Despite many racing successes, Borgwand’s Isabella saloon was unable to save the company from going under. Its greatest exponent, Bill Blydenstein, remembers it
Like many people I have very fond memories of the Borgward Isabella TS, the sports saloon which proved a surprise victor in late-Fifties saloon car racing. Competitors like Volvo and BMW were no doubt relieved when Borgward was declared bankrupt in mid-1961. Trust me to pick a loser in the corporate stakes!
My love affair with Isabella goes back to 1956. After five years on motorbikes, the Isabella was a revelation. Searching for the limit can be painful on two wheels, but the Borgward was both nimble and surefooted. With a 24mm front anti-roll bar balancing the swing-axle rear end, its ultimate oversteer could be nicely controlled. I enjoyed showing big-headed TR2s the quickest way around most corners, while in the rain an Isabella was supreme, with four-wheel drifts on with only 60bhp.
Touring car races at Crystal Palace, Brands Hatch, Goodwood and Silverstone were spectacular, with the well-known names driving the best saloons in attitudes for which they were never designed. On one occasion Reg Pamell’s works Isabella won its class ahead of Alan Foster’s Magnette. It was a proud Borgward owner who trickled back from that Daily Express trophy meeting in 1956. A year and a half later, when racing resumed after the Suez crisis, the Borgwards were trounced by the Rileys, Magnettes and even the Wolseleys! That hurt. I swore to take revenge but did not realise what lay in store.
Over the next few years we toiled to develop the Isabella to beat its works opponents, a time of relentless part-time work, because we were semi-amateurs and had to earn a living outside racing. Some had a little works support in terms of parts but precious little cash.
From the Borgward factory at Bremen I bought the bits to lift the engine to TS Plus specification, around 80bhp, and on my first event, at Brands Hatch in September, surprised everyone by winning my class. More sprints and hillclimbs followed before entering saloon car racing proper in 1959.
Graft and gradual development of car and driver saw the Isabella begin to get on terms with the Rileys, always our main rivals. They were quicker in a straight line, while we scored on bumpier corners and, of course, in the rain, when the Isabella came into its own. With its Michelin X tyres at 45psi, tweaked Konis and lowered suspension, the independent rear end gave the traction. Sure, it oversteered, but this was preferable to the Rileys understeering off the track!
The people who helped make this possible were John Winter (friend, fellow engineer, pit crew and car nut) and Henry Meier and Herr Wolff, in charge of Warranty and Service Depts at the Borgward factory. If at any time I needed parts I only had to lift the phone and speak to Henry Meier for the parts to arrive within two days. Such support produced a complete lower ratio axle housing in time for the Brands Bank Holiday International. This and the Michelin X tyres produced a magical three-second improvement at Brands, my favourite circuit enough to let me share the front row with two Jaguars, ahead of the fastest Zephyrs, the Rileys and the rest of the field. And, although the Zephyrs passed on the drag to Paddock bend, the Isabella scored its first International class victory. Les Leston came over and asked where the speed came from. I told him I was using the same axle ratio as the Rileys. It was not long before the Rileys were using even lower ratios, again vaulting ahead of the Isabella.
That year, 1959, was also the year of the Cooper-Borgward, using a twin-cam 16-valve development of the Isabella engine. In the hands of Stirling Moss it won the FIA Formula Two Constructors Cup.
I met John Cooper at the Gold Cup at Oulton Park. In my work as an aeronautical engineer I had specialised in gearbox design and fatigue calculation. I was invited to Cooper’s design office at Surbiton, meeting designer Owen Maddock and spending the next few weeks stressing the new gearbox for the 1960 F1 car. It was a salutary experience, and a rare treat to meet the man himself. Very impressive as a designer of successful racing and sportscars, and of course, creator of the Mini Cooper, John had a fund of stories, invariably funny and interesting. Lunch at the pub was a favoured pastime for anyone in motorsport circles.
But 1960 was not a good year for us, despite a class win, beating Leston’s Volvo Amazon at Goodwood. The engine lost its initial grunt and we spent most of the season trying to find out why. Two good races spring to mind. In the rain at Oulton Park we led at a canter, while at Mallory Park we were fourth on the grid behind a Zephyr and some Rileys. The Ford got the jump on the Rileys into Gerrards and they lined up like good little lads behind. For once my brain was in gear and I drove round the outside of the lot of them. The Zephyr conveniently held up the Rileys for two whole laps before they got going, too late to catch the Borgward. We won the BARC Cibié Cup Saloon Car Championship.
1961 was Borgward’s best year. The lack of grunt during 1960 was due to the heavy old-fashioned piston rings eating their way into the ring grooves at high revs. New pistons and rings every five or six races did the trick. Also, our development directed at easing more air into the small-bore pots finally produced enough torque and power to enable me to sneak up and beat our adversaries when they weren’t looking. At Goodwood Karl Foitek’s Alfa spun in the rain – first blood to Isabella! At a dry Snetterton Alan Hutcheson’s Riley won by miles.
At Spa, the fastest road circuit in the world, the Isabella beat the best that the Belgians, British and some Scandinavians could muster. Alfas, Volvos, Rileys, and DKWs were left behind as we won at a record average of 92.8mph. The Spa victory was widely publicised and we were invited to the Borgward factory to be wined and dined by the management and receive a special bonus prize.
Our 1961 season was planned with military precision. It had to be, as the Isabella was entered in two championships. I decided to enter Jeremy Hodgson in the Cibié Cup, and myself in the Internationals. A clash of dates was inevitable.
Whit weekend proved one such. On Whit Monday the BARC held their Cibié Cup race at Goodwood while Crystal Palace in London was the venue for the BRSCC International race meeting. Practice was on Monday and Saturday respectively so that posed no particular problem. To enable us to compete in two races on different tracks on the same day with one car we had to be sure that the races were scheduled early at Goodwood and late at Crystal Palace. The car could then be driven from one venue to the other between races an estimated Journey of about an hour and a half. Fortunately the BARC made the Cibié Cup race first of the day at Goodwood and Nick Syrett of the BRSCC agreed to schedule the saloon car race as the last but one on the Crystal Palace programme. It all sounds incredibly complicated but in the end it went smoothly on the day. Hodgson finished second at Goodwood, and drove heroically to Crystal Palace in time for me to beat Hutcheson’s Riley and take another class win.
Another clash came some weeks later in July. On the Saturday Hodgson’s Cibié Cup race was at Aintree near Liverpool while mine was scheduled for Zandvoort in Holland on Sunday. Practice at Zandvoort was on Saturday. I was able to borrow an old Opel Rekord to thrash around while I got to know the circuit At Aintree Hodgson once again finished second to Cuff Miller’s ex-works Sunbeam Rapier, and John Winter then drove off south to Dover to catch the night boat to Calais. It was touch and go, the car arriving at Zandvoort just in time. Starting from the back of the grid was no problem for the Isabella. Within two laps we were in front and won the race with plenty to spare.
Our participation in the Nürburgring six-hour race was rather less successful a couple of spins on this most awe-inspiring of circuits and a dropped fan belt putting us out of contention. However, it was a pleasure to meet a young Jochen Neerpasch who was also there driving an Isabella TS. He showed his wealth of natural talent by finishing third overall and winning the class.
Immediately after the race I was asked to come over to the factory in Bremen to help modify and develop both the TS four and the Grosser Borgward six-cylinder engines.
I count the following days as being among the most interesting of my life. The work required was to be carried out in their service department First they checked the power of a standard TS production engine on their dynamometer. It gave just 68bhp, which was disappointing as it was supposed to be 74bhp. The 2.3 six-cylinder engine also checked out below par at 94bhp. There now followed seven days of truly frantic activity. With the help of several service mechanics one four and two six-cylinder engines were modified to full Group 2 spec. The TS engine was persuaded to give 87bhp, a handy increase of 27 per cent. The six cylinder powerplants were modified to two entirely different specifications and gave 113 and 118bhp. Not a bad result for seven days work.
It was with a real sense of regret that I finally said goodbye to all my helpers, superb mechanics and engineers. I was also privileged to meet Karl Ludwig Brand, the Chief Engine Designer. Dr Brand was very interested in our results and how these might be incorporated in production engines. While I was talking to Dr Brand a person from the accounts department suggested I call in to collect payment for my account, presented that morning. As I had other business to attend to, I declined and asked if they could send me a sterling cheque instead. Little did I know that the banks foreclosed on the company that very afternoon and that it would be 10 or so years later before I finally received payment. I have often wondered if that accounts person was actually trying to do me a favour!
The bankruptcy of Borgward was due to many factors, not least overmanning: popular opinion said that where Opel used one man, Borgward used three. Also their marketing left a lot’ to be desired. Isabella production built up too slowly to take advantage of the US compact car boom, and the smaller Arabella saloon was rushed out too soon with faults galore. A pity, because Borgwards were popular world-wide, especially the Isabellas They were cats for real enthusiasts, but sadly not even unexpected race success could keep Borgward afloat