DTW’s Top Twenty-Two Great European Cars – Part 1

Some time back, DTW surveyed the world of cars to produce a definitive top 50 of all time. In this series, we narrow the field to European vehicles and present a run-down of the best Eurocars ever. The ratings are based on a weighted combination of engineering, styling, boot capacity and overall significance.  

Borgward P100: reddit

We will start off by a reminder of why a Seat, a Borgward and a Fiat are remembered as they are.

The dubious honour of trailing at number 22 in this list belongs to the 1991 Seat Toledo. That was the one that set the standard the others never quite lived up to. To find out more about the Toledo and the others you have to carry on reading…. so please do.

1992 Seat Toledo. Made in Spain: http://www.bestsellingcarsblog.com

That Seat – the Toledo, the car that insiders know as the Typ 1L was on sale from May 1991 to March 1999 as a five-door hatch. This configuration created some clear blue water between it and the similar Jetta/Vento of the same time: the ‘ledo’s boot approached 551 litres if you crammed in things with enough force, possibly even 552 litres.

ItalDesign served up the crisp and distinctive lines of the car, setting down the main themes that have stayed with Seat to this day. The car lived in the era of intelligible engine displacements: 1.6, 1.8 and 2.o litre petrols and the inevitable odd-numbered 1.9 litre diesel intended for Malaga taxi drivers and duffel-coat wearers in Macclesfield.

Five speed manuals were standard and though it didn’t come across as a sporting car, it found an audience as warm performance car. The germ of Seat’s sporting image developed from this car. That happened because VAG really needed to find a way to distinguish the Toledo from its Audi and VW offerings, a problem it didn’t have before.

This example I found for sale for 500 euros:

1992 Seat Toledo: Autoscout 24

You may have noticed DTW keeps coming back to the Toledo. It is something of a fascinating hybrid and almost certainly what we now often like to call a “game-changer”: built in Spain to VW standards, with ItalDesign input in a market sector geared to saloons, this five-door surprised and satisfied by turns. Future classic? Don’t say it too loud because then everyone will want one.

1960 Borgward P100 – was this affordable luxury? Image: http://www.history-of-cars.com

Number 21 – 1961 Borgward P100

Carl F.W. Borgward gmbh, the noted Bremen-based manufacturer presented this aristocratic carriage at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1959. These days we consider the position of the Audi/Mercedes/BMW triumvirate to be an inevitability. From the banks of the Weser in 1959 that did not seem so clear. Borgward was among Germany’s leading car makers.

In 1959 the world looked very different and if you wanted a well-made and bourgeois alternative to a Mercedes, then you went quickly hence to Borgward. No other German manufacturer came close in terms of engineering innovation. VW only made economy cars and BMW was toying with small saloons of considerable technical indifference.

Despite the production numbers remaining in the 4-figure range (manufacture only lasted under two years), the car has left a lasting impact. The car boasted (though modestly) a 2.2 straight six petrol engine and a 4-speed, syncromesh manual transmission. The tidy, reserved and almost mid-Atlantic styling disguised the car’s 4.7 metre length and 1.7 metre width.

Bremen built these cars to last, as evinced by the hefty, Jaguar-challenging 1650 kg kerbweight. Borgward wanted a car to serve the captains of industry thriving amidst the Wirtschaftswunder years: it could pull 100 mph and had “Airswing” air-suspension to cushion the rush from Aschaffenburg to Worms, for example. That feature appeared before Mercedes managed to offer a version of it on their own cars. It was perhaps the last of Borgward’s many firsts.

The car had to compete with stiff competition from Mercedes, whose 220E made much of the running. Even if Borgward borrowed something of the Anglo-Saxon habit of releasing cars with a tendency to teething troubles but the P100 did rather well in monthy-sales terms and had Borgward continued trading there are reasonable grounds to imagine that the car would have had a successful run and sired a successor.

Autobild Klassik dubs the P100 the “forgotten milestone”. There are only about 50 left out of the roughly 5000 made.

Here’s one from an earlier time, the 1983-1990 Fiat Regata: reddit

1983 Fiat Regata – To introduce this landmark car I have to go the Danish-language section of Wikipedia and translate this almost directly:  “The Regata was a car made by Fiat. The car replaced the (respected and long-lived) Fiat 131 in 1983 and in turn was replaced by the Fiat Tempra”.

Production lasted six tumultuous years during which standards of design and engineering changed markedly and the hang-over from the national markets began to wane. Despite these vicissitudes, the Tempra kicked the shins of the Ford Orion, Volvo 340, Mitsubishi Lancer and even Volkwagen Jetta.

Interestingly, the car is related to the Seat Malaga which in Greece was sold as the Gredos: appropriate enough as the Regata’s rorty and torquey motors had no trouble with inclines and ascents. Due to the light steering they also thrived in the twisties of which the Gredos range has many.

Students of Seat history will also recall that the Regata was effectively replaced by none other than the Seat Toledo. What sets the Regata apart is the tidy and reserved styling and the broad range of engines, turning out between 65 and 100 bhp which meant that whether you were in search of economy or performance there was a Regata for you.

Unlike the VW Golf, the Regata had a boot – and a commodious one at that. Such was the appeal of the car that the Irish Ordnance Survey chose an image of one for the front cover of its 1:56,000 scale maps which are the ones antiquarians and landscape enthusiasts turn to today when exploring any of the Hibernian countryside not yet marred by ghost estates and shopping centres.

At the time of writing Autoscout had none at all for sale: that might mean that those who own them never sell them. Food for thought.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

14 thoughts on “DTW’s Top Twenty-Two Great European Cars – Part 1”

  1. I can only assume Richard that you’ve never set foot inside the Seat Toledo, the car which must surely have the dreariest interior of the ’90s. Incidentally, the Fiat Regatta soldiered on until 1990 when the Tempra replaced it.

  2. The Regata actually was quite a seller here, mainly for its very competent estate with the typical opening in the rear bumper for low loading height.
    What I also found interesting on that car was how much was done to make it appear different from its base, the Ritmo – much more than the Jetta was different from the Golf, for example. The straightened front fascia and the clamshell bonnet made it look more substantial than the facelifted Ritmo. They did a similar effort to set the Tempra apart from the Tipo, by the way.

  3. The Borgward P100 as well as its hump backed Hansa 2400 predecessor were very expensive cars. The P100 cost about four times the average yearly income of a factory worker, so it’s small wonder the production numbers were not too high.
    At the time of the P100’s presentation Germany only slowly progressed from125cc motorcycles and all kinds of micro cars to VW Beetles.
    With their Hansa, Goliath and Lloyd sub-brands Borgward also provided cars for everyday people. Technical progress wasn’t restricted to the expensive Borgwards, as the Lloyd Alexander was a (rare) near-micro car with a four stroke engine and the Goliath 500 had a two stroke engine with direct injection into the transfer ports.

    Borgward cars always had a couple of characteristic features: baroque styling even for the time, impossible seating position that only fitted one person on earth (CFW Borgward himself) and a fanatic fan base even when the cars were still available new. Most Borgward drivers wouldn’t be seen dead in anything else and many kept their beloved Isabellas long after the company had gone bankrupt. For non-Borgwarders the cars were an acquired taste, much more so than a Mercedes and later BMW Neue Klasse.

    1. Indeed, the Bremers drive little else, as I discovered on a recent trip to the city.

    2. That must be a different Bremen than the one I visited three months ago. Yours also seems to be sunny.

  4. Two remarkable features of the Toledo were its C-shape boot spoiler (original, and clearly done so well that no one has even attempted to copy it since) and its extraordinarily short wheelbase.

    VAG used to allow its subsidiary brands to create odd misfits like this, before its platform sharing strategy became so rational and comprehensive. The Skoda Yeti was another mongrel creation that was executed rather well.

    I suspect these (relatively) quirky offerings won’t be repeated.

    1. The Toledo’s short wheelbase was the result of it being based on the Golf Mk3 platform with identical wheelbase for both cars.
      Nowadays the MQB platform would be used wich is the most flexible and versatile system on the market where even the otherwise fixed triangle of pedals-to-steering column-to upper suspension mounts is variable.

  5. I remember the Regatta quite fondly – I think it must have been a time of life thing. It looked very nice, especially given that it was basically a Ritmo/ Strada with a boot. FIAT’s brochure photography of the time always managed to make its models look better quality and more exotic and sophisticated than they were too; I don’t think that ‘Photoshop’ existed then, so I believe one has to attribute it to a certain quality of the lighting in the studio and/ or the skill of the photographer. I think that, like the Ritmo, they rotted rather easily, but I’d have had one over an Orion or Jetta of the time on looks and boot space alone. Great choice. Encore! Encore!!

  6. Mr. Borgward wanted the P100 to be a german luxury car with a pininfarinian elegance – a german Lancia. But the P100 always looked more like a car for an russian communistic Apparatschik than a car belonging to a german business man of the Wirtschaftswunder or to a famous movie star of the german Heimatfilm era…

    1. On home turf the big Borgwards competed with cars like the extremely sober Benz W180 ‘big ponton’ or BMW 501/502 ‘baroque angel’ which looked much more restrained and therefore were accepted much more easily.
      The car coming closest was the Opel ‘keyhole’ Kapitän with equally extrovert looks, which was much less technically advanced and much cheaper.
      Those who wanted an upmarket car and could afford it bought the Benz and those who wanted to openly boast of having made it in post war Germany bought the Opel. Openly showing one’s (real or perceived) wealth wasn’t seen as a sign of good taste at that time.

      Borgward managed to build one of the dream cars of the Fifties with its Isabella, which because of its overly fashionable looks dated very quickly and badly. Somehow they never got to grips to make a true successor to the Isabella and after the Arabella debacle their reputation was irreversibly tarnished.

  7. Thank you for drawing our attention to Heimat; engrossing series on German family life and strife. I’m sure there should be a P100 somewhere in there.

  8. I was an early adopter of Diesel and i bought a Regata Diesel at auction which was quite an eye opener, it knocked spots off the typical Orion or Cavalier Diesel of its time, even in standard 1.9 NA form the thing quite fairly romped along and handled nimbly leaving a goodly number of petrol cars easily and very frugal, i imagine the turboDiesel version was very quick.
    However not much in the way of pattern parts and main dealer parts were scandalous prices, the only Fiat i’ve owned.

  9. I remember the sun has a quick and bad influence on the plastic parts of the Regata. The dark grey was soon changing in all sorts of brighter grey tones….

  10. The Regata, among many objective positives about it, will be remembered mostly for the very unusual (almost unique, if I’m not mistaken?) re-styling manouvre it lived through halfway through its shelf life.

    The said restyling, while resisting to change most of the other styling elements, focused 90% on the change in the car’s beltline geometry
    (mostly in its DLO-part), turning it from dead-level into a slightly curved forward-sloping, linear event.

    It was barely noticeable, yet an immense change in the overall “soul”
    of the Regata’s styling. Almost a totally different “styling chassis”,
    if you will…

    Neither back then, neither now, it’s very hard to understand how did they manage to make such a huge change pass so subtle and (mostly) unnoticed.

    It’s a (re)styling exercise that’s a textbook example, and should be studied in much more detail (perhaps deserving of an entire
    dedicated article?).

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