Road Test Retrospective – The Grosse Borgward

Autocar’s 23 December 1960 issue contained a comprehensive road test of a technically advanced offering from Bremen – the Borgward 2.3. What did they make of it?

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Something of a technical novelty in the 1950s, air suspension had been offered by a number of US carmakers, including Buick, Rambler and Cadillac at the tail-end of the decade, before cost and complication saw its withdrawal, yet it remained a largely theoretical concept for European car buyers.

Across the Atlantic, while Mercedes-Benz were developing an air suspended system, the Swabians were comprehensively pipped to the market by Hanseatic upstarts, Carl F.W. Borgward GmbH in 1960. Having debuted their largest and most ambitious saloon at the previous year’s Frankfurt motor show, the P100 (or 2.3) was offered with the option of air suspension the following April, which later that year became standard equipment.

It was this development that Autocar elected to focus upon in the December 1960 road test of what they termed the Grosse Borgward. Provided by UK concessionaires, Metcalfe and Mundy of 280 Old Brompton Road, the 2.3 as tested was offered at 2,395 pounds, 5 shillings and 10 pence, including purchase tax. The only stated option was a radio.

This placed the car in direct competition with other upmarket ‘imports’, such as the Alfa Romeo 2000 Berlina at £2,832, the BMW 501 at £2,321, the Mercedes-Benz Heckflosse 220S at £2,524. Lancia’s only UK-available rival was the larger, more upmarket Flaminia Berlina at a hefty £3,712. Domestic rivals could be found amid Daimler; the Majestic being offered at £2,495, Jaguar’s vast Mark IX at £2,043 or the more compact Rover 3-Litre (P5) at £1,864. Vanden Plas’ “incomparable” 3 -litre was also an option at £1,467*.

Autocar’s test team, under technical editor, Harry Mundy, A.M.I. Mech.E, M.S.A.E. maintained a firm grasp of the technicalities, describing the suspension units as being “of the rolling-pack mitten type.” These were produced in Germany from patents held by Firestone, Bosch having supplied the control and ride levelling valves. “The system is pressurized by an air pump, belt driven from the front of the crankshaft, feeding a reservoir housed under the bonnet; this reservoir incorporates filters for cleaning the air and for removing its water content.

The Borgward’s in-line six cylinder engine shared its bore and stroke with Bremen’s 1.5 litre Isabella unit, with a capacity of 2,240 cc and its valve gear pushrod-operated in an OHV layout. Developing 100 bhp at 5,100 rpm and maximum torque of 116 ft. lbs at 2,000 rpm, the Borgward Six developed 70 bhp per tonne. Brakes were by drums all round with the addition of vacuum servo assistance.

The Grosse Borgward cleaved to the classic German chassis template, with double wishbones up front and swing axles behind; the air suspension units, levelling valves and telescopic dampers providing the springing medium.

Autocar praised the Borgward’s suspension installation, stating that “it is very successful without being revolutionary in its behaviour.” They went on to draw comparisons with the oleopneumatic system employed by Citroën, suggesting that it was in some cases superior, observing that “in certain road conditions the DS suspension is unsurpassed, yet occasionally it can be caught out of step.”

While Autocar believed the Borgward’s air suspension didn’t offer a comparable breakthrough in ride quality, it was “outstandingly good in resisting roll on severe cornering; so much, in fact, that it seems to have overcome the shortcomings usually associated with simple swing axle suspension.”

Initial impressions were of a car with an orthodox damping arrangement, the notable sensation at speeds up to 40 mph was of a firm but not harsh ride. “At higher speed, irrespective of the road surface, it becomes very much smoother and is constant in its characteristics whether lightly or fully laden.

But it was in its high speed cornering behaviour that the P100’s suspension truly excelled, Autocar observing that “initial roll, which is arrested quickly, is small, and this not only has a pronounced effect on road holding, particularly at the rear, but is appreciated by passengers. The resistance to roll is due to the functioning of the levelling valves, which seem almost instantaneous in their response. The result is that the lateral distance between the centre of gravity and the point of contact of the tyres with the road does not change greatly during cornering, so reducing considerably the roll oversteer effect inherent in a swing axle from of independent rear suspension.”

So successful was the air suspension in this area, testers found that the Borgward could be cornered at speed with virtually no perceptible oversteer at all – the driver in fact experiencing mild understeer. This lack of roll, combined with excellent adhesion, even in very wet conditions, and according to Autocar, irrespective of road surface, made for a capable and predictable dynamic package.

Borgward claimed that the suspension reservoir had sufficient capacity to compensate in the event of a system failure, and if this should have become exhausted, the car could be driven slowly on its suspension bump stops in complete safety.

The Borgward’s steering was described as “quite precise without being outstanding”. They found it to be rather heavy throughout its range however and suggested that it could benefit from slightly lower gearing. The column-mounted gearshift was criticised, with excessive motion through the lever, although this was said by the concessionaire to have been addressed by the manufacturer. The brakes were described as being “quite fierce” when cold, but more progressive as they reached normal operating temperatures. Being drums, they were prone to fade with repeated application, but were found to recover rapidly and to have displayed no adverse balance issues.

The Borgward’s engine was considered to be tractable, but frequent use of the gears was required for lively acceleration. At higher engine speeds, the six cylinder unit was smooth, but a degree of induction noise was discerned, alongside what Autocar’s testers observed as being the audible operation of the suspension compressor.

With a large unimpeded glass area, all-round vision was praised. The Borgward’s two-speed wipers were particularly singled out for their powerful, quiet and consistent operation, and for the fact that they parked automatically at the base of the screen – something of a novelty for those used to contemporary British cars. However, Autocar felt the screen reservoir could have been “enlarged with advantage.”

While logically laid out, the car’s instruments; a large diameter speedometer and three small auxiliary dials were criticised, testers finding the former’s scale to be too small. Heating and ventilation was praised, although the provision for directing airflow to the rear screen for demisting was found to be less than effective.

The car’s passenger compartment was found to be “roomy, well appointed and luxuriously equipped.” The front compartment was set up for two, but the seat squabs conjoined to accommodate a third occupant if necessary. Seats were upholstered in a “soft nap cloth”, although leather could also be specified. The rear compartment was considered roomy and well laid out, however testers noted the unusual fitment of a loose bolster instead of the more usual folding central arm rest.

Headroom all round was considered to be excellent, so much so that “a hat could be worn by a person of average height”. The cabin was well insulated, the testers noting the deep underlays beneath the carpets. Oddment stowage was found to be generous, while the boot was described as “sensibly proportioned and quite cavernous.”

The UK weekly highlighted the car’s high price relative to its market position in its native Germany, but felt it would “attract buyers by virtue of its performance, particularly by the characteristics associated with its air suspension. It is our impression that this system has many advantages and no snags if well applied.”

Judging from Autocar’s overwhelmingly positive review, the P100 appeared to be a thoroughly considered, quality motor car and had Borgward not foundered in 1961, it’s tempting to imagine it offering considerably sterner competition to Mercedes-Benz, whose ‘Fintail’ model was little better in technical or stylistic terms and would not receive an air suspension option until the advent of the top of the range and limited-production 300SE model in 1962.

*[Author’s note: Owing to an error in the original text, reference to the Vanden Plas has been amended. (26 July 2018 – 12.20 PM)]

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

12 thoughts on “Road Test Retrospective – The Grosse Borgward”

  1. The main advantage of air suspension seems to be the rising rate of the “spring”, allowing in theory a lower rate for a softer ride in normal use but becoming automatically stiffer as the travel is used up. Have no experience of the Borgward system (still less Cadillac etc, which were compromised anyway by the solid rear axles, I believe), but have owned the Fintail 300SE and a 6.3 in my time, before coming to my senses. Why so? Alas, because “engineered at no expense spared to be completely reliable” translates miles and years later to “unbelievably expensive to repair when it inevitably goes wrong”. Further, the ride quality remained Germanically firm anyway, with little difference that I could detect over the steel sprung brethren; at no point could you imagine you were getting the magic pillow effect of a DS or the ethereal glide of an XJ6. So, a bit of a dead end then, but I see that it has come back, augmented (?) with electronics; a search of the web shows many steel spring replacements when the new stuff, equally inevitably, goes, equally expensively, wrong. £1,000 for a spring/damper unit? Nein danke!

    1. The air sprung Benzes never were meant to be magic carpets or particularly comfortable. They needed something to limit the camber changes of their swing axle rear suspensions.
      Air springs went out together with those Fritz Nallinger memorial rear axles.

  2. Indeed they did. But on the steel sprung cars they had the “compensator” spring unit over the diff that supposedly had the same effect, did it not? Makes air suspension look even more like a sledgehammer to crack a nut to my (non-engineering) mind.

    1. Forgive my intervention, but didn’t the so-called ‘Low pivot’ swing axle come slightly later? Mind you, Mercedes-Benz had form with recondite solutions to engineering problems – witness the elaborate air-brake apparatus as fitted to the SLR race cars in 1955 – so the development of air springs as a means of taming the wayward behaviour of its chosen chassis layout seems entirely in character.

      Can anyone adequately explain the German marques’ fidelity to the rear swing axle – and later to semi-trailing arms? Cost? Compactness? Sheer bloody-mindedness? A combination of all three?

    2. The low pivot (and above all single pivot) axle came with the W120 and spread through the other models. The compensator spring primarily served the purpose to laterally transfer load from one wheel to the other under cornering and to prevent excessive camber changes under acceleration. There was no self levelling function until the hydropneumatic levelling device was introduced. Against the latter, the air sprung suspension had no advantage.

      Mercedes’ suspension design just as everybody else’s developed in sync with tyre technology. With narrow profiled, tall section cross ply tyres there wasn’t much to be gained by suspension design as long as you had independently sprung wheels.
      The first big quantum leap to ubiquitous radials with lower section and wider profiles made it essential to have much tighter control of geometry of wheel movement to keep the rubbers perpendicular to the road. This was the end of rigid rear axles including DeDion designs and pushed the wide spread use of semi trailing arms (it was an absolute tragedy that Alfa designed the Alfetta platform with a DeDion rear suspension that prevented them from making use of modern tyres). Semi trailing arms were state of the art until the late Eighties and even then a properly designed and tuned semi trailing system was not necessarily inferior to a multilink setup as can easily be seen when comparing BMW’s M3 E30 and E36.
      Mercedes was a big late here because they did adapt to these new tyres only very slowly
      The next big leap in tyre tech was possible because of availability of design computers which made multilink suspensions possible that would be impossible to design iwthout computers.

  3. For those who think air springs went the way of the Dodo, Wiki states otherwise with their widespread use in trucks, rail cars, custom cars and a range of production cars including Tesla.
    Since Tesla is full electric and silent its odd I’ve not heard one mention of any noise produced by
    its compressor!

  4. What always makes me think when I see car prices from this era is how hugely expensive cars were in comparison to salaries compared to now.

  5. My 1988 Subaru GL Turbo wagon had four wheel air suspension. This was the warthog-looking model that preceded the first Legacy, and had a huge and high load area.

    Had an air-valve go once which entailed a banging 20 mile ride to the dealer on the bump stops after I pulled the fuse on the compressor to temporarily put it out of its misery. It was ten years old by then, but only two years old for me – I bought it used as a winter beater AWD. Subaru gave me 3 new airspring bags at half-price, one having been replaced earlier. $900 out the door, not bad. I bought a new Impreza the following year when the special $800 “turbo” fuel pump in the fuel tank quit.

    Subaru certainly could not have read of Borgward’s ground-breaking abolition of body roll via air springs. The GL was a soft-riding son-of-a-gun that could swallow large loads after two minutes of roaring compressor running. The headlights were always spot on, creating no glare due to the self-levelling.

    If you were extremely gentle and smooth with your steering input so as not to upset the analogue control system, it would corner quite decently with much lean, rather like a 1965 full-size Pontiac. All a bit underdamped, but fun to master, because it was different all right, but the suspension geometry was obviously not bad.

    Still, if one looks at the production quality of the late 1950s, Borgward were a bit brave to use air springs then. Surely, it would not take a rocket scientist to ponder that the Mark 1 systems of the time were highly unlikely to be reliable for any lengthy period. Citroens proved good for about three years here before driving their owners round the bend on an admittedly much more complex systems. But then they didn’t use Firestone rubber bags either so far as I know.

    Interesting article. I’d buy an airsprung car again. Just not a German one. Underdevelopment plagues them; they’d rather make three dozen niche roof variations on a theme than perfecting the mechanicals in my humble opinion.

  6. I’ve had my share of leaky Citroën hydraulics, yes! Almost inevitable after a half-million kilometre career with vehicles mostly in the 15 to 25 year range. One incident was actually due to a rusted high-pressure pipe, but mostly, it was the rubbery stuff going wrong – pump gaskets, return hoses etc. So with all that rubber stuff in an air-sprung car, I wouldn’t trust it if it’s a bit older.

  7. The P100 was so nearly great.

    There had been big Borgwards before – in the post WWII era Carl produced the Hansa 2400 from 1952 to 1959, in which time it evolved from a dramatic Windspiel fastback to a longer wheelbase Stufenheck better suited to the Bürgermeisters and Sparkasse managers of middle sized Hansestadten. Just over 1000 were made; the big Hansa’s main purpose was to show Mercedes-Benz and Opel that Borgward could do big cars too.

    The ambitions for the P100 were far greater. The large commercial vehicle lines – possibly Borgward’s most consistently profitable operation – were moved to a new site at Osterholz-Scharmbeck to make room for P100 production at Sebaldsbrück.

    I’m told by those who have borne the grief that the Bosch valves were the source of the Airswing system’s failing. They allowed water into the pneumatic pipework, and introducing an incompressible fluid into a system which worked with a compressible gas was a recipe for disaster, even before corrosion played its hand. Mercedes-Benz learned from Borgward’s failure, and developed a fully sealed system.

    In its very short production life, the P100 still managed to treble its predecessor’s sales. As Eoin notes, the Airswing system was an option, but corporate hubris prevented it from being withdrawn until the problems were addressed.

    A four cylinder P90 with the OHC engine intended for the second generation Isabella, and a P75 with the Isabella TS engine were waiting in the wings, but the unpleasantness of 1961 prevented them reaching the market.

    The P100 is not a huge car – it’s scarcely wider than the Isabella and slightly lower – but it has real presence.

    Some pictures below – the last two are of a Mexican P230 built in the late 1960s and now returned to its spiritual home city.

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