Low-Buck Tech: Why Not a Borgward Isabella?

Story and Photography by the Staff of the 24 Hours of Lemons

We’ll forgive you if you’ve never heard of a Borgward Isabella, but 24 Hours of Lemons veterans A Fistful of Cotter Pins (an excellent team name, we might add) turned up to Arizona’s Inde Motorsports Ranch in 2019 with a 1961 Borgward Isabella. The Isabella wore signs of a long and well-used life before its retirement in a Southern California backyard.

It ran daily for decades until its owner reached the age at which she should no longer drive. In the meantime, a fence had gone up in the backyard, which proved challenging for the beleaguered Borgward’s retrieval. Once plucked from its slumber, the Isabella needed some normal old-car coaxing to life. After that, the team–whose other car is a Porsche 924 with an inline-six Volvo diesel engine–installed safety equipment and brought it as-is.

The “as-is” part of the purchase included the stock all-iron, 1.5-liter pushrod engine with 66 horsepower (in theory) and a column-shifted, four-speed manual transmission. This model had (again theoretically) a top speed of 95 mph and a blistering zero-to-60 time of 19.4 seconds. Four-wheel drum brakes and a swing-axle rear setup completed what was, for its time, a pretty attractive little German import that could be bought for $2600–about the cost of a nicely optioned Fairlane V8.

Naturally, the Cold War-era Isabella had some issues on its Lemons debut, with engine and brake overheating, a sensible problem when the Arizona race weekend was a balmy 40 degrees and snowy. The shifter feel was “vague,” and the engine ran rough. But one of the oldest, stockest piles in Lemons history turned out 77 glorious laps. Given its extremely haggard condition, that earned its team Lemons’ top prize for greatly exceeding expectations, the Index of Effluency.

When the Borgward returned to Arizona for more in 2020, the team had “fixed” its wonky steering with a Mazda column, cobbling together the four-on-the-tree setup. The good news is that the engine ran more smoothly. The bad news is that the steering and shifter linkage only failed most of the time.

Like what you're reading? We rely on your financial support. For as little as $3, you can support Grassroots Motorsports by becoming a Patron today. 

Become a Patron!

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Borgward, Low-Buck Tech and lemons articles.
View comments on the GRM forums
ckosacranoid SuperDork
5/22/20 12:43 p.m.

It Funny when you have to go to wiki to find out just what the hell this car is and have to say the 2+2 coupe does look very cool though. Funny thing is they where also made in Katina of all things after the company ended in Germany. neat little history about a car most people have never heard of. Thanks for sharing.

californiamilleghia Dork
5/22/20 2:22 p.m.

The last Borgwards were built in Mexico ,  4 door sedans with a 6 cylinder motor ,  I would see them on the streets in Mexico city ,  but never saw one running !

from Wikipedia

Production in Mexico

As part of the bankruptcy process, in 1963, all manufacturing equipment for the Borgward Isabella and P100 was sold to a buyer in Monterrey, Mexico. Production in Mexico was delayed, but was started in August 1967[27] by entrepreneur Gregorio Ramirez Gonzalez. Production in Mexico ceased in 1970

Our Preferred Partners