The story of Preston Tucker and his car is as well known to us as the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp: Better-looking and technologically superior to the competition, the “game-changing” 48 (née Torpedo) was brought down by a combination of an obtuse and hostile press and mean-spirited competitors and government officials. Germany has an equivalent if not a superior brand to Tucker: Borgward. But while the Chicago-based American carmaker folded after just 51 units were completed, Borgward was the fourth-largest car company in Germany and employed more than 20,000 people in its heyday. Quite an achievement for any major competitor. Though, it would hardly seem that they were one of the top runners in the yester years, it is absolutely true. They were sold under the Lloyd, Hansa, Goliath, and Borgward brands.
Conceived and named after the charismatic industrialist who had a multi faceted personality, Carl F. W. Borgward, the cars were stylish and brimming with cutting-edge technology. The Isabella is considered by some to be one of the most beautiful cars of its era as if it were the Marilyn Monroe of the automobile Hollywood; the Borgward 2400 was an early fastback sedan, available with an in-house automatic transmission; its successor, the P100, was one of the fastest cars in its segment and fitted with an air suspension, including an innovative anti-roll and anti-dive system. Some models were exported to the U.S.
The engineering passion that drove Borgward contributed to its downfall. It can be considered like the story of Narcissus who fell in love with the reflection of himself in water. The energy and enthusiasm which was a pillar and a major contributor in the company’s success; became the nemesis. Each brand had its own engineering and purchasing departments; there was little commonality among the cars and each model and variant was distinct from the other cohorts, and sometimes but more often than not, the company found itself short on cash.
In December 1960, a cover story in the magazine Der Spiegel ridiculed Borgward’s engineering-driven and impulsive style and highlighted the company’s financial travails. The senate of the city-state of Bremen, where Borgward was headquartered, seized the opportunity to renege on a pledge to vouch for a credit that Borgward needed to move forward. The move was informed by emotions as much as facts: The ruling Social Democrat Party in Bremen hated Carl Borgward, a feeling that the old-school industrialist reciprocated.
Given the alternative to close down immediately or hand over his company to the state, Borgward chose to give up his assets to Bremen; the senate put in charge Johannes Semler, a manager who simultaneously headed BMW’s supervisory board.
BMW, of course, was a direct competitor of Borgward and no need to mention it always has been a big name in the automotive industry. Semler’s half-baked attempts to save Borgward came to an end less than a year later. But after the company closed its doors, all creditors were paid off, casting severe doubt over the claims that Borgward was in desperate financial shape.
As a result of its moment of triumph and subsequent meddling with the company, the city-state of Bremen lost almost 20,000 jobs and millions in tax revenue; on a larger scale, Borgward’s downfall became the first ominous crack in the German postwar Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle.”
Many assets were shipped to Mexico, and the P100 was assembled there until 1970. A late-1970s attempt to resurrect Borgward with a new car that put carry-over technology under the skin of an AMC Hornet never came to fruition.
Now Borgward is back. In 2008, the founder’s grandson, Christian Borgward, teamed up with former Saab and Daimler PR executive Karlheinz Knöss; last year, they sold the rights to the brand to Beiqi Foton Motor in China. At the Geneva auto show, Foton will give a glimpse of its future plans—which include launching a Borgward-badged premium model before the end of the year.
It’s good to see the great, if largely forgotten, Borgward nameplate back on the market. The older generations might remember the name or even some of them might still own it. The nostalgia beckons as the long lost name surges back into media. To live up to the company’s heritage, the new models—the first teaser for the Geneva car is pictured below—need to offer style and cutting-edge technology. Let’s hope Foton can pull it off and launch a few cars that Carl F. W. Borgward would be proud of.