Borgward’s Masterpiece – the Isabella Coupé
Frau Borgward insisted on a normal home-life, and cars and business were not allowed to be discussed on weekends. On Sunday afternoons, however, she tolerated her husband Carl’s being in his shed, making or fixing things, just like millions of other contented men throughout the world. One thing that he often did was let his creativity run free, and design new cars. He styled nearly all the cars of the Borgward Group, in modelling clay, in his shed. (The exceptions were cars like the Lloyd Frua Coupé or the stillborn Hansa prototype, also by Frua.) The brilliance of his designs, particularly when compared with other (professionally designed!) cars of the nineteen-fifties, confirms that he was a genius.
All his designs were superb, but one stands out as the pinnacle of his creative mastery. That is the Borgward Isabella Coupé. Automotive historian Peter Kurze calls this car the most beautiful automobile of the nineteen-fifties (der schönste Wagen der 50er Jahre) (1), and he can feel reasonably safe that no-one will contradict him. On releasing a new scale-model of the Coupé, Wiking, the most celebrated manufacturer of HO-scale (!/87) models, called it „the automotive dream of the rich and the beautiful“ (der automobilen Traum der Schönen und Reichen)(2).
It is the sort of car that dreams are made of. Several members of this Club own an Isabella Coupé because they saw one just once, and just had to have one. Few cars in the world have such appeal. The Isabella Coupé is, however, not a normal car. Unlike many beautiful cars, its beauty is more than skin-deep. The Isabella sedan on which it is based was the outstanding car of its time for performance, comfort and economy, and the Coupé is every bit as good. Slightly heavier than the sedan, it is more aerodynamic, so its performance is virtually identical to that of the sedan.
The instrument cluster of the Coupé is borrowed from the Borgward Hansa 2400, as were the taillights. This may have been because the 2400 did not sell well, and there were plenty of parts left over, but it is more likely that these were the personal preference of Herr und Frau Borgward. Later, the taillights would be fitted to all Isabella models. The exquisite instrument cluster is one of the very attractive features of the Coupé, although an American magazine claimed that it looked like US design of the late twenties or early thirties. (3)
Although all the Coupé‘s body panels are different from those of the sedan, the grille, bumpers, hubcaps, lights and badging are identical. Most manufacturers sell slightly altered sedans as coupé, and change all the trim parts (which are cheap to tool for) to give the illusion of an all-different car. Borgward didn’t have to stoop to tricks like that. The Isabella sedan was so highly regarded that having the same grille and trim could only be of advantage for the Coupé, and its body was totally different anyway.
Borgward once said that making Coupés was easy money – „cut down roof shorter, make it beautiful, and we can earn twice as much!“ (4) Since the Coupé was virtually hand-built in a special assembly plant, we can assume that this comment was tongue-in-cheek. As was normal in coach-building in the nineteen-fifties, quite a lot of lead was used in filling joins in the bodywork, making body repairs today – particularly where there is rust – more difficult.
According to the rumours in the Borgward factory, Frau Elisabeth Borgward liked the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, and inspired her husband to build a car of similar type. Hers was a prototype, the second one built (Serial Number 346 002), and she received it as a present on Christmas Eve 1956. It is known that she inspected and approved the style of a completed prototype before this. The first prototype was dismantled and the parts used to check against production parts – a normal practice in the industry. One can see some distant similarity to the Karmann-Ghia in the Coupé, and also to the Mercedes Benz 190 SL, but the Borgward has a style all its own, and achieves its striking appearance through purity and harmony of line. All three cars are outstanding examples of European sports car design of their time, and are worthy of the high status they have as the outstanding collectible cars.
From the beginning, the style of the Isabella Coupé made it a classic. In America, Walt Woron of Motor Trend was „taken by her fine lines“. (5) In Britain, W.B. in Motor Sport described it as „distinctive and distinguished looking“, adding that the lines were „so Continental as to arouse glances of interest and admiration from bystanders.“ (6) and John Bolger in Autosport called it „exceptionally attractive“ (7) The Australian motoring writer Doug Blain was one of the few who disagreed, writing „You may think it is beautiful, we don’t“ (8) – but the Editor headed the road test „Elegant Borgward Isabella TS Coupé“, and on another page „Beautiful Borgward Isabella TS Coupé“! He was, though, incorrect in calling the Coupé TS – it did use the TS running gear, but the TS name was used only for the sedan.
Today, the Isabella Coupé is spoken of in superlatives. Stefan Heins in the German magazine Markt wrote: „Other firms built middle-class motor cars, Borgward built a legend. The star among the beautiful cars was the Isabella Coupé.“ (9) Only 9537 Isabella Coupés were built, but in our Club – as in many other Borgward Clubs throughout the world – they’re the most popular model. That is a good indication of their lasting appeal. They are, by a considerable margin, the most expensive Borgward model, but still cheaper than an equivalent MB 190SL or Karmann-Ghia, and thus one of the great bargains in the world of collectible cars.
1.          Kurze, Peter: „Borgward im Blick“, Verlag Peter Kurze, Bremen, 2003
2.         Wiking Neuheiten-Katalog, August 2000
3.         Steiger, Christian: „Fräulein Wunder“, Schrader Verlag, Stuttgart, 1997
4.        Road and Track August 1958, reprinted in Brooklands Roadtest Limited Edition, Cobham UK page 42
5.         Motot Trend, Oct 1958, reprinted in ibid., page 40
6.        Motor Sport January 1959, reprinted in ibid., page 49
7.         Autosport 28 Feb 1958, reprinted in The Borgward Book, Marque Publishing Company, Wyoming NSW, 2003, p. 126
8.         SCW August 1960, reprinted in Borgward Car Club of Australia Newsletter, Summer 1999
9.        Markt magazine, Dezember 2000, page 8
Written by Marius Venz, copyright © 2010 Borgward Car Club of Australia. The use of this article by other not-for-profit car clubs is permitted, provide that full credit is given.