ISABELLA, THE BEST-REMEMBERED BORGWARD
Carl Borgward built a wide variety of brilliant, memorable cars, but none so well-known, loved, or admired as the Isabella. Hard to believe that the gorgeous lady has had her fiftieth birthday, but she hit that mark in June 2004. Although she might not want us to talk about that, it’s a reason to look at her history and give her the attention that she deserves.
Why is Isabella so special? There’s a combination of reasons. Firstly, her styling was just right. Secondly, she had a brilliant motor. Thirdly, she had brilliant handling. Fourthly, her timing was perfect. Fifthly, she was called Isabella. Any of those factors would have made this car special, but all together, they make her one of the absolutely outstanding cars of the mid-twentieth century. Let’s look at each factor in turn.
Carl Borgward, the industrialist, styled his own cars as a hobby. His wife Elisabeth wouldn’t allow any car or business talk to impinge on the family’s life, but on Sunday afternoons Carl was allowed to retreat to his shed in the garden (which, incidentally, still exists, just as he left it.) Here he made things, repaired them or, when the creative urge took him, styled new cars in modelling clay. He had clear ideas about how a car should look, as the strong family resemblance between Lloyd, Goliath and Borgward shows. He was a master of proportion, he had an eye for detail, and he had the excellent and rare taste to know which features hang together to make an integrated, harmonious style. He loaded the Isabella with details – curves and flanges, sweeping window lines, ostentatious taillights, bright-metal trim – yet the car in no way looks overloaded; rather, it is understated. Only a real master could do that. It exactly met the taste of the nineteen-fifties, and it still looks good today. A pretty young German tourist described my Isabella as “ein Auto zum Verlieben” – a car to fall in love with. That sums it up perfectly.
Karl-Ludwig Brandt, a modest, retiring man who rode a bicycle to work, was a genius at motor design and development. He developed the Isabella motor by using it in Borgward Rennsport sports racing cars. (They came second to Porsche in the 1953 sports racing championship.) He knew that tiny modifications made a huge difference to motor performance, and laboriously made small change after small change until he had an absolutely optimal motor. Wheels magazine, in their 1960 road-test, asked an unsuspecting passenger how many cylinders, and what capacity, the Isabella motor had. He was sure it was a 2.2 litre six. I have tried this, and people still say the same thing, forty-four years later. After Borgward was forced out of business, the engineering staff was hired, almost in its entirety, by BMW. Even though Karl-Ludwig Brandt himself chose not to join them, today BMW builds the world’s best motors, and that’s not coincidence.
Here is an anecdote that tells a great deal about Borgward, and Brandt. One Monday morning, after Borgward Rennsports had fared badly in the weekend’s racing, Dr. Borgward stormed into the engine development section and shouted: „Herr Brandt, Ihre Motoren sind Mist!“ (Mr. Brandt, your motors are manure, or another word that means the same thing!) A little bit more fine tuning, and the same motors won convincingly the next week. Borgward returned, obviously conciliatory: „Herr Brandt...“ The motor engineer just turned his back on him and said: „Ja, ich weiß, meine Motoren sind Mist!“ (Yes, I know, my motors etc.) There were very few people who could have treated Carl Borgward that way and still kept their jobs!
Borgward had introduced independent, swing-axle suspension with transverse leaf springs on the 1934 Hansa 1100, and it then became a feature of all Hansa/Borgward cars. The Isabella received four coil suspension, giving a significant boost to its ride and handling, and this was further optimised by extensive testing and development. Australian road-testers raved about the car’s ride and handling, and so does everyone who rides in an Isabella today. Drive over a dirt road in another car and then in an Isabella, and one thinks that the grader has just been over it. An Isabella driver has to learn not to follow other cars too closely in corners, because they will slow down when the Isabella doesn’t need to. But here’s a warning – for all their virtues, swing axles can be very treacherous if you try to brake in a corner!
By the time the Isabella reached the market in 1954, die schlechten Jahre – the bad years – had passed, the bombed-out ruins were being cleared, the economic miracle was happening, and an ever growing German middle class was starting to enjoy a modest prosperity. A few years before, only a high earner could have afforded a Volkswagen, but now the upper-middle class could afford a car one class up. GM (Opel) and Ford (Taunus) offered cars with fashionable American styling but simple engineering, which (while selling very well) had little appeal for sophisticated buyers. Mercedes Benz was too expensive, DKW’s two-stroke motors were going out of style, and BMW still had only the Isetta or overly-expensive luxury cars. The Isabella was the right car at the right time, and it became the dream car of a generation. As Germany’s prosperity further increased, more and more people could fulfill that dream. It actually created a new class of car, the medium sized, luxury sports sedan. The BMW 3-Series, Mercedes Benz C-Klasse and the Audi A4 – and their numerous imitators – are the direct descendants of the Borgward Isabella.
In Australia, the post-war car shortage was over, and discerning buyers were starting to look for something better than last year’s engineering (which hadn’t been particularly good last year!) in a new body style. The Isabella was just what they were looking for, although its price (inflated by tariffs designed to keep trade in the British Commonwealth) was around 50% more than that of a six cylinder Holden. The Isabella became the standard by which road-testers judged other cars, meaning that other cars were strongly criticised. Today, our motoring magazines are rightly proud of the way in which they have forced the local motoring industry to build better cars. We can be very proud that the Borgward played an important, if indirect, role in this improvement. Any car enthusiast who can remember the nineteen-fifties, remembers the Isabella as the outstanding car of its time.
The fifties were characterised by the concept of glamour, by film stars and pin-up girls. The dream woman was suddenly a bleach-blonde with garish make-up, long eyelashes, and a mink coat. That was a natural reaction to a decade of depression and nearly that long of war, when hard-working women with worry-lines on their faces had worn old, plain clothes. A glamorous car with a slightly exotic, feminine name passed perfectly to this preoccupation with the glamorous dream-woman. The name Isabella was just what a car needed to raise it from “outstanding car” to “dream-car”.
It had been intended to give the car the familiar name of Borgward Hansa 1500, but prototypes had been tested on public roads with the camouflage name ‘Isabella’ on them, and the engineering staff, true to the mentality of the time, affectionately referred to a test car as ‘Isabella’, rather than ‘the car’. When the new car was released to the press, an engineer accordingly called it Isabella instead of Hansa 1500. The journalists so liked the name that Carl Borgward was forced to accede. The car was re-christened, and only first few hundred cars built had no Isabella script on the back.
Carl Borgward was proud of the new name, especially since he was the one who had suggested it. A technician had come into his office asking for a suggestion for a false name, and Borgward (annoyed by the pointless interruption) snapped that at him. Years later, Borgward’s son revealed that Isabella had been a Spanish hotel keeper who had flirted with Dr. Borgward during a 1953 family holiday, which his wife had held over him for months afterwards!
Isabella did have a bad side. The car had been developed in a hurry and rushed on to the market before all the teething problems had been ironed out. Only thirty-four people, including secretarial staff, had been involved in the design and development! Problems were experienced with front suspensions and engine bearings. Significantly, both were solved when component suppliers were able to raise their quality. However, jealous competitors who saw their market position threatened began a vicious smear campaign, and the Isabella was called ‘die Traumfrau mit der schmutzigen Unterwäsche’ (the dream woman with the dirty underwear) or the ‘Gauner im Frack’ (crook in a dress suit). Sales really did suffer. Some people said they had bought an Isabella just to defy the smear campaign, but such independent thinkers are all too rare.
That couldn’t change the fact that the Isabella has become an icon, a legend, ein Mythos. Whether as sedan, as the Combi that came in 1955 or as the Coupé that came in 1957, Isabella is one of the greatest cars of the nineteen-fifties, a monument to highest engineering skill and outstanding aesthetic design. Long live Isabella! As long as there are people who appreciate good cars, she will always be young.
Written by Marius Venz Copyright © 2010 Borgward Car Club of Australia Inc. May be printed by other not-for-profit car clubs provided full credit is given.