Test-drive Goggomobil

2014 Drive-My

Little car – big influence. It may look a touch eccentric, but Germany’s Goggomobil played a central role in post-war automotive development, argues Jon Pressnell. Photography Julian Mackie. Left:engine cover is theonly panel to be shared between both saloon andcoupe – the suicide doorswere deleted in 1964. Below: sadly, the cutecabriolet version nevermade it into production.

It’s a tiny putty-blob of a thing: what the French would call a ‘yoghurt pot’. Yet the Goggomobil wasn’t just a commercial success, with more than a quarter of a million made during a life that began in 1955 and ended only in 1969. It was also an extraordinarily influential car and one of international significance. In its home country of Germany it knocked the Isetta into touch, causing BMW to spiral even further downwards. It encouraged NSU to make its first four-wheeler a real car rather than a bubble car. Was it a model for France’s Vespa and even for Italy’s reborn, rear-engined 500? It’s hard to believe that the engineers behind those two didn’t have a long, hard look at the Goggo.

In Britain, BMC had one on its fleet at the time that the Mini was being conceived. Down at Cowley, meanwhile, senior development engineer Charles Griffin was inspired to build a rival rear-engined proposal to the Longbridge-designed Mini; to assemble the one and only prototype, a Goggomobil donated many of its mechanical organs.

Glas was determined that the car would be reliable in even the clumsiest hands.

Over at Rootes, the Goggo was again the prompt for a putative small car. When Tim Fry and Mike Parkes put together an aerodynamic little suppository of a vehicle – nicknamed ‘The Slug’ – this antecedent to the Hillman Imp drew on Goggomobil practice and again used some parts from a dismembered example. Look at the Imp’s front suspension, and it is clearly derived from that of the German machine.

Lambretta manufacturer Innocenti was also drawn to the car, and signed a contract to build the Goggomobil under licence – this before the Italian firm entered into its agreement with BMC. But it wanted to give the model a more racy body; Glas refused, and the contract was revoked. Poland wanted to licence-build the Goggo, too, but the Communists proposed paying with coal. Glas having balked at this contra-deal, the Poles went ahead anyway, copying the Goggomobil for their Mikrus microcar, launched in 1957. Meanwhile, the T300 became one of Australia’s first locally made small cars when production of a glassfibre-bodied version began in 1958; this was followed by the Goggomobil Dart, which can claim to be the country’s first indigenous sports car.

The final and most intriguing influence of the Goggomobil was on Colin Chapman, no less. That, at any rate, is the story told by former Lotus sales manager Robin Read, who maintains that the famed – and patented – Chapman Strut was modelled on the rear suspension of the Goggo, and came about after the company’s founder had been seen examining a Goggomobil belonging to a luminary of the 750 Motor Club.

That’s a lot of historical weight to be carried on the shoulders of a pipsqueak runabout from a company that was making its debut as a motor manufacturer. But when Hans Glas, number two in the German scooter market with his Goggo- Motorroller, sought to diversify further from his roots as a successful maker of agricultural equipment, he was sure of one thing. Unlike other attempts to offer minimalist motoring, his ‘Goggo-car’ would be a real car in miniature, with a target weight of 400kg (881lb) and seating for two adults and two children.

Test-drive Goggomobil

Clockwise, from left: Autosport’s John Bolster deemed roadholding to be ‘fantastic’; saloon boasts better-than-new retrim; bucket seats in Coupe; windscreen-washer bag; nose-mounted spare wheel.

When Glas started on the project he thought of collaborating with another manufacturer, and at one stage he tried – without success – to persuade BMW to sell him one of its motorcycle engines for the car. In the end, he brought in an ex-Adler engineer to design the Goggo’s air-cooled vertical ‘twin’.

Mounted transversely at the rear of a platform chassis, the gravity-fed two-stroke unit was mated to a constant-mesh four-speed ‘crash’ gearbox via a twin-plate oil-bath clutch. The coil-spring suspension – with concentric dampers – employed swing-axles all round, with broad-based tubular lower wishbones at the front and a simple strut rear, located by longitudinal radius arms running rearwards. Steering was by half-rack with twin track-rods, and the 10in wheels were braked hydraulically.

In prototype form, the steel body – welded to the chassis in the definitive production Goggo – initially had a single Isetta-style opening front door. But a friend at BMW dissuaded Glas from this arrangement on safety grounds – somewhat ironically, given the fellow Bavarian firm’s licence-manufacture of the little Italian bubble- car. The move to conventional side doors helped to make the Goggomobil more like an ordinary car and also enabled drop glasses to be fitted, although until the 1958 season sliding windows were used. Despite the change, the weight of the final design was only 35kg more than the intended 400kg – an impressive achievement.

Hans Glas was determined that the car would be reliable in even the clumsiest of hands, and before production began the Goggomobil was ‘real-world’ tested. As well as using the Glas family’s nanny, he passed prototypes to local farmers to make sure that the vehicle would stand up to rough treatment. His engineers were also pleased that he himself drove the cars a lot the beefily built and invariably bow-tied Glas had a reputation for being hard on gearboxes.

Production began in February 1955 with the 17bhp, 300cc T300. Selling for roughly four- fifths of the price of a basic cable-braked, crash-gearbox Beetle, it was also cheaper to run, a German magazine calculating that costs over four years would be less than three-quarters of those incurred by the owner of the Volkswagen.

In June 1955, a 250cc T250 variant became available. This was an important development because sub-2 50cc cars could be driven in Germany on a Class IV motorcycle licence. This concession was no longer offered after 1954, but remained valid for existing holders of the licence who became a key market for the Goggo. Such people were likely to be novice motorists, so the owner’s handbook gave humorous advice on how to drive, and dealers were instructed by Glas to give buyers basic tuition, if necessary, before handing over the keys.

For the 1957 model year a batch of 25 improvements was announced, along with two new models. One was a dainty little coupe, coded the TS, that soon became jokingly known as the ‘Poor Man’s Ferrari’. The other was a miniature forward-control van called the Transporter. Both featured a Getrag preselector gearbox with electro-magnetic actuation, operated by a small dashboard-mounted joystick; this became an option on the regular saloons.

Most Transporters went to the German Post Office, and in hard and possibly unsympathetic use the gearbox soon developed a poor reputation, the vans ending up losing all forward gears and having to be driven in reverse. With the Transporter thus becoming something of a laughing stock, Glas reverted to the regular gearbox for the little commercial.

A more angular body was mooted but never made it to production – anymore than a planned convertible version of the TS coupe – and astonishingly the Goggo carried on right through the 1960s with only minor changes. Most notably, 1957 brought with it an optional 400cc engine, while forward-hinged doors were introduced during 1964. A bargain-basement 200cc model was briefly offered in ’56, but found few takers.

Test-drive Goggomobil

From top: flat glass on saloon shaved costs; Transporter was used by post office; 400cc ‘twin’; swing-axles mean that understeer is not on the menu; speedo is the only dial on sparse dashboard.

Despite the lack of synchromesh the gearchange really is a joy to operate.

Sales inevitably hit a downward slope, output falling from a 1957 peak of 43,642 units to 18,541 in 1963. The Transporter was axed in ’65, along with the 300cc engine. But even in 1966 the firm produced 12,505 Goggomobils. The T400 and TS400 disappeared in ’67 and production dipped below 10,000 cars, a large proportion of which apparently went to Class IV licence-holders.

The BMW takeover of Glas came that same year. This was above all to acquire more factory space, and BMW soon reached the conclusion that there was no point in continuing to build any Glas or Goggomobil cars. In Spring 1968 it duly announced the end of Goggo production, on economic grounds. People who had orders in the pipeline were outraged, and tried to sue for breach of contract. Yielding to pressure, BMW agreed to make one last run of T250s and TS250s. When the lines finally stopped in June 1969, a total of 280,707 Goggomobils had been made, of which 210,531 were the saloon, 66,511 the TS coupe and 3665 the TL Transporter.

For those Germans still in possession of a Class IV licence, the end of the Goggo was a blow. Undaunted, many turned to putting its powerplant into Fiat 500s and 126s, plus NSU Prinz 4s. Spare parts and engines were furnished by a company formed out of the wreckage of the former Borgward concern (see panel), and you could still buy a new Goggomobil vertical-twin until 1985, at which time 6000 remained on German roads; most survivors are T250s.

With the larger-engined cars going mainly for export, it is perhaps no surprise that our featured UK-market 1958 saloon is a 400. Having racked up fewer than 30,000 miles in one family’s ownership, it was a nicely original example when the late Mike O’Ballance – who also owned the accompanying TS300 coupe at the time of our photoshoot – purchased it in 2008.

The rounded looks are pure mid-1950s and disguise the car’s small size: at 9ft 6’Ain the Goggo is roughly 6in shorter than a Mini. What can’t be disguised is that the interior is pretty tight – and this after a little extra room was conjured up for the 1958 model year. The rear seats are suitable only for children, and the driver and front passenger’s feet extend into what would normally be the front boot, leaving no space for luggage other than on the rear bench. But the driving position is comfortable, and the interior is neatly if plainly trimmed.

It hit the spot as an urban accessory- dinky to drive and dinky to look at.

It’s when you actually drive the Goggo that it impresses the most. The gearchange works side-ways, moving across the gate from first to second and from third to fourth. Despite this, and the lack of synchromesh, it really is a joy. At first you look at where the lever is going, but you soon get used to it, and with a firm hand to zig-zag across to third you can rifle-bolt through the gears. Changes up and down are equally unchallenging, with no need for double-declutching, and having four speeds helps to keep the rev-happy 20bhp two-stroke singing away.

The engine is agreeably smooth bar a few hiccoughs on the overrun, and the Goggo scuttles along at a contented 40mph. Somehow I never got more out of it, but it was happy enough at that speed. The 400 should be good for about 60mph, the 300 closer to 50mph.

The zingy little engine is matched to gimball-light steering, and the Goggo corners flat and with precision, right on its line. With just a third of its weight over the front wheels, it is never going to run wide, and on roads with a shifting camber and uneven surface the lightly loaded front does dart about, prompting you to rein in the car with its nicely effective brakes.

Test-drive Goggomobil

From top: Coupe has wrap around glass rear window; das his nicely detailed; stiffer springs help tame swing-axles; Australian-built Dart derivative; tail-lights give the effect of fins.

The TS300 coupe, meanwhile, is a cute device with vaguely Italian looks that prompted an Australian road-tester to say that it looked like an Alfa Romeo that had fallen prey to a tribe of headshrinkers. The interior is even more of a hoot, with a double-cowl dashboard like that of an American car, only in half-scale.

Suggesting that there is indeed little to choose between the performance of the 300 and the 400, this time I achieved 45-50mph – and a heady 55mph downhill. The electro-magnetic gearchange proves to be a defining difference. There’s just a little chrome ball-jointed lever that click- clacks around a four-pointed gate. Once you’ve memorised the gear positions, and learnt not to stamp the clutch pedal, it couldn’t be easier, and you can make really quick changes – a particular advantage as you shift from first to second when pulling away on a hill. The road behaviour is otherwise as the regular saloon, but the ride seems slightly more abrupt – doubtless because the coupe has stiffer springs.

You can see why people went for the Goggomobil. They are very usable machines, both around town and on the open road – far more of a ‘real car’ than an Isetta or a Heinkel. Lack of luggage space makes the saloon less of a family vehicle than Glas pretended at the time, but as a runabout it would have been ideal for the school run and local shopping. Simple but with little obvious crudeness, the coupe constituted a well-judged move away from the utilitarianism of the saloon, while remaining modestly priced and cheap to run. As an urban accessory it surely hit the spot – dinky to drive and dinky to look at.

Among the ’bike-engined and often purgatorial marginalia of the 1950s, the Goggomobils stand out as an example of what was achievable if you set your sights – and your selling price – a little higher. No wonder they were examined so carefully by engineers from other companies. AH the same, you can understand why they energised BMC and Rootes to do better.

 AWS Shopper 300 - 1972


AWS Shopper 300 1972


The car that refused to die

Hans Glas considered keeping the Goggomobil in production on his own account. That never happened, but the car came back from the grave – with a new body – as the AWS Piccolo. The retailing and manufacture of Glas spare parts had passed to AWS, a business spun off from the remains of the Borgward group. The company having bought and dismantled the Goggomobil production line, it envisaged tapping into the Class IV market, but with something a bit more contemporary.

The result was a runabout with a flat- panelled modular body of plastic-coated steel panels over a square-tube alloy frame, all on a T250 Goggomobil chassis. Announced in 1970, the Piccolo – later renamed the Shopper (below) was intended to be offered with different bodies. But production never gathered pace, and in 1972 the project changed hands.

In January 1974, build restarted in Berlin with much talk of the Goggomobil renaissance and of an output of 10,000 cars a year. It was not to be: manufacturing and quality problems led to production being stopped in July of that year, after just 1700 Shoppers had been made.

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