Although we tend to think of the German auto industry as one continuous success story, it actually parallels the U.S. in terms of the carmaker corpses littering the landscape. Though there are plenty of mourners on this side of the Atlantic for the DeSoto, Packard and Studebaker, not to mention the Franklin, Locomobile and Pierce Arrow, the German failures are less well known.
I once came upon the carcass of a Lloyd microcar in a barn attached to an apple orchard in upstate New York. The Henkel had a brief heyday, also making bubble cars in the 1950s. The DKW, later absorbed into Auto Union (which became Audi), was an ungainly little beast, but you saw them everywhere in Europe. Seen any Horches lately? One old German luxury name, Maybach, is being revived as an upscale Mercedes-owned limousine.
When I was first old enough to notice cars, my grandmother drove an ultra-rare Borgward Isabella TS station wagon. Carl Borgward’s creations were exemplary, though Carl himself was not. Born in 1890, he tinkered with all things mechanical and, after working at Hansa-Lloyd, built his first car in 1934. Soon after, he became a Nazi and his wartime years were spent producing trucks for the war effort. According to one history I consulted, more than a third of his employees at that time were "sourced" from the Soviet Union, meaning they were slave labor. (Maybach employed slaves, too.)
Borgward’s factories were destroyed in Allied bombing raids, deservedly so it would seem, but he managed to rebuild. A phoenix-like Borgward produced the first all-new postwar German car, the Borgward Hansa 1500, in 1949. Borgward himself was interred by the Americans after the war, but it didn’t stop him from being inspired by American automotive designs (in fact, he read the latest magazines in prison).
Borgward actually produced the tiny two-stroke Lloyd I found in that New York barn during the 1950s. And it also conjured up (from Dr. Borgward’s own design) the elegant Isabella, which was particularly lovely in Coupe form. Some 200,000 Isabellas were produced, including my grandmother’s car. The company might be a household name today if it hadn’t been strangely acquired by the German state of Bremen, which claimed it was insolvent. Events are in dispute, but Borgward lost control of his company and died a broken man in 1963. Shades of Preston Tucker!
The Audi A6 wagon I’m driving this week has an interesting history, too. Its parent company, Auto Union, was formed in 1932 as a combine of Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer. It became a very famous name in Grand Prix racing in the years right before the war. The company fell into Soviet hands and was nationalized after Berlin fell, but was then revived in 1949 by two former executives.
Audi itself goes all the way back to 1909, when it was formed by August Horch. The Audi name was dormant from 1928 until 1966, when it was revived for the relatively modest 60-90 Super series sedans and wagons.
Audi has been slowly building a reputation for quality and engineering excellence, and can boast of some of the earliest four-wheel-drive cars in its Quattro series. The Audi 5000 was also a style leader, prefiguring the aerodynamic look of the Ford Taurus.
The A6 was introduced in 1994, replacing the 100 series. My 2.7T wagon, powered by a 250-horsepower bi-turbo V-6, is equipped with a five-speed automatic with a sport mode that yields a high-revving shift pattern. This is really the last word in sporty wagons, offering excellent space that puts the average SUV to shame, gleaming Teutonic fittings with a typically high-quality feel, and faultlessly superior handling and performance. Zero to 60 takes 6.9 seconds. And what great brakes!
Like most German cars (including those old Borgwards), they ain’t cheap. Expect to pay $35,000 to a gulp-inducing $50,000 for an A6.