Car Brands: Making Automotive History

Author: Joachim Geiger

Oct 26, 2022 Safety on the road

Car manufacturers such as Borgward, Glas, and NSU are still familiar to many people today. But how is it possible that these great brands have all disappeared from the market? A foray through brand history with classic car expert Andreas Lahne from DEKRA Classic Services.

One lesson from automotive history seems clear as day: Passion, technical know-how, and great cars alone are not enough to successfully sustain a company in the long term. But it is also clear that history does not always play fair. After all, some brands that disappeared from the market long ago still have just as much appeal today as they did in their heyday. A look at the turn of the 1950s and 60s puts this to the test. “The so-called Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, set a rapid development in motion in Germany. For the industry, it was all about reinventing the car and people’s mobility,” explains classic car expert Andreas Lahne, who coordinates the activities of DEKRA Classic Services. Companies like Borgward, Glas, and NSU were, in a sense, the startups of their time, even though business angels, crowdfunding, and seed financing were not available back then. Nevertheless, they managed to create automotive legends.
The economic miracle brought the automobile a period of rapid development
The beautiful Isabella Coupé, for example, which rolled off the production line at automotive pioneer Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Borgward in Bremen in 1957, became the dream car of the economic miracle. In the 1960s, Hans Glas in Dingolfing, Bavaria, concentrated on elegant mid-range sedans with ultra-modern engines in which a drive belt drove the camshaft. The top model was the Glas 2600 V8 – a spectacularly styled Gran Tourismo coupé that goes back to body designer Pietro Frua. Another design icon was developed at the same time by NSU in Neckarsulm. The Ro 80 was a masterpiece of engineering, meant to set standards in terms of technology, aerodynamics, and ride comfort. But why did these innovative manufacturers disappear from the market in the end? The reasons for the failure still puzzle brand enthusiasts, historians, and classic car fans: Was it the product? Was it the management? Or were the ambitions perhaps too high?
Borgward was one of the automotive industry’s big stars in the 1950s
In Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Borgward’s case, several factors probably came together. On the one hand, the gifted engineer was a star of the automobile industry in the 1950s – under the umbrella of his group of companies were the brands Borgward, Llyod, and Goliath, which offered a wide range of vehicles from small cars and vans to luxury sedans. On the other hand, Borgward is said to have taken rather little interest in the financial matters of his group of companies. Synergies between the companies? A common platform for different models? Back then in Bremen, this was all still a long way off. The companies of the Borgward group operated on their own account, with their own purchasing and development and testing departments. They ended up producing cars for which there was no market. In 1961, bankruptcy proceedings were opened against the Bremen car manufacturer.
Hans Glas set a very high pace in model development
The 1960s were decisive years for Hans Glas and NSU. The parallels between these carmakers are obvious: Both targeted the middle class with their model policy, both pursued the same ambitious strategy: They created new models and versions almost every year – at Glas, for example, the sporty Glas 1700, at NSU the Prinz 4 with a new design based on the Chevrolet Corvair. But the price for this immense speed was high. After all, automotive development costs a lot of money. If demand then fails to materialize, resources can quickly melt away. Today, we know that both companies were basically short of cash all the time. By comparison, the manufacturers that were already established before the war, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Opel, were in a much better financial position. Hans Glas soon felt the consequences of his risky strategy – he simply lacked the funds to set up large-scale production for his vehicles. Unit sales remained modest and did not come close to recouping the development costs. In November 1966, BMW took over the company.
NSU created an engineering masterpiece with the Ro 80
In the end, NSU’s fate hung primarily on the Wankel or rotary engine, which the company had been steadily developing since the early 1950s. But even the first vehicle to feature this technology – the NSU Wankel Spider introduced in 1964 – proved to be a failure. The NSU Ro 80 introduced three years later with a twin-disc Wankel engine beneath the hood fared no better. Although the sedan was ahead of its time, it failed with customers, not least because of numerous problems with the new engine. NSU’s finances became completely precarious because the company had been developing another model since the mid-1960s, the K 70, which was supposed to complement the top of the range Ro 80 with front wheel drive and a water cooled front in-line engine. The enormously high development costs broke the camel’s back – in 1969, the company merged with its competitor Auto Union.
The DAF and Saab brands had a loyal fan base in Europe
Incidentally, innovative technology and distinctive vehicles are also the hallmarks of the DAF and Saab brands. Neither the Dutch nor the Swedes found a large audience on the European market, but they did have a loyal fan base. When it came to quaint small cars like the DAF 600, the most popular feature was the Variomatic – an infinitely variable fan belt automatic with a centrifugal clutch that enabled jerk-free driving. However, rust-prone bodywork and negligible driving characteristics were early problems for the brand’s image. The bottom line was that DAF’s foray into the passenger car business remained an episode – in view of weak capital resources, the Dutch company decided in the mid-1970s to continue its truck division. The Saab brand, on the other hand, had a longer model history. The Swedes entered the German market in 1973 through a branch in Frankfurt am Main. Aerodynamic design, turbo technology, and safety technology such as side impact protection in the doors characterized the brand’s appearance, as did the peculiarity of installing the ignition lock in the center console. Models like the Saab 99 were soon regarded as cars for non-conformists. For a long time, the Swedes’ recipe for success was to shape their model policy in close cooperation with partners such as Triumph, Lancia, Fiat, and Alfa Romeo. In the early 1990s, however, they ended up with General Motors. There, Saab increasingly lost its brand essence – when GM itself got into troubled waters in 2008, the end came for Saab three years later.
The Trabant writes a chapter in automobile history
The Trabant from VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau has undoubtedly written a piece of automotive history. Ambitious startups should not derive strategic insights from this, however. After all, the Trabant 601 – basically the automobile of the people in the GDR – introduced in 1964, was allowed to lead an unexcited car life almost unchanged for a quarter of a century. When the Berlin Wall came down, it was literally overrun by vehicles with modern technology. On April 30, 1991, production of the small car ended after more than three million units.