Borgward Isabella – the unlikely racer

07th September 2018
Adam Wilkins

Long before he settled into his groove running Dealer Team Vauxhall, Bill Blydenstein had his earliest successes racing a Borgward Isabella. It was an unusual car to race in Britain – German cars weren’t particularly popular here in the 1950s – but it was a choice that made sense as a racing car.


With independent suspension all-round, it was sophisticated for its time, while Blydenstein’s knowledge of gas-flowing and other engine tuning techniques made the most of the car’s 1,500cc four-cylinder. The car won a race at Spa at an average speed of 98mph – Blydenstein extracted so much power from the engine that Borgward invited him to the factory to ask him how he was getting so much performance from the old three-bearing crank, long-stroke motor.

In fact, it the was the low-tech engine that would eventually make the Borgward uncompetitive. It was quite a large car for a 1,500cc engine (the capacity dictated by tax rules of the time) and soon the Riley One-Point-Five was outpacing the German car. Blydenstein moved into a Mini, and then a Vauxhall FB VX4/90 that would begin his long association with the Luton marque.


Gavin Watson was inspired by Blydenstein’s work with the Borgward when he sought to build his own racer. He bought this car for £250 on eBay, and for that had a car that was in pretty good shape – although it did require new sills and some other welding. Copying Blydensetein’s blueprints for gasflowing and other tuning, he has a car that punches above its weight. However, because Borgward went out of business in 1961, there’s no more recent tuning know-how to replicate. “We’re marooned in the 1960s,” says Gavin. The car, therefore, cannot compete with the Rileys and Wolseleys that out-paced it in period, but it’s cars like the Borgward that add vital variety to the Jack Sears Memorial Trophy grid.

Borgward was established by the industrialist Carl FW Borgward and offered a proliferation of models throughout the 1950s. Borgward’s group also included car-makers Lloyd and Goliath, but it collapsed in controversial circumstances. Press reports suggested the company was insolvent, which led to state-backed finance being withdrawn. The company was forced into liquidation, but was able to pay off all creditors with money to spare. Whether the company would have been able to weather the storm of its cashflow problems of late 1960 will never be known, but by 1961 it was all over. Much of Borgward’s R&D team moved to nearby BMW (whose 1500 of 1962 reportedly bore a resemblance to the Isabella’s planned replacement) and the factory became a Mercedes-Benz facility. Carl Borgward died in 1963 still insistent that his company was solvent.

Borgward has a huge following in Germany, but in Britain Gavin’s outing in the Sears Trophy gives us an unusual opportunity to see an Isabella in action. Had things worked out differently, Borgward could have been where BMW is today.

Photography by James Lynch

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