Three German cars, each of which share a birthdate and a complex web of gestational links, share one further distinction. Each helped put post-war Germany back on four wheels.
Sixty years ago, Europe was still reeling from the effects of World War Two. Germany was inching its way back to political credibility and prosperity thanks to the economic miracle and a little help from an American named Marshall. Mobility was very much the name of the game, with most domestic manufacturers focusing on simple, affordable cars for everyman.
BMW’s Eisenach works found itself on the wrong side of history by the end of hostilities, situated in what had become the Russian sector of a partitioned Germany. Producing exclusive and unprofitable V8 engined luxury cars wasn’t going to keep them in business, so just as management turned to Longbridge several decades previously they seized upon the Italian Isetta, a tiny two-seat Iso bubble car which BMW then built under licence at their Milbertshofen plant.
The little BMW Isetta sold well in car-hungry Germany, but its tiny dimensions proved an impediment. With resources committed to development of the larger 700 model, it was decided to create a enlarged Isetta with room for four. With a wheelbase lengthened by 165cm and a 582 cc 2 cylinder R67 boxer motor driving full-width axles, the monospace 600 was announced in August 1957.
Despite the alleged involvement of carrozzeria Michelotti, styling was very much in the Grande-Isetta idiom featuring distinctive ‘knife edge’ bumpers, a spacious interior with rear seat access by a side door, and the added novelty of the engine having its own separate compartment. So by comparison to its smaller brother, it was civilised, it rode and handled well and with a stronger engine, performance was a good deal more lively. A Saxomat transmission was available as an option.
But despite its build quality, space utilization, and comfort, it still looked like its bubble car forebear and as normality and relative affluence returned, customers wanted something more of a visual receipt especially as they were paying in advance of VW Beetle prices for the privilege. After a mere two years, and 35,000 examples, the 600 was phased out in favour of the three volume 700 model; a vastly more successful car (styling again by Michelotti), which was to eventually sell in excess of 182,000 over six years.
Fellow Bavarians, Glas had made both name and fortune producing farm machinery before diversifying into motorised transportation in the immediate post-War aftermath. Moped manufacture soon morphed into four-wheeled vehicles, the 250 cc 2 cylinder, 2-stroke Goggomobil of 1955 proving an instant hit in its homeland. Produced as a 2-door saloon, a rather dashing coupe and in van and pick-up form, the Goggo’ proliferated (it lasted until 1969) and Glas quickly became bona fide manufacturers.
Hans Glas’ ambitions were more ambitious however and his next project was to be a proper small car. Originally launched in 1957 with a front-driven, 600cc flat twin, the Goggomobil Isar was hastily redesigned for rear wheel drive before production began the following year. Available with 600 or 700 cc engines and two body styles (a saloon or estate), the Glas Isar (the Goggomobil moniker was dropped in 1959) bore an uncanny resemblance to domestic rivals, the DKW Junior and Lloyd Arabella.
Unfortunately, Glas over-reached themselves and the Isar was riddled with design faults and warranty claims. As a result, sales (and profits) proved well short of projections, (around 90,000 cars) the last Isar emerging from Glas’ Dingolfing works in 1965. Hans Glas’ ambitions didn’t end there however, although end they eventually did. Following a run of increasingly sophisticated model lines – (one of which was an abortive Hansa project, plucked from Borgward’s shattered corpse) – Glas ran out of money in 1966 and was forced into a fatal marriage with BMW the following year.
Ironically, one post-takeover BMW project which didn’t see the light of day was the combination of the BMW 700 bodyshell with a Glas 1-litre unit from the 1004 model.
In the 1990’s post-unification euphoria, that automotive symbol of the discredited East, the Trabant, had already become a laughing stock. Derided as ugly, smoky and embarrassingly slow, what was conveniently forgotten is the fact that not only was it a design rooted in the 1950s, but that in its mechanical specification (and styling), it bore a closer resemblance to the cars that powered Germany’s economic recovery than many West Germans would perhaps have cared to have admitted.
Based on a pre-war DKW design, the front wheel drive Trabant’s 500 cc 2 cylinder, 2-stroke engine wasn’t vastly dissimilar to what Glas and DKW were producing well into the Sixties. Mated to a steel unitary construction shell, clad with Duroplast, a composite material containing recycled resins and cotton waste. Even the Trabi’s post-1964 styling carried a resemblance to its Isar/Arabella/Junior contemporaries, even if it looked a good deal dowdier in its habitual flat grey finish.
By late fifties standards however, the Trabant was bang up to date. Front-drive, a transverse engine, unitary construction. Only the fact that it remained largely unchanged over thirty years did the Trabi lose face, becoming instead a potent symbol of the thwarted ambitions of a failed state.
Despite this, development did take place. A 600 cc engine came in 1963, a mild restyle the following year, but apart from the addition of 12 volt electrics and some suspension modifications, it wasn’t until 1989 that any major changes took place. These included the replacement of the ancient two-stroke with a modern VW Polo unit, the addition of Mc Pherson strut suspension and some cosmetic and specification changes.
By 1990 however, with German unification in train, it was clear the end of the road had arrived for the Trabant, and the following year with over 3 million built, production ceased and the former Auto Union plant in Zwickau (in some bizarre form of symmetry) was sold to Volkswagen.
Of the comparatively few Glas Isars built, few remain and those that do are virtually unknown outside enthusiast circles. Nobody, least of all BMW themselves wishes to recall the Isetta era, least of all the 600 model. So ironically, of the three, it’s the East German pariah that is best and most fondly remembered. Some might even suggest that it’s become something of a cult figure. So while it may be a hollow one for the former Eastern Bloc, it’s something of a victory nonetheless. Auchtung Baby!