We recall the extraordinary career of Walter Schätzle, a former Borgward dealer whose dedication to the marque briefly made him West Germany’s smallest carmaker.
The collapse of any large manufacturing business is a traumatic and far-reaching event. Lawyers quibble, accountants audit, suppliers stumble, vultures gather. When the collapse involves an automaker, loyal customers feel that their prized vehicles are like orphans and may find that their only support and solace is the dealer who sold and maintained their cars. Many of those dealers will have moved on to other franchises – they have to make a living – but some remain in the thrall of the defunct marque, with a dedication that far transcends vulgar commerce.
The collapse of Bremen-based Carl F W Borgward GmbH in 1961 shook the assuredness of Wirtschaftswunder West Germany, but the controversial story of that event is beyond the scope of this article. One former Borgward dealer, Walter Schätzle (1928-2021), not only went above and beyond expectations to support owners across Europe, but also built around 140 new Borgward Isabellas between 1963 and 1967 at his premises at Oberhöchstädt, a satellite village of Kronberg, 15km northwest of Frankfurt.
After it became clear that Borgward could not be rescued, Schätzle had taken on Simca and Volvo franchises, but considered the French and Swedish cars to be no more than the trade goods by which he made a living. His passion was for the Bremen marque and many of those who shared it beat a path to Oberhöchstädt, not only from within Germany, but from neighbouring nations such as Switzerland and Luxembourg.
In September 1965, news magazine Der Spiegel – certainly not the favourite publication of the Borgward faithful(1) – carried an article about Schätzle’s work and ambitions, describing him as “Germany’s smallest automobile manufacturer”. The dealer-turned-carmaker is portrayed as a saviour figure for loyal Borgward owners who were unwilling to accept a modern substitute for their crashed, broken-down or worn-out cars.
When repairs were not feasible, Schätzle drew on his stock of spares to build complete cars, using his own system of chassis numbering. The Speigel article provides a useful snapshot of the first two years of the Oberhöchstädt operation: seven mechanics working only on new cars, production rate a modest two cars a month, using bodies and drivetrains supplied by Borgward’s still-extant spare parts operation. 38 cars had been built, and the Schätzle Produktionsstätt had parts in stock for 30 more.
Even in 1965, parts were becoming scarce, and the resourceful Schätzle turned to suppliers in the Hesse region to supply pattern bearings, exhausts, brake drums and driveshafts, both for his own cars and also for general spares supply.
The article reported that the Oberhöchstädt Isabellas were priced at DM7,800 for the 60bhp version and DM8,500 for a 75bhp TS. These were only DM700 more than 1961 factory list prices. Their specification was described as being as planned for introduction at the Frankfurt Internationale Automobil–Ausstellung in autumn 1961, with a simple black mesh radiator grille and round instruments.
Der Spiegel’s ‘cottage industry’ portrayal is rather confounded by the report that Schätzle had secured a 20,000m2 site to expand his operations and was negotiating with Borgward’s bankruptcy trustee to buy tooling from Sebalsdsbrück at a cost of around DM300,000.
In the years which followed, the ‘continuation’ Isabellas relied increasingly on Volvo major components. When complete Borgward engines were no longer available from the factory, the later Oberhöchstädt Isabellas were fitted with the Volvo B18 engine and its associated gearbox with a floor gearchange and the option of overdrive.
The Volvo engine was of a more conventional construction than the Borgward unit, with a cast-iron cylinder head rather than the Isabella’s aluminium casting with integral inlet manifolding in a downdraught arrangement. However, the 300cc larger Swedish engine gave a useful power increase, with up to 115bhp available from a twin carburettor high-compression version. It also benefited from five main bearings, rather than the Borgward’s three.
Schätzle’s prices rose gradually, although never beyond the reach of comfortably affluent ‘friends and admirers’. Possibly the peak of Oberhöchstädt’s achievement was a coupé with the highest performance engine and overdrive, sold for around DM15,000.
As well as the expedient mechanical substitutions, some Oberhöchstädt cars featured styling experimentation. One car was given a Borgward P100-like tail treatment, devoid of fins and looking rather good. Not that Borgward would have contemplated such a thing, since the design of an all-new Isabella was at an advanced stage before the 1961 unpleasantness.
A later saloon (see article header) has a heavily reworked four-headlamp front-end based on Fiat 1500 parts(2). This one-off Isabella is likely to divide opinion, not least for its tiny, rather apologetic diamond badge. Realism was starting to creep in: “You have to know where your limits lie.” said Schätzle in a much later interview in Auto-Bild Klassik when asked if he considered making more examples of the restyled Isabella.
The Borgward continuation operation enjoyed a steady demand from friends and admirers of the Isabella, but production came to an abrupt end in 1967 with a court order for Schätzle to cease manufacturing complete cars to designs for which he had no intellectual property rights.
Walter Schätzle had caught the manufacturing bug, and the enforced cessation of Borgward assembly did not extinguish his ambitions. A few years later he purchased a large quantity of surplus Glas Goggomobil components from BMW, Glas’s parent company, which had ended production of the two-stroke microcar in June 1969(3). A prototype city car, the AWS Shopper, was first revealed in 1970 but production did not begin until 1973.
AWS (Automobilwerk Walter Schätzle) established a factory in Rudow, a southern Berlin suburb divided by the building of the notorious wall. It can reasonably be assumed that the West German government provided substantial grant aid to the project in their drive to attract any sort of manufacturing industry to the western-occupied sectors of the four-power city.
The Shopper design was ingenious, based on a square-section steel tube spaceframe with connecting nodes, and clad with pre-finished flat steel panels. The Goggomobil components were not holy writ to the design – an early prototype was front-wheel-drive, using a Lloyd LP400 powertrain and suspension in a spaceframe constructed from exhaust pipe tubing. The production Shoppers were rear engined, like their Glas progenitor.
Regrettably, the production Shopper took the ‘folded paper’ styling approach to a new extreme. This resulted in an appearance akin to an ad hoc car built by a school technical class, or one of the many well-intentioned but much-maligned ‘developing world’ vehicles which had started to emerge by the early 1970s(4).
Production began in 1973, and the Shopper was soon joined by the more versatile Piccolo, available as a beach-car, pick-up, hunting car, and factory transporter. Schätzle deserves some credit for his ingenuity and determined marketing, but the product was visually unappealing, overweight and underpowered, and at a base price of DM5,700, cost more than a new VW Beetle. Most purchasers were holders of the old Category IV driving licences(5) which limited them to sub-250cc vehicles of a type no longer produced by mainstream German manufacturers.
The West German car market had long since moved on from desiring a latter-day Borgward Blitzkarren or Goliath Pionier, and series construction at the AWS manufacturing operation only lasted from 1972 until 1974, when the business became insolvent after the production of 1,400 Shoppers and 300 Piccolos.
(1) In late 1960, Der Spiegel carried an article which claimed that Borgward was facing imminent bankruptcy. The factual basis of the article and its sources of information, are questioned to this day, but it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Bremen carmaker had a number of serious product-related troubles, but when its assets were sold, all creditors were able to be paid in full, demonstrating the falsehood of the magazine article which was seen by many as pushing the company over the edge.
(2) By this time, Schätzle had added Fiat to his franchise portfolio.
(3) The Goggomobil had been in production since 1955, and the final batches all had the 245cc engine to meet demand from Klasse IV driving licence holders. When BMW announced the end of Goggomobil production in spring 1968, Hans Glas considered setting up his own business to buy parts and tooling to continue production. This never proceeded beyond an honourable ambition and the former head of the family business died in December 1969.
(4) Licensing for developing world production was one of Schätzle’s ambitions for the Shopper / Piccolo, as was use as as a lightweight, parachutable vehicle for airborne troops.
(5) The Klasse IV licence was abolished in 1954, but existing holders were still entitled to drive sub-250cc vehicles without passing the more demanding test for larger engined automobiles.
Der Spiegel archive.