1960 Borgward Isabella Reader Resto

By: Rolf Zelder with Guy Allen

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German engineering and early sixties style were the big attractions for this rare beauty


1960 Borgward Isabella

The story of this project goes back to 2000, before my wife Sophie and I had kids or owned a house. She came home from work one day, talking about an unusual car she’d seen on the way. From her description it sounded like a Borgward Isabella. I grew up in Germany and knew the cars well, but didn’t know they’d ever been imported to Australia. Sure enough, we looked it up on the internet and confirmed that’s what she’d seen.

We had a neighbour who had one when I was growing up and I always wanted an old sports car, so we started looking. I joined the Borgward club and, over time, helped them translate manuals and online orders. Then one night the then President Ray called to tell me they’d found a car for us, up near Mudgee in NSW.

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I called the owner and he said it’s all complete and an easy restoration. We sort of agreed on a price, I hired a trailer and we headed up that way and got the chance to join in the wine festival while we were up there.

I looked at the car, it was certainly complete but the condition was questionable. So we knew there was rust in there, but not how much. I did the screwdriver probe test, opened up everything, went over the engine, which looked fine and complete. The sump wasn’t the original, but you could find another. Sometimes you wear rose-tinted glasses and I think this was one of those times. And maybe I didn’t want to see the problems, because whole cars are very scarce. Usually you find a body or an engine, but rarely both.

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Rolf ended up doing a TAFE course so he could tackle some of the work

So I got it home and started opening it up properly and, yes, there was a lot of rust in there. All the floors were gone, the sills were gone, the fenders and doors were gone. I was in a panic and very disappointed with myself that I didn’t see it. Still, completed ones are very expensive and restoring them is fun! Well, I thought it was fun.

The first task was to work out what to do with the body. I got some quotes and we were looking at about $10-12,000. More than I could afford. So a friend and I got the idea of enrolling in a local TAFE course on body repair. It was at Richmond and I just kept re-enrolling, so they go to know me!

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After a few months, when you know what you’re doing, they’re happy to let you use their equipment. The condition is you can’t haul whole cars in there – it’s parts you can carry, only. So a lot of the parts you see, the fenders, the doors and roof were taken in and fixed over a couple of years. The facilities were great. All the sheet metal was there, the bending machines, the presses and the welding equipment, plus the instructors were really good.

Then I parked it for a while, because the house and the kids happened!

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The swing axle rear end got as complete refresh. Love the blue components

Eventually we started to look at the paint. I did the boot as a test run and decided I couldn’t really do it. We needed a professional. So I looked around. I was looking for someone who could do lead work as well and we ended up going to Balranald Panels in NSW. My wife grew up on a sheep station near there.

The owner came all the way to Melbourne to have a look and agreed there was a lot of work yet to be done, and they took it on. They fell in love with the car and did a super job. They even had a going-away party for it! A buffet and a reveal – it was just beautiful. They did it incredibly quickly. I said I was in no hurry and we discussed six to eight months. It was done in two!

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So I got it back and had to put all the mechanicals in. Someone from the club helped me with that. Even that was a challenge. The engine blew up on me. The bearings were gone, the pistons were gone, the springs were the wrong ones – there were a lot of problems. The guy who last reconditioned it didn’t know what he was doing. Maybe it was a backyard job – who knows.

I needed a block and called around everywhere. We had club members looking in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth, and got on Facebook. Everyone said no. Then one night I get a phone call from a guy who says "you’re looking for a new block – I’ve got one behind the shed". So I jumped in the car and it turned out he was only five minutes around the corner from me! It had been there for years.

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Interior has been left original and includes some unusual features for the day, such as split ventilation and temperature controls for the driver and passenger

I measured it. It was dead original, perfect and unmolested. It cost $50 – he said, "Take it, I can’t use it, and at least we know we’ve got another Borgward on the road." That happens a lot in the club. We help each other out as much as we can, often sharing spare parts.

With John at JDM Industries we did everything: new bearings, pistons, we did the head. Everything possible was replaced. We got all the parts from Germany. I have a guy over there – you pay a little bit more but everything is spot-on.

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The engine is a 1.5 litre four cylinder, with pushrods. It’s running a column-shift four-speed manual that is all synchro.

It’s funny how the minor things can trip you up. Like a reverse switch, that lights the rear lamps when you’re backing up. I searched for months. Everyone in the world knew I was looking. I eventually got an email with a picture saying do you want this? It was new old stock still in the original package. I was over the moon.

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I asked for the price, and he just said give me an address and I’ll just mail it to you. The majority of Borgward people seem to be like that, happy to share. I bought a lot of parts from other owners.

So why get an Isabella? Look at it! It’s the shape. I always wanted a sports car and I loved the story around it. Borgward was a good company to work for and was very fair to its employees. On top of that my father, when he was a student, was working for a bearing company which sent him to Borgward for a little while. He was asked to check some calculations for a project and found a problem. Because of that he saved the company a lot of money and Borgward responded by rewarding him.

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Swooping lines are distinctive but make good panel beating and paint absolutely critical

As for buying a classic Borgward, the advice is it has to be complete. The body needs to be recoverable – mine was almost beyond that point. You can get a lot of pieces for them, including some plastic parts, but chrome parts can be hard.

Driving it is like any other sixties car – it’s lovely. You can hear the engine and it drives beautifully. It’s a cruiser.

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Under the paint

Anything this age is going to have some rust traps lurking under the duco.

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No half measures

Going to this extent is a lot of work, but it means the end result should last.

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Getting the roof right was fiddly, particularly after some kids had used it as a trampoline.

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New clothes

The two-tone grey-silver was left to professionals.

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Dodgy build

The engine turned out to have suffered a dodgy rebuild and eventually required a replacement block.

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Are we there yet?

The body and engine are done, but there’s a hell of a lot of fiddly work to come.


1960 Borgward Isabella

ENGINE: 1493cc inline pushrod four
TRANSMISSION: 4-on-the-tree
LENGTH: 4343mm
WIDTH: 1600mm
HEIGHT: 1331mm




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