Was this the New Borgward Isabella?

By Marius Venz Borgward Car Club of Australia


In his book „Kaisen und Borgward“ (1), Georg Schmidt, a long-time friend of the Borgward family, reports on an interview about the dirty business that occurred at the time of the Borgward Group’s being compulsorily acquired by the government of the state of Bremen.

There was a break in the conversation, then Monica Borgward resumed. “And then there was also the mysterious story of the disappearance of the new ‘Isabella’ ....”
Her brother Claus Borgward took up the thread. “Yes, that’s a puzzle that hasn’t been solved up to the present day. It gives an indication of how our father thought ahead – or, in this case, built ahead. Together with his head constructor Heiko Dziggel he had – as was his way of doing things – built the prototype of a new, improved and even more elegant ‘Isabella’ in a secret chamber. There it stood in a locked room, ready to go into production. Only two people had the key to that room: my father and Director Wilhelm Gieschen – so that there would be no premature publicity. People from the press are like wild animals when they get the scent of something new, as we all know! Well, one day the lock was broken open and the ‘Isabella’ had disappeared. My father had seen it in January, shortly before he was dispossessed of the firm. It was expected to be a huge commercial success, and it would have been that, too, if it hadn’t been for ...
Today that’s all gone and past, like the snow from last winter.”

The report of an Isabella prototype is tantalising. What would it have looked like, how would it have sold?

It has been commonly believed that the Isabella would have been based on the Hansa 1300 prototype, designed by the Italian stylist and carossier Pietro Frua. This was also stated in our Australian Borgward book, but I now believe this assumption to be untrue. Frua had, since he had designed the Lloyd Coupé, enjoyed a good relationship with Borgward. He had been engaged in an advisory capacity as Carl Borgward designed the Big Borgward P100, and now he had designed a complete car for full production, the new Hansa – which, by the way, would have been fuel-injected! Carl Borgward is said to have liked the prototype very much. However, this prototype survived, and was bought from the liquidators of the company by a lawyer in Bremen, and still survives. It is therefore clearly NOT the Isabella prototype that Monica and Claus Borgward were talking about. The Goliath 1300 is even pictured in another part of Georg Schmidt’s book, with the caption “The Hansa 1300 was planned to roll from the assembly lines of the Goliath works in 1962. With its modern styling it would have been twenty years ahead of its time – but it was never produced.” Perhaps it was not twenty years ahead of its time, but it was certainly an attractive, very up-to-date style. Monica and Claus Borgward would have certainly known about this car, and were clearly talking about something quite different in their discussion about the Isabella prototype. Since the Hansa was front-wheel drive and Borgwards traditionally rear-wheel drive, this also suggests that there were two different prototypes.
It is, however, very plausible that Frua might have styled the new Isabella. Carl Borgward was seventy and, forward thinker that he was, was planning to hand over the firm to his sons, one of whom was studying Engineering and the other Business Management. Dr. Borgward had always styled his own cars, including the Hansa 1100 and the Isabella, but now he was grooming a house stylist. It is clear that this was Pietro Frua. The Isabella prototype, one can surmise, would have been larger and more elegant than the Hansa 1300, but still have had a strong family resemblance. Because Borgward was a relatively small manufacturer, it would have been designed to be made with limited tooling.
Shortly after Borgward’s closure, Hans Glas, maker of the Goggomobil, realised that the mini-car boom was over, and tried to move up-market. His head engineer developed a new motor that would be the inspiration for all modern designs – the first motor with a timing belt. For the styling and body structure, he turned to an Italian designer who already had worked for a German manufacturer – Pietro Frua! Frua, it is recorded, came up with a new design, ready for production, carefully planned to be made with limited tooling, in an amazingly short time. The car bore a strong resemblance to the Goliath 1300, but was larger and more elegant. It was put into production as the Glas 1700, and was highly praised by the motoring press, particularly for its superb styling, which was exactly in tune with the tastes of the time for a quality sedan.
Now, if you were Frua, and had designed a new Isabella, only to learn with disappointment that it would never be built, and you then received an assignment to design a car of nearly identical specifications, what would you have done? The Government of the state of Bremen and the administrator they appointed were clearly not dedicated to saving the company. It wouldn’t have taken much to get them to return the Isabella prototype. We have only circumstantial evidence that this is what happened, but it’s hard to conclude anything else.
A book the works of Frua (2) provided most of the evidence outlined above. Interestingly enough, it states that the Glas 1700 was not based on the new Isabella, because the Glas was not the same as the Hansa 1300 prototype. This overlooks the possibility that Frua might have built two different prototypes for the Borgward Group. It does, however, report that Hans Glas refrained from comment, when he was asked if the Glas 1700 were the Isabella prototype!
Glas had over-extended himself in his efforts to move up several classes higher (there were even some beautiful Frua-designed coupés in his range – could one of these have been the planned replacement for the Isabella Coupé?) His firm was taken over by BMW, which continued production of the coupés, the small cars and even the Goggomobil micro-car. The Glas 1700, however, was an embarrassment – it competed directly with the BMW 1500 and 1800 which, with their rather bulky styling by Michelotti, were considered less attractive. The tooling was shipped to South Africa, where, re-fitted with a BMW engine, it was built as a BMW until the early 1970s. Initially it had the Glas grille (which resembled the grille of the Hansa 1300!), but Frua later received the job of re-styling the front to make it look like a BMW, which he did very competently. My guess is that the original prototype had a rhombus in the grille. It was apparently known as the 'BMW Cheetah'.
Now we come to the wonderful coincidence. As Borgward closed, most of the engineering staff were hired by BMW. This was an important coup for BMW, since the best of their staff had stayed in the Russian Zone at their old factory in Eisenach (in the state of Thüringen) after the war. There they built the superb range of EMW cars and, later, the beautifully styled Wartburg 311. After the war BMW itself had either built over-costly, over-engineered luxury cars or mini-cars with motor-cycle engines. That showed how desperately they needed good engineers.
The new BMW 1500, which saved the nearly-bankrupt company, was superbly engineered. One of its best features was the ohc 1500 cc motor, which had been largely designed by ex-Borgward engineers and seemed to have Borgward thinking in its design. Many Borgward fans claimed bitterly that BMW stood for Borgward macht weiter (Borgward continues on)! Was the BMW engine the planned new Isabella motor? Perhaps not directly, but if you were part of a team of engineers and had just designed a new ohc version of a highly esteemed motor that would never be built, and your new employer told you to design a new ohc 1500 cc motor, what would you do? It is said that you can even use BMW engine bearings in a Borgward motor, although they’re 1mm narrower. BMW took over Borgward’s reputation as builder of the world’s best motors, and still holds that title today.
BMW South Africa thus re-united the new Isabella engine with the new Isabella body. Isabellas had been very popular in South Africa, and we can suppose that many Borgward owners traded to BMW Cheetahs, and would have felt very much at home in the new, improved car. Perhaps some of them even realised what they had.
Now imagine, if you can, that it’s 1963 and that you have around 1700 Pounds with which to buy a new car. Kenneth Wrights (or whoever the Borgward dealer is in your state) has cars with rhombuses in the grilles and Isabella badges, and the styling of the Glas 1700/BMW. Would you buy one? Be honest, you wouldn’t consider anything else! Claus Borgward was right – the new Isabella would have been a huge commercial success, and would have projected the Borgward company to new heights of prosperity, and ensured that it was still thriving today.

1. Georg Schmidt „Kaisen und Borgward“, Johann Heinrich Döll Verlag, Bremen 1997
2. Detlef Lichtenstein „Pietro Frau und seine Autos“, Verlag Peter Kurze, Bremen 2001

Copyright © 2010 Borgward Car Club of Australia Inc. Written by Marius Venz. Use by other not-for-profit car clubs permitted provided full credit is given.

Marius Venz
Borgward Car Club of Australia link