Feature Story

COLLECTIBLE BORGWARD ISABELLA '55-'61

by Bob Hagin

January 09, 1998

Not long ago I was driving down a side street in my home town and came across a mint condition '58 Borgward Isabella Coupe, a car that in its day was amazingly advanced and an outstanding seller in this country. At one time in the mid'50s, Borgward was the second-best selling car in Germany right behind the less expensive Volkswagen Bug.

In those days I was into amateur sports car racing and being of modest means, the only way I could participate was to drive an Anglia, a tiny British-built Ford that was a "demo" for the dealer that I worked for. The Anglia was as underpowered as my racing endeavor was undercapitalized but by making some illegal but undetectable changes, I could coax a few more mile-per-hour out of the little car.

But in my first race behind the wheel of my tiny mount, my ego was totally deflated when my friend Bob Potter swept past me at the wheel of a Borgward Isabella two-door sedan. Potter's car was fresh off a showroom floor and still sported whitewall tires plus all its street equipment. To add insult to injury, as Potter drove past steering with one hand, he waved, reached over to the dash and turned up the volume on its fancy radio. He didn't win the race, but he took the checkered flag several laps ahead of me.

Carl Borgward was a German industrialist who was a maverick, to say the least. He got his start at the turn of the century and by the time World War II rolled around, he almost unilaterally controlled one of the largest auto making companies in Germany. It involved three separate brands (Goliath, Hansa and Borgward) and utilized some of the most advanced manufacturing equipment in Europe.

Unfortunately for Borgward, his Bremen plant was involved in war production and was nearly obliterated by Allied bombers. To further complicate his life, he was tried and convicted of employing slave labor in his plant and had to service nearly three years in prison. Once he was released, he reassumed control of his factory and began a whirlwind renovation of his empire.

In the '30s Borgward had produced three-wheeled light-weight delivery trucks and passenger cars that were perfectly suited to the fractured economy of Germany. On his release, he undertook to produce updated version for the reconstruction of that country.

It was a success, and Borgward went on to design the first truly modern German car, the Borgward Hansa 1500, which was the star of the Geneva auto show in 1949. It utilized independent suspension front and rear, unit construction and a "pontoon" body similar to those that had appeared in the US a year or two before. The Hansa was developed over the next few years to encompass a sports model and a station wagon.

Typical of his maverick spirit, Borgward also produced a string of purpose-built RS sports racers that were known in those days as "Porsche Baiters" because of their annoying habit of sporadically beating the much more numerous Porsche racing brigade. The fact that he employed such "name" drivers as Porsche star Hans Hermann and Formula One front-runner Jo Bonnier helped the Borgward effort considerably.

The company continued its tradition of building small, popular cars and while they were very popular in Europe, Borgward aspired to make an upscale car that could penetrate the lucrative American market as well.

The result was the Borgward Isabella, a 1500 cc two-door sedan that made its debut in 1955. During if half-dozen years of existence, It was produced in convertible, station wagon and coupe as well as sedan form. The coupe was the most attract of the line, enough so that it was reported to be the favorite "personal" car of movie star David Niven.

One of its first US Borgward dealers were the three Block brothers of Oakland (CA). The Blocks had a reputation for taking on "odd-ball" cars of all description including the strange little East German Wartburg, a car for which repair parts were never available. The unknown Borgward was therefore a natural for them and it was the Blocks who supplied the car that Bob Potter so thoroughly humiliated me with.

The Isabella coupe I stumbled upon is owned by Curt Hoffman, a true Borgward enthusiast. Hoffman owns five "Borgs" (a name that appears on the license plate of his mustard colored coupe) and has had various examples of them for several decades. He's a member of a local Borgward owner's club as well a a national organization that lists over 100 owners around the country.

The Borgward company met an untimely demise in 1961, when it was closed by the local Bremen government under circumstances the remain unclear to this day. The production machinery showed up in Mexico in 1967 where the Fabrica Nacional de Automoviles S.A. actually produced several dozen replicas of a large six-cylinder Borgward that had just begun production in Germany before the company collapsed.

Bob Potter and I have both "retired" from competition but he never lets me forget how soundly he trounce me that day in 1956. A couple of years later, I accused Potter of modifying the Borgward he drove that day. "You're right," he said. "Carl (Block) made me take off the hubcaps before I went on the grid."

I never brought up the subject again.

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