Borgward Isabella TS vs Volvo PV544 Special II – how the west was won. What does your car say about you? Young, upwardly mobile American motorists in the Fifties who wanted to be seen as successful but different turned to these two European interlopers. Do they deserve better recognition? Words: Paul Stassino Photography: Gus Gregory.
Just imagine... you’re cruising along Route 66 in your new Chrysler New Yorker when one of two visions takes shape in your rear-view mirror. It could be either a squat two-door saloon with very early Fifties styling or what looks like a 1941 Ford with the grille of a 1939 Dodge. What’s more, regardless of which of these cars it is, it seems to be gaining on you effortlessly - and as it eases past and speeds off into the distance, you’ll have some very unpatriotic doubts concerning the respective merits of tailfins, Torque-Aire ride and TorqueFlite transmission versus imported engineering excellence...
Reassuringly expensive Borward symbolised the growing optimism in postwar West Germany.
The Borgward Isabella TS and Volvo PV544 Special II are two European cars that appealed to those US motorists identified by the great American sociologist Vance Packard in his 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders. These were young, independent- minded professionals who wanted ‘other people to know their status but at the same time want to express it modestly’ and who showed their indifference to corporate ideas through buying a foreign car. At the beginning of their careers they would have favoured a Volkswagen but now they were looking for rather more comfort and performance.
When you look at a 1959 Isabella saloon basking in today’s sunshine you’re seeing a car that embodies the postwar German economic miracle as much as or even more so than the celebrated Mercedes-Benz 190 Ponton. In some ways it conveys a certain sense of flamboyance - the art deco speedo is an especially charming detail and a 1958 facelift gained the Isabella some flamboyant tail- lamps - but for all of its front wings decked in chrome and duo-tone paint the Borgward still looks like a solid family car with equally sober road manners. It’s an impression that’s immediately dispelled when I take it for a drive.
The Isabella doesn’t feel especially rapid for light B-road use as it purrs along gently at 30mph, but it’s something of a snarling beast between 60mph and 90mph. Our car is fitted with the TS (Touring Sport) engine option, which increases the compression ratio from 7.2:1 to 8.2:1, replaces the original carburettor with a twin-choke downdraught Solex and features enlarged inlet and exhaust valves.
Rare survivor: saloon-boated Isabella was less popular with British buyers than the coupe
There are very few cars in their sixth decade that I’d consider using as a commuting vehicle, but the TS is certainly one of them. At a time when the long-stroke, slow-revving engines powering the likes of the Hillman Minx or Morris Oxford were just about up to the task of hauling cars along Britain’s ill-maintained trunk roads, the Isabella was a car built for maintaining an effortless 80mph on the autobahn for hours.
The TS is also remarkably comfortable; the Isabella was Borgward’s first unitary-bodied car and the front and rear suspension units are mounted on bolt-on subframes to minimise vibration. The cabin boasts such practical touches as separate heaters for driver and passenger and split reclining backrests on the front bench. Even the quarterlights are opened via rack-and-pinion handles; and any driver who does not feel inspired by the mere appearance of the art deco instrumentation clearly has no soul.
Perhaps the best phrase for describing the Isabella is ‘refined enthusiasm’: the steering has plenty of feel and although the Borgward does oversteer slightly on bends, never does it wallow in the fashion of its BMC or GM contemporaries. The sight of the gearlever initially conjures horrible flashbacks of the transmission on a 1956 Standard Vanguard Sportsman (my standard benchmark for the utter nadir of a steering-column gearchange) but the all-synchromesh shift is always an utter delight to operate. In fact the Borgward feels so much younger than the date given in its logbook that it is only the braking system - albeit a very decent one by the standards of the day - that reminds me I’m driving a car designed when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister.
After World War Two industrial magnate Dr Carl Borgward divided his empire into three companies to get the most out of the raw materials rationing regulations: Lloyd (for mass transport), Goliath (for delivery vans) and Hansa (saloons for the re-emerging German bourgeois). In 1954 the new Borgward-Hansa 1500 was, to put it simply, the right car launched at the right time.
During die schlechten Jabre - the Bad Years - of the late Forties a middle-class driver would have been hard-pressed to afford a VW but by 1954 the scaled-down Chevrolet clone Opel Kapitan or the Mercedes-Benz 180 were within his financial reach. The new Borgward-Hansa 1500 combined the space (and dignity) of its domestic rivals with performance superior to an Italian import, all at a price of DM 7200 (about £612 in 1954) that comfortably undercut Mercedes’ offering.
At the factory the 1500 was known by the nickname ‘Isabella’ and within a year this became its official name. Early cars weren’t without their teething problems - the screens were prone to leaking, for example - and Ford and GM rivals bestowed upon it the unflattering nickname of ‘crook in evening dress’. By the time the TS option arrived in late 1955 most of the reliability issues had been resolved and 1956 saw the debut of the coupe, allegedly devised by Dr Borgward to deter his wife from buying a VW Karmann-Ghia. Isabella production ended in 1961 in sad - and controversial - circumstances. The state government of Bremen used the claim that the firm was bankrupt to slap a compulsory purchase order on the Borgward factory.
PV engine less powerful than its rival but sounds purposeful and is eager to please. Flamboyant Isabella interior would make early Fifties American car buyers feel right at home. Borgward’s TS-spec engine is a gentle cruiser until provoked - and then it shows its perky side. Volvo cabin prefers down-to-earth functionality over glamour. Commanding driving position.
That forced many potential owners to turn to BMW’s latest ‘Neue Klasse’ 1500. In its homeland the Isabella was an expensive but not unattainable car. But for British motorists, import duties meant that it cost a hefty £350 more than its nearest competitor, the MG Magnette ZB – and only £57 less than the Jaguar 2.4 Special Equipment. But the Borgward’s 1.5-litre engine was arguably as silken (maybe even more so) than the Jaguar’s, and it was only 5mph slower. Motor racing fans watching Bill Blydenstein drive his TS to one class victory after another must have considered buying a foreign car for the very first time.
PV544 IS GO GO GO...
The Volvo PV544 Special II would have been far more exotic than the Borgward to the British motorist of 46 years ago - ironic for a car that prided itself on its low-key appearance.
Volvo’s Amazon was first sold in the UK in 1958 but the PV series was never officially imported in right-hand drive, leading to the mistaken assumption – still commonplace among younger classic enthusiasts - that Volvo history began with the 120.
The Volvo is in the select group of cars I’ve tested whose low-key appearance belies their ability
MEET THE OWNERS
Borgward Isabella TS
'When I turn up to shows in my TS I sometimes look at the other ultra- polished cars and I just wonder.’ Ivan Gardner's TS, which bears the patina of a long and interesting life, is one of the very rare survivors in the UK. The coupe seems to be more common over here than the saloon.’
He has owned it for two years, ‘gradually making improvements on it and using it as it was intended to be used’. In fact Ivan finds the Isabella to be so practical that he’s going to fit a period towbar so he can use it to haul his 1959 speedboat.
Volvo PV544 Special II
Richard Skinner is only the 5C second British owner of this Midnight Blue Volvo. ‘It was bought by a Swedish mechanic as a back-up to his PV544 but that was never required and so it was sold in 1997. As a classic and racing enthusiast of many years’ standing - he is an ardent devotee of Marcos - Richard fully appreciates what the PV544 achieved. ‘It’s not only good-looking but still excellent fun to drive regularly on modern roads. Most British drivers just don’t know what it is - they’re missing out on a great car.’
The PV was imported to the US, where its arrival in 1955 was backed by radio and TV commercials urging suburbanites to ‘Go, go, go in a new Volvo!’ By the end of the decade the Swedish car had a devoted following, appealing to drivers who valued independence of mind and engineering qualities over chromium plate and who liked startling Austin Healey drivers at traffic lights.
Volvo’s quality engineering and design restraint won over US drivers who craved change
So, sitting behind the wheel of an early PV544 is redolent not so much of Swedish pine forests or tundra but of travelling salesmen plodding along dusty turnpike roads through Arkansas or Nebraska. The commanding driving position is a sharp contrast to that of the Isabella, where even a taller occupant feels as though he is peering out; the Volvo’s cabin offers more than enough space to wear a fedora at the wheel.
The stylish Formica-white switchgear of the TS would be totally out of keeping in the Volvo. Even the 121-style speedometer, as fitted to all post-1957 PVs, looks faintly frivolous in such austere surroundings.
In fact I would put the Volvo in the select group of cars I’ve tested whose low-key appearance deliberately belies their ability.
In this exclusive club it rubs shoulders with such as the Peugeot 404 saloon, Saab 96 two-stroke and Lancia 2000i.e. Berlina.
The thick pillars and narrow track are both essential elements of the PV544’s mystique, because this is a Fifties car of a Forties appearance that can give many a Sixties design a run for its money. The steering is light but very direct - the worm and sector system has a precision more akin to that of a rack-and-pinion set-up - allowing a sizeable amount of Volvo to corner at speed.
Our test car may not be powered by the optional B16B ‘Sport’ engine that gave many an MGA Twin Cam a run for its money but it’s pleasingly lively even so, and sounds more strident than the TS’s power unit. Today the Volvo is still more than capable of motoring through the slightly less challenging roads of Middlesex - echoing a memorable Road & Track report that gushed, ‘For a sedan of its engine size, go, go, go it does, does, does.’ The PV’s claustrophobic interior and the transmission system are in direct contrast to the Borgward’s cabin, but when shifting from first to second gear I was reminded of more sage words from Road & Track.
‘A remote shift in place of the long lever would be like having an egg in your beer.’ As with nearly every aspect of the PV544 the system may look dated but it works: the synchromesh is unbeatable, which is not praise that I could hand out to the floor changes of all the PV’s contemporaries. My only gripe is that manipulating the lever needs a certain amount of throw.
But this is only a very minor cavil because, as with the Isabella, the only really weak point with the Volvo is its braking. The Amazon had disc brakes at the front but the PV544 used drums all round until the end of production - and it’s these that ultimately set the limit of how exuberant you can be when driving it.
The original PV444 - so named as it had four seats and a 40-horsepower engine with four cylinders - became Volvo’s first unitary bodied car when it was introduced in 1944, although full production didn’t get under way until 1947. Power was originally from a 1.5-litre OHV engine (another first for Volvo), which was replaced by the 1600cc B16 unit from the Amazon in 1956. Two years later the facelifted PV544 could be recognised by its wider rear seat (hence the ‘5’ prefix) and single-piece windscreen. Four-speed transmission was an option.
Never officially imported to the UK, so PV was as unusual a sight on British roads then as it, it is now
The 120 was originally intended to replace the PV but the older model was so popular, it was still in production in 1965. This particular car is the Special II variant and although this doesn’t give the driver false promise of decadence - the rubber floor matting should reassure him or her on that point - standard equipment does include a cigarette lighter, that four-speed gearbox and an extremely efficient heating system with a two-speed fan.
‘After driving these cars, I arrived at the conclusion that there are few better ways to spend a day’
After my time with the Borgward and the Volvo, I’ve arrived at three solid conclusions. First, my belief in just how much the postwar British motor industry was over-protected and ultimately damaged by import duties was reinforced. In his test report in the Sunday Express of June 17, 1956 Mike Hawthorn wrote, ‘If only the German Borgward Isabella TS was British! As it is, I don’t suppose any British car maker could look at it without a tinge of envy.’ Second, there are few better ways to spend a day. And third, these are both superlatively good motor cars.
My short acquaintanceship with the PV544 is enough to make me appreciate that this is the car that set the template for Volvo’s future successes, remaining eminently competitive opposite far younger-looking rivals right up until the end of production. The PVs that were driven to victory by Gunnar Andersson in the 1958 Midnight Sun Rally and the 1960 Gran Premio, and by Tom Trana in the ’63 and ’64 RAC Rallies are already the stuff of legend; and the PV544’s stock was still high when production ended in 1965.
In 1964 Volvo took four cars to Kenya to prepare for the East African Safari Rally. However, problems resulted in three PV544s returning to Sweden - the remaining one being acquired by Joginder Singh. In 1965 he won the Safari with a comfortable 100-minute margin in a secondhand car of a 20-year-old design with more than 42,000 miles on the clock. That provides proof - if more proof were really needed - that in a PV quality counts for more than tailfins and other sundry gimmicks.
And, as to the automotive magnificence that is a Borgward Isabella TS, I can best conclude with a few words that summarise its unique appeal. The placard placed on the very last model to leave the Bremen plant simply read, Du warst zu gut fiir diese Welt (you were too good for this world). And in so many respects the Isabella TS really was.
With thanks to: The United Kingdom Borgward Drivers' Club (borgward.org.uk) and Kempton Great Engines Trust (kemptonsteam.org).
Paul Doherty. Sheffield-based Paul has owned a series of classics, starting with a Mini and a Ford Cortina 1600E, then two Triumphs - TR6 and Stag - and a Jensen Interceptor. These days his 'very boring’ modern Lexus sits alongside a Morgan Plus 8 he bought new, and a Ferrari 355 GTS.
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