Alternative Paths In An Unpredictable Industry

DTW Considers The Alternative German Big Three


At the end of the 1950s, there was a sizeable group of home-owned players in the German industry, but we shall concentrate initially on three of them – Borgward, NSU and Glas. Only the first few paragraphs of this piece are fact, the rest is entirely speculation as to how things could have worked out quite differently, yet might have ended up much the same.

Borgward had been making cars since the 1920s. They were fast to restart manufacture after the War, being the first German company to put an all new car into production, the Hansa 1500. This was replaced in 1954 by the mid-sized Isabella and that was joined in 1959 by both the larger six-cylinder P100 and the smaller Arabella, featuring a flat 4 boxer that Subaru used as a reference point when developing their own engine.

Having a decent and attractive range, with innovative yet sensible specifications, Borgward’s pricing was keen, undercutting similar Mercedes models. The only problems were a reputation for introducing under-developed cars too early and, crucially, Carl Borward’s attitude that the best way to improve cashflow was not through expensive borrowing, but by stalling payment to suppliers. Needless to say this didn’t make him many friends.

NSU had started making motorcycles and cars in the first decade of the 20th Century. Their postwar start as car producers took longer than Borward’s but, by the mid 50s, for a while they were the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the World. Car production restarted in 1959 with the twin cylinder, rear engine Prinz and this was replaced in 1962 by the Prinz 4 which, like several cars at that time, aped the Chevrolet Corvair in styling. A free-revving, OHC, air cooled 4 cylinder came 2 years later, gaining a reputation for reliability which, together with good handling, made for a far better driving experience than the rival VW Beetle.

But NSU were even more ambitious. They had productionised the first Wankel engine and fitted it into the Prinz platform. Looking around for a like-minded partner they formed a joint venture with Citroen, setting up first the Comobil, then the Comotor company, to produce a variety of proposed rotary engines. At the same time, they designed an airy, superbly styled, modern, comfortable, mid-range, Wankel-powered saloon, the Ro80, which they planned to introduce in 1967, to be followed by a conventionally engine car on the same base, the K70. The only problem on this revolutionary car to be surmounted was the failure of the seals on the rotor tips, which needed to be addressed prior to the car’s introduction.

Although relatively new to car manufacture, Glas was a long-established firm of farm machinery manufacturers. Post War it started with scooters, moving quickly on to a rear engine microcar, the Goggomobil. This was an instant success and Glas kept momentum by planning a full range of vehicles. Such was its success that the Bavarian government approached Glas in the late Fifties with the proposition that it should take over another manufacturer, whose post War recovery had not been so rosy, BMW.

Glas was controlled by the son of the company’s founder, Hans Glas but the energy behind the car strategy was the Grandson, Andreas. The older Glas seems to have been paternalistic and protective of the firm, both from his own family’s point of view and those of his workers. So, although appreciating the inroads his company was making into the car market, he was reticent to risk increased investment in his production facility and, by the early Sixties, Glas cars were getting a reputation for poor quality and niggling faults, generally caused by building relatively advanced cars in an outdated factory. If the ambitious new range of vehicles was to be successful, something needed to change.

You are now entering The Twilight Zone.

In 1961, Borgward successfully fought off a dubious and unjustified attempt to render them bankrupt and demand for its P100, with its excellent air suspension and handsome, subtly Italian looking styling increased. The P100’s competitor, the fintail Mercedes, introduced in 1959 around the same time as the Borgward was seen as a poor and more costly alternative.

Deemed to be ‘too American’ it had alienated many of the company’s loyal, but conservative, client base who felt that the high prices being asked should have resulted in something less ‘flashy’. Also, instead of producing a recognisably different mid-range model, they had introduced what appeared to be a stripped down version of their top range 6 cylinder car, powered in many instances by harsh and ludicrously slow, diesel-engines. This affected perceptions of both vehicles and what geschäftsführer wanted to be seen driving a noisy taxi?

Borgward P100
1959 Borward P100

By 1967 Mercedes were in serious trouble. Their products had become progressively more expensive and they had frittered away a fortune developing the hugely costly and impractical 600 limousine, a vanity project which which sold by the handful. Too late they had started work on their proposed W115 model, a car that would be pitched as an ‘affordable’ Mercedes, but they lacked the funds to bring it to production.

Ever the opportunist, Carl Borgward jumped in and assumed control of Daimler-Benz. Mercedes’s excellent engineers were a welcome addition, as was the factory space. Initial promises that ‘the Mercedes name will survive’ were kept, but only appreciated by those who noticed that the road up to the Borgward factory in Bremen was renamed “Mercedes Strasse”. Borgward’s relentless subsequent progress needs no repeating here, and the formula remains successful to this day. A range of four well-styled, yet sober looking models using the best engineering.

Over at BMW, the Quandt family, newly in control, found themselves in a quandary. Proposals were well advanced for a new model that intended to turn the company around, and Herbert Quandt was being asked to give it his approval. Shortly after it was presented to him, Quandt met with Hans Glas regarding the mooted takeover of BMW by Glas favoured by the Bavarian Government. Both men were unusually candid with each other, sharing their intentions for future models.

Quandt looked at Glas’s elegant Frua proposals for a whole series of cars, hatchbacks, saloons, coupes powered by a family of innovative, belt driven OHC, 4 cylinders and V8s. Then he looked at his own company’s single ‘Neue Klasse’ proposal, with its odd tilted forward rear profile and quirky headlamp eyebrows. Combined with the knowledge that BMW’s own V8 had reached the end of the road, and that a 6 cylinder replacement would take several years to develop, he realised that Glas had him outgunned. Then and there he capitulated and, on a handshake, a ‘merger’ was agreed.

1964 Glas 1700 : Photo Den Helder

Many have suggested with hindsight that much of this was bluff on the part of Glas. They didn’t actually have the funds or manufacturing facilities to realise these concepts without risking disastrous quality problems but, in any case, that is all hypothetical. With BMW’s extra factory space and confident investors, the Glas range was realised. Some underlying elements of the Neue Klasse BMW proposal were incorporated into the new Glas mid-sized saloon but the BMW name was relegated to the small economy cars and, when demand for these ceased, was allowed to quietly disappear. The Glas name has, of course, become synonymous with today’s elegantly designed sporting saloons and coupes that find an apparently insatiable worldwide clientele.

Whilst NSU thrived on new ideas, Volkswagen stagnated. The board remained loyal to Dr Porsche’s rear-engined concept, though trying various designs to get away from the traditional Beetle shape. In the late Sixties a breakaway group within VW developed a small, front-wheel-drive concept, and VW even went so far as to hire the Italian Giugiaro to come up with a body design. The resulting ‘hatchback’ was poorly received by the board as ‘too Italian’ with one member commenting that ‘if customers wish to enter their cars through a rear door, they would buy our 1600 Variant over this poor copy of an English Morris’.

Instead, a minor restyle of the Beetle was proposed with the round headlamps being replaced with square units and the capacity of the 1300 version increased by 15cc which, with revised carburetion, improved fuel economy, slightly. This was not enough and, although other avenues were investigated – and indeed Giugiaro was asked to come up with designs for a ‘New Beetle’, an offer he rejected as ‘a ludicrous idea’ – by the late Seventies VW were in serious trouble.

Audi Design - gestern - heute - morgen
1967 NSU Ro80

Giugiaro, meanwhile, had visited NSU with his cast-off design. Ever receptive, NSU had the K60 in production by 1972, in record time. Both in standard form, powered by a derivation of their four cylinder, and in its now legendary Rti form, powered by a twin Wankel, it was a huge success. Later in the decade, the hugely influential and successful Ro80 was replaced by the Ro81 which has evolved to the Ro87 we know today. Excess demand was solved when additional factory space was created after the takeover of Volkswagen in 1981.

Other models joined and, although NSU’s conventionally engined ‘K’ cars have remained its backbone, the Wankel engine has always been the popular choice for performance and upper-end versions. After the potentially disastrous problem with rotor sealing was solved shortly before the Ro80 was introduced, constant development has made this engine the default choice where smoothness and performance are required. In its joint Comotor venture with the French giant Citroen, it now licences the engine to 49 car manufacturers alone, and its use in the past few years as the engine of choice for series hybrid cars has ensured its longer-term future.

So that, in essence, is the history of the German auto industry that put the ‘German Big Three’, Borgward, NSU and Glas into the dominant positions as world players they find themselves today. It is interesting to reflect on fate and to speculate that, if things had turned out differently, those positions could today be held by those now forgotten names, Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen and BMW.

Far-fetched you may say, but the motor industry is predictable only in its unpredictability.

20 thoughts on “Alternative Paths In An Unpredictable Industry”

  1. I especially like the part about the solved rotor sealing problems on the Ro80, allowing also Citroën to further expand their Wankel offer into the newly developped CX (along with a wonderfully high-revving, low center-of-gravity 6-cylinder boxer, of course).

    1. Ah, Citroen’s rotary CX, what a car! Though my own preference would be for a 4 rotor SM, but you can’t find one of those for less than 100,000 Euros these days. We’ll probably cover the French industry in another piece. Much as I admire Citroen, I’ve always found the way they neglected poor Peugeot after they took them over, pretty deplorable. If the boot had been on the other foot, I’m sure that sensible Peugeot would have appreciated and encouraged Citroen’s advanced technology and kept them at the cutting edge of car design. Alas, we will never know.

    2. Yes, it’s a sad story about Peugeot.

      I have to say that before the takeover, I appreciated both marques for what they were: Citroën with their quirkiness and advanced technology, Peugeot on the more conservative, but well engineered and designed side. But nowadays they have sometimes become nearly indistinguishable with the Peugeots being as quirky as Citroëns, but stripped down of all interesting technology and most of Citroën’s charms. But probably there just wasn’t a proper spot to put in a third marque after Citroën and Panhard have taken their places. Honestly, I think that, besides Renault, two French mass market marques are really enough and more will inevitably create an indistinguishable mess.

  2. NSU did at some point throw a bone at VW and let them sell the K70 under its own badge, but that was clearly because they had bigger and better things on their plate

  3. Pre-Frua, Glas had already made their intentions clear with the 2600 V8 coupé. The Quandts must have known by then that BMW’s fate was sealed:

    1. Yes, I saw some sketches for a coupe BMW planned called the CS. It looked clumsy enough on its own, God knows what it would have looked like parked next to the elegant Glas. Poor BMW just didn’t have a clue.

  4. It would have been nice if Mercedes had been able to keep going through the 70s as some of their cars were quite reliable. The oil crisis really hammered their sales. They also failed to predict the effect of Peugeot´s 604 on their 200, 230, 260 and 300 saloons. Review after review hammered the Mercedes saloons for their dull appearance and dreary driving manners whereas Peugeot´s well-made and sensibly priced 604 took all the laurels for its comfort, steering, ride and performance. By 1977 the 604 was outselling the Mercedes 3 to 1 in Germany. When Peugeot added the four cylinder engines from the 504 range that essentially covered all the bases and Mercedes were outgunned. They lost customers who never returned. Some of the late 70s special editions were especially ill-concieved. They tried a five door which looked horrific, the same year Peugeot launched the 604 estate with its thrifty diesel and petrol fours. Mercedes´s response was a strange four door convertible: they sold 1800 of them in three years before pulling the plug on that one.

    1. Yes you are right. Peugeot had got Mercedes in the corner with the outstanding success of the 604. But still nowadays there are rumours that Mercedes was willing to answer this threat by developping a new car which would be able to convince some customers to come back from Peugeot to Mercedes again.- especially on their home market Germany.

      But Peugeot was quicker, they had another bullet in their rifle. The Talbot Tagora, the right car at the right moment. With its charismatic styling and its high-quality interior, the Tagora was stealing Mercedes their last customers and so the inevitable end for Mercedes was coming pretty soon….

      The 604, the Tagora and Michelin with their clever marketing of the TRX-Wheel-technology were the three coffin-nails for Mercedes – and so we never got the chance to see a higher-class german car for the last 20 years….

  5. Indeed – it´s easy to forget how influential the Tagora was. We take the styling for granted but it set a new benchmark in the large-car class. I suppose if Talbot had not come along Audi and Jaguar might still be around. I remember reading the 1982 edition of Car where the Tagora 3.0 V6 beat the Jaguar XJ-6 and the 2.0 litre Tagora trounced the Audi 100. “Audi´s relatively good quality is just about acceptable in isolation but seen in comparison to the Tagora´s immaculate standards of build, calls into question Audi´s higher price and very raison d’etre. What is Audi for, exactly? The Talbot is a hard car to beat in the 2.0 litre class and ought to have not only Audi but BMW re-thinking their plans.”
    And in the same magazine, they said “The smooth power delivery of the Tagora´s 3.0 litre V6 challenges Jaguars famous six-cylinder – and wins. The Tagoro has a superb ride and astonishing road holding. While the Jaguar lurches from corner to corner, theTagora can be threaded at high speed with utmost assurance. And who is not tired of Jaguar´s Wimpey Home interiors and cramped seats? The Tagora is spacious and capable of delivering passengers at the end of a 500 mile journey in a state of total relaxation. All that an an amazing 34 miles per gallon.” Jaguar closed in 1986 and Audi was merged with Renault in 1983. I think the Tagora is now on its fourth incarnation and is the most popular imported luxury car in the US.

    1. I regret that Car Magazine was not always the home of such good sense. LJK Setright, ever going against the grain, willfully wrote :

      “As with Hobbes’ Leviathan, I fear that the life of the Tagora will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Yet, do not ask why Talbot has produced this vehicle. Possunt quia posse videntur.”

    2. The amicable merger of Audi by Renault did help Audi them a lot to survive.
      Just from the beginning, when Renault had the idea of giving Audi the undestroyable Renault 20 and 14 after the end of their Renault-career so Audi could be able to survive for the next years. And now Audi they have found their place in the market by offering low-budget-versions of Renault quality cars without chi-chi.

      And it is a nearly open secret, that Renault did benefit a lot of the 4-wheel-drive-technology of Audi. After Renault´s Alpine sportscars had stolen Porsche´s last loyal clients with their powerful mid-engined cabriolet, Alpine created a total new market of powerful sporty SUV´s – their Renault Alpine Alpin now is the Bestseller in the Alpine Range. And this would be impossible without Audi´s 4-wheel-drive.

      And coming back to Mercedes, i think Renault is also able to reanimate Mercedes as a cheap brand of transporters – their cheaply looking Mercedes-version of the Kangoo will find some buyers for sure – because it is evident that you are in fact buying some fine Renault quality.
      Renault has the power to reanimate Mercedes – i was very disappointed that Mitsubishi was not able to achieve this. Their Mercedes-version of a Mitsubishi-transporter was just a little bit too halfhearted and much too expensive.

  6. I’m surprised that you’re falling for all that reviving Mercedes guff Markus! I remember everyone getting so excited about Dany Bahar’s proposals for Mercedes when Mitsubishi hired him. What was it? 4 standard saloons, 3 coupe saloons, a huge range of SUVs, sports cars, convertibles … I lost count. Oh yes, and a return to racing. A ridiculous dream that came to nothing. What was he thinking. I’m sure he’s having a smoother ride as CEO of Delorean.

    1. Dany Bahar was or still is the same type of daydreamer as Joachim Zahn, the last CEO of Mercedes in the seventies.

      In 1972, one of these very few and very warm tropical nights in the region of Stuttgart – in combination with an excessive abuse of the notorious Trollinger wine – did Joachim Zahn persuade of an utopistic plan.
      So he decided in that night to cancel the production of the Mercedes C111 and the rotary engine and he gave the disastrous order not to offer any Mercedes cars in orange or golden orange colour trim.
      And, even more disastrous, he gave the order to produce an offroad-car for military and civil purposes, made for people like the Shah of Iran…..

      We all know now the result: The Shaw lost his army and Mercedes stopped the G-class-project after the prodution of only 7 cars. He never had a chance against the Matra Rancho, a extremely well built car, available with 2- or 4-wheel-drive, 3 different wheelbases, petrol-, diesel- and rotary-engines and all kind of equipment.
      So the Matra Rancho celebrates last year his 5th mlllion of produced Ranchos with a special edition in golden-orange and a 400PS-rotary engine. The Rancho was the starting signal of a complete range of Matra-Offroaders, Pick-ups, SUV´s and Crossovers and there is no end of the Rancho-production or Matra in sight,

      I hope Joachim Zahn cannot see from his cloud all those thousands of Citroen C6 Birotor in Maybach-orange everywhere in the streets worldwide, he would think back to the niight of 1972, where the end of Mercedes was beginning.

    2. Indeed, these managerial figures are often right only because of good luck. As often as not their decisions are disasters.
      I notice Glas now have facelifted their family car, just 28 months into production. Apparently the dies wore out so they decided they might as well create new ones as renovate the old ones.

  7. Would be interesting to explore post-war Volkswagen finding themselves competing against a British carmaker such as BSA (that also owned Lanchester and Daimler), with the latter producing their own Beetle based design as war reparations in the same way the BSA Bantam was based on the DKW RT 125.

    Apparently the Beetle design along with the services of Ferdinand Porsche were offered to British carmakers who refused for one reason or another only to later regret it, originally BSA in the 1950s wanted to produce the Panhard Dyna Z as a Lanchester though was prevented by the UK government with a few of the model’s ideas ending up forming the basis of the ill-fated Lanchester Sprite, that is combination with the Docker Daimlers ended up leading to the decline of Daimler (and Lanchester) prior to being sold off to Jaguar.

    What if instead BSA with its willingness to use German-based designs as war reparations had the prescience to produce a Beetle based car as a BSA, possibly with a rear-mounted Panhard-derived Flat-2 or DKW-derived 2/3-cylinder 2-stroke though more likely with a Flat-4 engine?

    Could it have enabled to BSA to potentially grow into one of the UK’s largest carmakers?

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