Right car, wrong time? The Borgward conundrum. Was the German company’s advanced but ill-fated Hansa destined to fail? Carl Borgward’s Hansa 1100 had an advanced specification for the late 1950s, but was it the model that he should have been making? Jon Pressnell has his doubts… Photography Tony Baker. Archive Peter Kurze/LAT.
The Hansa 1100 was well ahead of the game. It had a water-cooled 1093cc aluminium flat-four. It had front-wheel drive. It had rack steering and an all-synchro gearbox. In comparison, a Ford Taunus 12M – rear-drive, of course – had a sidevalve in-line engine, a three-speed gearbox, and steering by worm and roller.
“To have front-wheel drive and a flat-four back in the late 1950s was quite something,” says owner Jacques Paquereau of his 1959-season Hansa 1100, thought to be the only survivor in France. Back in 1957, when it was launched, as the Goliath 1100, the modestly sized German saloon would certainly seem to have had an irresistible specification. After all, it would be 1961 before Lancia came out with its front-drive flat-four Flavia. There was then a further five years before Subaru adopted the same configuration.
Walk around the Paquereau car and you can’t help thinking that it seems a bit porky and oldfashioned for ’59, the year in which Pininfarina’s sharp-edged new look started to arrive across Europe. Still, it’s adequately glassy, roomy inside, and there’s a huge boot, with the fuel tank cunningly wrapped around the spare wheel.
The interior, in two-tone vinyl with grey polka-dot cloth seats, isn’t a bad place to be. You sit low, behind a big white wheel, facing cream dials with black lettering and gold detailing – all very 1950s German. The diagonally split front seatback is a thoughtful feature and the quality touch of ball-bearing rollers for the sliders ensures that the seat goes back and forward easily. On the other hand, there are penny-pinching omissions – no tripmeter, parcel shelf or storage pockets – and a certain crudeness about the way panels such as the bootlid are constructed.
The Hansa drives well. The 40bhp flat-four is throaty at low revs, but it smooths out, and you can cruise happily if a little noisily at 55-60mph. The engine delivers enough torque for you to hang onto the higher ratios, and gear-changing is gratifyingly pleasurable. Mated to a sweet clutch, the dash-operated lever has an easy and welloiled action, with just the right amount of travel.
The steering uses a high-mounted rack with long relay shafts and two fabric universal joints. It impresses equally, being fluid, precise and with no lost motion, yet never becoming heavy; doubtless that all-alloy engine keeps front-end weight under control. The brakes, meanwhile, have a medium travel and stop the car effectively.
At the front there’s a transverse leaf spring forming the upper arms and broad-based lower wishbones allied to long-stroke front dampers. At the rear you’ll find a dead axle on leaf springs, with angled telescopics. Chassis behaviour is the mixed bag you might expect – but no disgrace.
Adhesion seems good, but at the price of a fair bit of lean in bends; punt the Hansa through a roundabout and it will certainly roll. A generally gentle and under-damped ride turns lively on rough roads, to the point of a turbulent restlessness. Who’s to say, though, that the current dampers – Simca 1100 rears at the front and Aronde units at the back – might not be the best for the job? At least the Hansa has proper telescopics at both ends, which is more than can be said for many British models of the era.
Paquereau, who bought the car for its distant technical kinship with his front-drive flat-four Hotchkiss-Grégoire, sums up the Hansa succinctly: “It’s a car that deserved having a bit more attention lavished on it. It’s a bit basic the way it’s made. It’s a mix of the good and the less good. It’s not a fabulous thing, but it’s got character.” That touches on the crux of the matter. At the same time as it was advanced, the 1100 was in some ways amateur and outdated – and that speaks loudly about its industrial history.
The key point is that fewer than 43,000 examples of the 1100 were made, over roughly five model years – an average of just 8500 a year. Add in its two-stroke ancestors, with just over 44,000 built in six years, and you come to 87,000 cars, or an annual average of fewer than 8000 vehicles.
Meanwhile, Ford-Germany, over the ’52 to ’62 period, turned out 435,000 12M Taunuses, amounting to an annual average of 39,500 cars. You don’t need to be a statistical genius to realise that when it came to parting with their money the Germans made quite a good fist of resisting the Hansa’s supposed attractions.
It had all made perfect sense, when in March 1950 Carl Borgward had announced the Hansa’s predecessor, the Goliath GP700. Front-driven and with a transverse twin-cylinder unit, the 688cc Goliath neatly bridged the gap between his Lloyd runaround and his mid-sized Borgward Hansa 1500. With its roomy pontoon-form unitary body, it was in essence a modernised DKW, which was no great surprise given that the boss of Goliath was an ex-DKW man.
The only snag was that the 24bhp vertical twin was not really up to hauling along a car that was appreciably heavier than a Beetle – as well as rather more expensive. In a pioneering move, fuel injection was offered in 1953, along with an all-sychro gearbox; the carb-fed car continued, with a hike to 25.5bhp, against the injected GP700E’s 29bhp. A better answer came with the arrival in 1955 of the 886cc GP900, which developed 40bhp in injected GP900E form.
The two 900s – and the non-injected GP700 – continued until February 1957, when they were replaced by the flat-four Goliath GP1100. The body was largely unchanged, bar a new full-width grille, but in mitigation it had been improved over the years, relative to the original. Indeed, with the larger rear window introduced in 1953 and the fin-like rear lights and more squared-off windscreen that arrived in 1955, it had ended up looking not unlike a junior Borgward Isabella.
With its modern four-stroke engine, here was a car more likely to find its way onto German shopping lists, or so Borgward hoped – even if quoted power was no higher than that of the injected 900cc two-stroke. During the course of 1957 a twin-carb engine became available, and sales duly increased – with just shy of 15,000 GP1100s being built over 17 months.
But in a booming German market this was still chicken-feed. This relative failure was attributed to the obvious links with the old two-stroke model, to an image-devaluing association with Goliath’s utilitarian three-wheel delivery vans and – not least – to looks that were then regarded as frumpy. Accordingly the cars were rebadged as the Hansa 1100 for ’59 and given a further restyle, with a stepped chrome side-strip and integral rear fins. It was to no avail. In the 1959 model year, just 11,176 Hansas would be made.
By then Borgward had other fish to fry. He’d been spooked by the sharply styled DKW 600 prototype, unveiled at the 1957 Frankfurt Show ahead of entering production in ’59 as the Junior. In less than two years he had rushed a bigger Lloyd to market, to compete with the DKW. The 900cc Arabella was accompanied by a massive investment in new production facilities.
But the Hansa continued, receiving a new dash plus deeper front and rear glass for 1960, along with a revised interior, a wider track, and modified heads on the standard 40bhp engine. Manufacture lasted until the collapse of Borgward in 1961, by which time a further 16,500 or so had been made. It is quite likely, however, that output exceeded demand, and that many of the later cars joined the unsold Arabellas cluttering the fields around Borgward’s Bremen works.
What had gone wrong? The likely answer is inevitably entwined with explanations of why the Borgward empire eventually crashed and burnt. Carl Borgward offered a huge range of vehicles, from the Lloyds up to heavy trucks, but in reality only the small Lloyd and the Isabella sold in decent numbers. Making so many unrelated models in numbers that were never adequately going to amortise his costs was a slow road to financial incineration. Smoking a fat cigar and talking big does not make you a success.
When Borgward introduced the Lloyd in 1950, it fulfilled a market need, as a war-ravaged Germany rebuilt itself. This sector continued to be important, with Germans switching from motorcycles to cheap cars as the decade progressed. Meanwhile, higher up, a market opened for a sub-Mercedes quality saloon that would appeal to the newly prosperous upper managers of the German ‘economic miracle’.
This sector had not existed at the time of the Hansa 1500 and 1800, which had accordingly not sold well. In between the Lloyd and the Isabella there was a market, but it was catered for by Ford and Opel, which built mid-sized, midpriced cars for middle Germany. The two-stroke Goliath and the later flat-four models offered too little, for roughly the same money. In ’55 a 1½-litre Opel Olympia Rekord cost DM6150, barely more than the DM5750 asked for a Goliath 900E. Spool forward to 1958 and Borgward asked DM6805 for the Hansa 1100 Luxus when a 1700cc Ford Taunus 17M DL, with its ritzy ersatz-American styling, cost just DM385 more.
The Goliath and the Hansa were the sort of cars you might conceivably trade up to from a Lloyd, notwithstanding their apparent high price. But first you had to have attained that economic position – and my reading is that not enough Germans had reached that point by the late 1950s, let alone earlier.
I would suggest that the German market was only ready for the sort of car the Goliath represented in about 1960. You could argue that Borgward recognised this with the Arabella, which was basically what a modernised Hansa 1100 might have been. Alas, it didn’t sell. Inadequately developed, it was overpriced, leaked like a sieve and had gearbox problems. Its main achievement, other than to lose money for the firm, was to make the Hansa look like a warmed-over relic from 1950.
Arguably Borgward would have been better off not bothering with the Goliath/Hansa, and concentrating on an ever-better and ultimately restyled Lloyd, ahead of launching a sorted Arabella at the end of the decade. Instead he allowed the Lloyd and the Isabella to grow old without being replaced and pig-headedly introduced the ill-developed Arabella, at the same time as he was investing heavily in that baroque monstrosity, the big P100 saloon. He deserved to go to the wall, because he wasn’t making enough of the cars people wanted, when they wanted them, and at a price they were willing to pay. The Hansa 1100 was part of that unedifying industrial picture. And that’s a shame.
‘THE GERMANS MADE QUITE A GOOD FIST OF RESISTING THE HANSA’S CLAIMED ATTRACTIONS’