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