Anniversary Waltz 2017 : Wirtschaftswunder-Wagen

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.

1957 BMW 600. Image: MODern deSign

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.

Ultimate Driving Machine. Image: oldtimerArchiv

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.

Glas/Goggomobil Isar. Image: Vi Bilägare

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.

Image: RFE/RL

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!

Image: atU2


Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 2017 : Wirtschaftswunder-Wagen”

  1. Interesting to see these three totally different concepts of a small car emerging at the same time. This is something nearly unthinkable in today’s uniform car landscape. Is there any insight why the Isar has been changed to an RWD layout? Otherwise, it would have been conceptually quite similar to the more modern Trabant. Funny that the latter in the end became a symbol of backwardness and ‘Ostalgie’ (east-algia).

    By the way, no need to add that ‘s’ to ‘Wagens’, ‘Wagen’ already is a plural (looking exactly like the singular; sorry for our complicated language).

    1. Thanks for the clarification Simon. It’s DTW policy (from your namesake – our editor) that if we haven’t made at least one significant error per article, we haven’t really tried.

      Regarding the Isar, I think Glas simply over-stretched their engineering resources and were forced to hastily regroup with carry-over technology. However, others (not looking at anyone in particular…) may be in a position to cast further light.

  2. Trabis are indeed a cult: I read of soeone who has six, with ambitions to add more.
    I liked the bubble cars, but the Goggo that sold in Britain didn’t look like the one in your pic. And I doubt that Lloyd sold more than a few dozen there.

    1. The one in the picture is the Isar, not the ‘real’ Goggomobil. THE Goggo was much smaller and with a simpler shape (plane windshield) and tiny wheels. It also had the engine at the back.

  3. I remember these “Reng-Deng-Deng” cars of my childhood too. In the late 70ies the Goggomobil was the only model left used as a daily driver car, mostly for older people. People, and me too, began to laugh about these cars and their qwners… So they share the same faith like the Nokia mobilephones – they were killed by the progress. No one wanted to have a 2-stroke-engine any more, as soon as you could afford a “real” car.

    in France or Italy, were Fiat, Citroen or Renault were offering affordable cars with 4-stroke-engines, these cars never had a chance to find that much customers…

  4. Hmm. BMW Isetta. BMW 600. BMW 700. What do they have in common besides “BMW” and air-cooled motors at the rear?

    Dubonnet front suspension. Diabolical. High unsprung weight, bronze bushings that wore rapidly. Don’t ask how I know.

  5. Was Glas the first manufacturer to use a toothed belt to drive the single OHC and were these engines influential in the development of subsequent BMW engines?

    1. The received wisdom on the belt driven camshaft is that Glas were first, but BMC were contemplating such a thing even earlier, but it would never get past Len Lord (who only trusted well proven engineering ideas) or Greek Al, who had little interest in engines.

      As for BMW influence in the Glas OHC engine, Glas did poach Leonhard Ischinger from the Munich firm, but the original inspiration for the opposed valve head is more likely to have been from Lloyd or NSU.

      A neat engine, but notoriously fragile. With its iron block and two extra cylinders most Facharbeiter would have found the rear-engined BMW 1000 a handful, had it ever made it to production.

    2. Yes, I believe Glas’s 1004 engine was the first belt-driven OHC engine. I don’t have any source on wether BMW was influenced by this; the first BMW engine to use a toothed belt was the M20 small six from the late 70’s, by then this was common practice

  6. Don’t run away with the idea Alex Issigonis had no interest in engines!I saw in Downton Engineerings’ engine development building–[ I only got in there because Mr Richmond took me in personally]-an experimental 4 cyl SOHC prototype engine which had been running on the engine dyno this engine was designed by Alex -a personal friend of Mr Richmond ,this engine was all alloy many parts could be also used in the building of 6 and 8 cyl engines ,it had more power than the “A” series engine and 10% cheaper!
    This engine was refused by BL hierarchy as the drawings had ADO on them–Austin Drawing Office. The politics of BL was they only accepted drawings from Triumph [Standard Motors Drawing Office]
    Alex also designed the first Morris Minor and the 4 cyl boxer engine in it,this was knocked back, as as they used the old SV Morris engine to make it cheaper.
    The engine on the dyno when I was in the building was the lovely little prewar DOHC Austin 750cc race engine out of his Lightweight Special,had just been restored by Downtons.
    Alex was also involved in designing a V8 for I think Alvis when they ran out of money and closed the doors,I am pretty sure he designed the “A -“B”and “C” Series gearboxes for BMC.
    A very talented man.

    1. Barrie, thanks for your comments. The SOHC 4-cylinder engine you refer to sounds like the 9X unit intended for dear Alec’s Mini replacement. Accounts vary as to the effectiveness of this unit, and while there appears to be little debate as to the unit’s virtues, there remains some doubt as to how well it would have worked in service. Also, the notion of obtaining a larger displacement by offering a 1.3 litre in-line six sounds eccentric, to put it mildly. So while an element of politics and ‘not invented here’ thinking led to this promising power unit being shelved, Issigonis’ previous mistakes had caught up with him by then – after all, he was instrumental in defining the specifications of the unloved E-series engine family, beloved of Maxi and Allegro owners from Bishops Itchington to Burnley.

      The Alvis V8 was also largely dismissed as being unworkable by subsequent chroniclers and it has been suggested that Alec was quite relieved to be relieved of the task of getting that project off the ground. I also seem to recall Issigonis being rather dismissive of the car in later years.

      After his retirement, Alec seems to have admitted he hadn’t been very good at designing engines, but had learned late – arguably too late for his own and for British motorists’ good.

      So yes, a very talented man, and a very free thinker, but one I would contend who only really did his best work when closely overseen by others.

    2. I must differ on your opinion in some respects E’oin, I was shown the exchange heads Downtons’ where doing by Mr Richmond he remarked that “if I were paid to design the worst head for the E series,I couldn’t have done one worse than this”
      He wasn’t the type of man to “pay out” on Alex as they were personal friends,I think you can trace a lot of failures in design else where,Eddie Marr at Coventry ,maybe,BMC Australia for stuffing up the redesign of the “C” series engine that helped the demise of the MG C!
      Daniel Richmond designed the Cooper S heads, but conceded that in the case of iron 8 port head he designed for BMC was not in realty that good as it had the restraints of policy the BMC Board applied that all modified race or rally parts must go thru’ the existing factory machinery ,that is milling machines etc,ostensibly the part could be used in updating I understood .
      Alex had a small farm I think in Devon, Daniel went down there every second day to check on a Jersey cow due to calve–he was a dedicated animal lover.I spent some time with him so got to understand his nature,a lovely man,but hated Fords.
      Going fishing with him was an experience -believe me!

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