliath and upscale Borgward. Carl Borgward kept them strictly separated within Carl F.W. Borgward GmbH.

Each division pursued its separate path, and Borgward’s big post-war breakout was the Hansa 1500 sedan, soon renamed the Borgward Hansa 1500. Launched at the 1949 Geneva auto show, it had a full envelope body design with a 1.4-litre, overhead valve, 52-horsepower engine. This led to the most popular of all Borgwards, the Isabella introduced in 1954. It was the car that brought the Borgward brand to North America.

The Isabella was a thoroughly modern, 1,012-kg (2,230-lb) two-door, unit construction sedan with attractive lines and a grille featuring a large, trademark diamond shaped badge in the middle. The 2,601 mm (102.4 in.) wheelbase and 4,382 mm (173 in.) length gave ample room for four or occasionally five passengers, and underneath was a four-wheel independent suspension with A-arms in front, swing axles at the rear and coil spring all around. A station wagon and convertible were soon added. Price was in the $2,500 range.

The 60-horsepower 1.5-litre overhead valve four sent power to the rear wheels via a column-shifted, fully synchronized four-speed transmission and hydraulic clutch. Performance was quite respectable for this class of car, with Road & Track (7/’55) reporting zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 22.4 seconds and a top speed of 130 km/h (80.6 mph).

It wasn’t long before the quest for more performance brought the Isabella TS (Touring Sport) version with the engine increased to 75 horsepower which R&T (9/’56) estimated as equivalent to 82 SAE horsepower. It had higher compression, a hotter cam and more carburetion. This dropped the zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time to 16 seconds and raised top speed to 149 km/h (92.8 mph). This was robust performance for a 1.5-litre sedan and not far off the Volvo 444 which was well known for its sparkling performance.

The real icing on the Isabella cake came in 1957 with the arrival of the very attractive Isabella sport coupe. Based on the same mechanicals as the sedan, it was to the sedan what the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was to the Beetle, somewhat like a more luxurious, higher performance K-G. It had the same 75 horsepower as the Isabella TS sedan, although the sleeker body made gave it a 114-mm (4.5-in.) lower profile. In spite of weighing 73 kg (160 lb) more than the TS, R&T (8/’58) found its performance close at zero to 96 (60) in 17.5 and top speed of 145 (90.2 mph).

In spite of the practical Isabella in several configurations including the sporty, attractive coupe, a larger six cylinder P 100 luxury car and its line of Lloyd and Goliath small cars, questionable management brought the Borgward Group to financial difficulties. The Bremen government refused to give it life saving loans, and Borgward closed its doors in 1961. It had produced over 200,000 Isabellas in all forms.

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