I was excited to see this article on the now archived Russell Smithies site. My two choices for my first classic car were the Volvo 122s or the Borgward Isabella TS – with similar styling and vintage it was a tough choice – so to see this comparison article is great and further cements my view that either would be a fine choice.
Borgward versus Volvo
It wasn’t until 1970 that Volvo phased out the Amazon series, a range introduced in 1956 but not imported until 1958. Although joined in 1966 by the angular 140 saloon, the Amazon had grown to be a well-respected model that had far more sporting appeal than later cars.
With the Amazon, Volvo’s traditional safety reputation hadn’t blossomed to the extent it would with the 140, but it was true the car was strongly built and well finished, no doubt a contributing factor to the numbers that remain on the road today. Even at its demise the Amazons well-rounded lines looked pleasing, if not particularly modern
The Borgward Isabella was a high quality four-seater sport saloon of very advanced specification produced by Carl Borgward’s Bremen based company in West Germany.
Introduced in 1954, it was powered by Borgward’s own 1.5-litre overhead valve engine producing 60bhp. The TS model, introduced in 1955, benefited from a raised compression ratio and a twin choke carburettor which increased output to 75bhp.
The Isabella was a highly successful competitor in saloon racing in the late fifties, with drivers including Bill Blydenstem, who later went on to offer his own performance conversions of Vauxhaull and Opel cars.
Production of the Isabella ceased in 1962, when the company event into receivership following financial troubles.
Although built substantially later than the Borgward featured here, its specification is basically unchanged from that of earlier cars. In 1967, the 121 cost $1022 12s 1d.
The Borgward Isabella TS retailed at a hefty $1426 7s including taxes in 1958, which made it very expensive for a 1.5-1itre car. Our test car dates from 1959 and was the top of the range De Luxe model which featured extra chrome and sundry trim improvements.
By a strange coincidence, these two cars have exactly the same power outputs – 75bhp, though the Borgward’s figure is achieved at 5200rpm and the Volvo’s at 4500rpm.
With its extra capacity, the Volvo might be expected to display a little more torque, and indeed this is the case, the B18 unit producing no less than 1011b ft at Z800rpm compared with the Borgward’s 851b ft at the same speed. On the road these figures translate into tremendous tractability, but it is a surprise that the Borgward feels the torqueiest: in both cars it is possible to start from rest in second gear. The Borgward managed it with ease, but the Volvo displayed some pinking, despite having the lower gearing of the two.
On the move, it is the Borgward engine that feels the most responsive – much more the thoroughbred of these two – and it revs more freely than the Volvo unit, performing with a pleasant rortiness.
The Volvo’s power delivery is much more leisurely, the B18 engine preferring to use its considerable torque to maximum effect lower down the rev range. It is an exceptionally quiet engine at all speeds, but particularly so at tickover, when it is barely audible even from outside the car.
The Borgward’s kerb weight, at 23801b, is slightly higher than the Volvo’s 23241b, and its acceleration figures, predicably, are slightly slower. 0-60mph takes 19.7 seconds in the Borgward, compared with 17.6 for the Volvo, according to contemporary road test reports.
Through the gears, it’s a similar story, the Volvo’s greater torque resulting in much faster times. 30-50mph in top is despatched in 10.7 seconds, whereas the Borgward takes 12.3. From 40-60mph, the Volvo takes 11.5 seconds and the Borgward 14.6. Top speeds are identical at 90mph, but both cars are easy 80mph cruisers, conditions allowing.
The best performance is easier to achieve in the Volvo thanks to its conventional floor-mounted gearchange. The Borgward makes do with a somewhat awkward column shift, a fashionable fitment in its day. Although slick in action and with unbeatable synchromesh on all forward gears, it’s the physical effort of working the lever quickly enough during changes that restricts acceleration.
That said, the Volvo’s exceptionally long gearlever is somewhat daunting to the new driver, but the shift itself is pleasingly accurate and easy, and there is a much lighter clutch action than in the Borgward. Overall, the Volvo is just a bit better in this area.
Although performance may be very similar, the two cars are set up in a totally different way as far as handling is concerned.
The Borgward benefits from independent suspension all round, an advanced feature for its day. At the front is a conventional coil spring and wishbone set-up with an anti roll bar and telescopic dampers. Swing arms and coil springs, again damped telescopically, take care of the rear location.
The Volvo is more conventional, but again uses wishbones and coils at the front with an anti roll bar and telescopic dampers. At the rear a Panhard rod, radius arms and coil springs locate the live axle, which is also damped telescopically.
The Borgward has a more sporting feel than the Volvo, with its stiffer springing and reasonable resistance to roll. Our test car’s rear dampers were in need of renewal as they had all but seized up, but this didn’t appear to hinder the Borgward displaying exceptional levels of cornering and handling.
Despite a mixture of tyres – India radials at the rear and Stomil radials at the front – the car corners level and with minimum understeer, although this is the dominant handling feature before the inevitable rear-drive oversteer takes over. Typical swing axle tuck-in might he expected on the limit, but in normal driving this shouldn’t be a problem.
The worm and peg steering is pleasantly weighted, even if the large wheel is perhaps a shade too close to the driver for maximum comfort.
Braking is achieved with drums all round, and even though no servo is fitted, their
power is remarkable, and, perhaps surprisingly, far superior to the Volvo’s disc front, drum rear, set-up. Only a small amount of play is evident on the pedal before the brakes bite firmly and without grab or pull, and there is certainly no need to push as hard as with the Volvo. 1’he facia-mounted handbrake is powerful too, but the ratchet action needs careful setting if the lever is to stay put.
The Volvo is the boulevardier of the two cars, with a soft, comfortable ride that lends itself to motorway use rather than fast cross-country work. When pushed, the car will understeer hard, but its cornering ability is high, and it is achieved in a thoroughly well mannered and unremarkable way. The Volvo’s competent handling bears testimony to the fact that a well-located rear axle can often be better than a poor independent set-up, and be safer on the limit with no possibility of the inner rear wheel tucking under during hard cornering.
The Volvo’s 15-inch wheels are also fitted with two different types of radial tyre – Skandigs at the rear and Nokias at the front – both leftovers from the car’s Scandinavian origins, from where it was imported in 1988. These big wheels mean the Volvo is not badly affected by bumps and road irregularities, and the ride is pleasant.
Steering is achieved by cam and roller and is neither heavy nor vague, in spite of the car’s large road wheels. There’s plenty of feel and the driver has little trouble in ascertaining the direction of the front wheels.
Like the Borgward, the Volvo is endowed with an impressively tight turning circle which drivers of modern front-wheel drive cars will be unaccustomed to. Turning round in narrow country lanes was achieved, in both cases, in one go, whereas our Vauxhall Cavalier camera car needed at least two ‘bites’ to achieve the same thing. The Volvo’s brakes are powerful enough, but do notinspire the confidence of the Borgward’s and need a hefty shove to elicit sharp response. A servo (fitted as standard to the twin carburettor 122S and 123GT) would make a big difference, particularly with the disc front brakes. The hand brake is mounted to the driver’s left in this left-hand drive car, and it works very effectively.
The Volvo’s shape has lasted better than the Borgward’s and today is still aesthetically pleasing, with tasteful and restrained use of chrome trim and well rounded, simple, lines that are classically elegant as well as functional. There is a chunkiness to the design that imparts a feeling of tremendous solidity in keeping with Volvo’s longevity reputation.
Small windows and a high waistline are not so much old fashioned as characterful these
days, but shorter drivers might find themselves peering through the spokes of the steering wheel as the driving position is set low.
Inside, the trim is smart, if not particularly luxurious. A strip speedometer, temperature and fuel gauges comprise the sparse instrumentation on a painted dash with black plastic top roll.
The front seats are covered in black vinyl and are very comfortable indeed, if a little sweaty on a long trip. Rear seat accommodation is adequate, though with predictable limits on knee and headroom. A centre armrest is a concession to comfort, though the space available means the back is much better suited to small children.
The Borgward has a typically Germanic interior with plenty of white plastic adorning the facia and the steering wheel. The dash is tidily laid out and, like the Volvo’s, is equipped with a strip speedo. A clock is fitted along with the water temperature and fuel gauges.
The seats are covered in red Vynide, which contrasts nicely with the white plastic. The front seats are recliners though not particularly well shaped for fast driving on twisty roads. Their construction is such that it would be possible to treat the front seats as a bench, meaning the Borgward is an occasional five, or even six, seater.
Elasticised door pockets, a locking glovebox, remote-operated quarterlights, opening rear windows and fan-boosted heater were all standard on the Isabella TS De Luxe, though the attractive full length fabric sunroof on this car, together with the radio, were options. The electrical system is rated at six volts.
The Isabella’s rarity means you are unlikely to see many others on British roads. Spare parts need not be a major problem as the thriving Borgward Drivers Club in the UK, and a similar, much larger, organisation in Germany, have taken many steps to ensure that their cars are well catered for.
Finding a good car might present some problems, but plenty were imported in the fifties, and their solidity means survival rates should be reasonably high. Expect to pay in the region of $3-3,500 for a good example, more for the two-door coupe, imported from 1957, and rare Combi estate model,
The 120 series Volvos are becoming increasingly sought after as well-engineered and rugged cars that provide reliable transport with individuality and fine long distance cruising ability. Sporting drivers might prefer to opt for the higher performance 122S with its twin carburettors and four doors, or the rare 123GT which was the sports model of the range, produced, like the 121, in two-door form only. There’s also a handsome estate model with split tailgate for the practically minded.
Prices start at around R2-R2500 for a reasonable condition 121 or 122S, with up to R4000 being asked for really good ones. ‘I’he 123 GT can fetch up to $6000 in top condition, though these cars are now very rare.
Both these cars represent moderate budget classic motoring with many pleasant surprises that will endear them to everyday use. But for the vagaries of its column-mounted gearshift, which no doubt could be mastered reasonably quickly, the Borgward would easily be the driver’s choice, with its combination of sprightly performance and fine dynamic qualities.
The longer distance driver might prefer the refinement and comfort of the Volvo, however, with its easy spares availability and 100,000 mile plus reputation for longevity and reliability. He will also have the choice of two or four doors, saloon or estate.
Whatever your option, you will be buying real quality and practicality – and that is a major consideration for a classic that is to be used.
Popular classics Janurary 1990