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 Borgward’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 Borgward’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?
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.
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.
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.