Preserving Elegance: Scott Allen’s Borgward Isabella

The German automotive market, both historically and presently, is dominated by a small handful of giants. Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen, and BMW are often the only names that come to mind for even avid European car enthusiasts.

It’s not to say that these makes don’t deserve the attention they receive; but their greatness often overshadows some truly impressive cars from lesser-known producers.

The Borgward Isabella Coupé is one such car. And that’s a shame really, because it’s a car of a rarefied class.

First produced in 1954, the Isabella, originally called the Borgward Hansa 1500, was built right up until 1962. Customers could order their Isabellas in one of six flavors; a two-door sedan, cabriolet, station wagon, Coupé, cabriolet (2+2), or a bizarre and beautiful two-door pickup.

According to Hemmings, it was the most popular model Borgward ever sold, with a final production tally of 200,000 cars — just 9,537 of which were Coupés.

In its day, the Isabella was Borgward’s most successful model and allowed the company to compete with the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The car was built using then-burgeoning monocoque chassis construction.

If specifications are of any importance, an arthritic, 1493 cc, 75hp, inline-four engine sat under each Isabella’s hood. Apparently, with gasoline added, it was capable of moving the car both forward and backward — remarkable stuff.

The Borgward Isabella Coupé’s mechanics are not what make this car magnificent. It was underpowered and served a functional purpose of comfortably ferrying its passengers from destination to destination. What set it apart was, and is, its near peerless sense of style.

For this reason, it’s a car worth preserving. Scott Allen, a long-time Altadena resident is doing just that.

Scott Allen’s 1959 Borgward Isabella Coupé

Allen has been interested in the world of cars since he was in his twenties. After graduating from Occidental College, he purchased a BMW seven series — a car he proudly shares was fitted with a manual gearbox.

Then, he started his career at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where he works as a Systems Engineer to this day. While on the clock, he wades through the documentation of design and telemetry for JPL. In essence, acting as a data liaison between scientists and their spacecraft.

Impressive though it may be, Allen refuses to be defined by his work.

“It’s a good job,” Allen says. “I do a good job at it, but I’m not one of these science people.”

In short, Allen is a polymath: he likes physics, music, food, photography, do-it-yourself home maintenance projects, and much more besides. Among his other interests, collecting and maintaining cars holds a special place in his heart.

It was in 1986 that Allen met his future husband, Bruce Smith — a 1961 Volvo 544 Duett driver who also worked at JPL. Already a seasoned car enthusiast, Smith helped foster what was then a nascent interest for Allen.

But true automotive oddities wouldn’t make their way into Allen’s garage for some time. After two years of dating, Allen and Smith purchased a home together in Pasadena where, after work and on weekends, they filled much of their time fiddling with their cars.

In time, new cars joined their fleet. With something between a grimace and a smile, Allen recalls a time when he and Smith had nine cars between them with only a one-car garage.

As new cars came in, so too did spare parts. At a certain point, Allen recalls entering a Mercedes-Benz phase in his collector’s history — a phase which saw him and Smith meandering through pick-a-part junkyards, amassing an enormous number of highly sought-after parts. Enthusiasm turned to a business venture as Allen soon started selling these junkyard spoils online.

In the last five years, Allen has set about selling off the last of his spares to fellow collectors, and he and his husband have downsized their garage. Now an Alfa Romeo GTV and the magnificent Borgward are the only two cars to enjoy the comfort of the enclosed space (the couple’s day-to-day wheels, a Toyota Prius and a Volkswagen Passat, are relegated to curbside parking).

The memory lingers on, though. Allen remembers with fondness the bygone cars and the work he and his husband put into them.

“It’s been hugely important in our lives,” Allen recalls. “It’s been something that we could work on together. There’d be things he’d be more interested in or that I’d be more interested in, but we still worked on them together. In a wonderful way, we got to play with our toys together.”

The Borgward Isabella Coupé that sits in Allen’s garage today is the second he and his husband have owned. They purchased their first in the mid-90’s. It was Smith who found the original car. They loved the car, and got it for a bargain price, but they soon had to let it go for practical reasons.

“Bruce stumbled across it,” Allen remembers. “I don’t know why (we bought it). Because it was cool? We got it for a few hundred dollars — which is just insane now considering what it would be worth today. It was the same color and about the same year (as our current one). But there were certain things that we weren’t good enough to fix on it.”

An overhead shot gives a glimpse into the Isabella’s red-accented interior

Nearly 25 years passed before the couple purchased another. In that time, they collected and tinkered with other cars, but nothing was quite like the Isabella Coupé.

“It was the style of the body, the dash — it’s luxurious in a way where it’s not a luxury car at all,” Allen says. “No, it’s not a fast car either. It’s a slow car, but here was a lot of thought that went into how it was designed in the aesthetics of it. The lines are just really kind of unusual and in a nice way — it’s sort of like a cross between a (Volkswagen) Karmann Ghia and a (Mercedes-Benz) 300 SL.”

And that really gets at the essence of it. The Borgward Isabella Coupé is special, not because of the minutia of its engineering or the impressiveness of its performance, but instead because it’s just a very nice…thing.

Its leisurely pace, goofy swing axle rear suspension, and limited interior amenities can all be forgiven because of its unequivocal beauty.

The tragedy at the heart of this story is that the Isabella Coupé is part of a nearly extinct strain of cars. It’s a machine that shares the same genetic stock that spawned the BMW 507, the Volvo P1800, and the Jaguar E-Type. Each one a delicate slip of a car — more Jimmy Choo than Hush Puppies.

What made these cars great was that they offered concourse-worthy grace and style to the common man. Today, cars are built with safety, efficiency, and technology as the first consideration. This makes bodies bulkier, interiors more technical, and creative license more restrained. Homogeneity runs rampant.

In the long run, it’s a necessary evil. These sacrifices make our roads safer and our air cleaner. But, for the enthusiast crowd, it means that we will never again see a car made to be as elegant as possible.

That is what makes Allen and Smith’s love for tinkering invaluable. Together, they keep that beauty and sincerity of design alive with every hour of maintenance they pour into their beloved Borgward Isabella Coupé.

Pictures courtesy of Scott Allen

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