BMW 507
BMW 507. Photos courtesy BMW. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Although BMW returned to building sports roadsters a few years ago, for a long period it was known for sharp-handling, well-engineered sedans that could run with the best in the world.

But back in the 1950s BMW did build an exciting and memorable sportster. This was the 507 model, and ironically, it came at a moment when the company was going through some very lean times.

BMW came out of the war badly hurt, with half of its company in Eisenach behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic; the plant was nationalized in 1945.

The company was able to resume its motorcycle production in Munich, West Germany, but it wasn’t until 1951 that it managed to build its first postwar car.

When it did get back into cars, it aimed at an upscale market with its 501, a somewhat bulbous sedan with the sturdy prewar BMW six-cylinder overhead-valve engine. An aluminum overhead-valve V8 was under development, but was not yet ready.

BMW 507
BMW 507. Click image to enlarge

The 501 was expensive and its performance was barely competitive when compared with such cars as the English Jaguar Mark VII.

The 2.6-litre (159 cu. in.) V8 was finally ready by 1954 and was fitted to the 502, an evolution of the 501. These two models, although not outstanding sellers, helped BMW get back on its feet in the car business.

The tiny Isetta “Bubble Car,” which BMW began building in 1955, also made its contribution to the recovery. Although it hardly projected the kind of image that the firm was after, BMW had to resort to any kind of car that would earn it a profit.

But the company wanted something more exciting to regain some of the prewar panache it had enjoyed with such models as the outstanding 328. Other companies, like Jaguar with its XK series, Mercedes-Benz with the stunning 300SL, and even the Americans with the Nash-Healey, Chevrolet Corvette and Kaiser-Darrin, were getting into the sports car business.

When it was planning to enter this growing market segment, BMW was encouraged by America’s premier imported-car distributor, Max Hoffman of New York, who had his finger firmly on the pulse of America’s foreign car market. He had brought in almost every imported marque, and had convinced Mercedes-Benz to market the 300SL and 190SL. Hoffman was a very persuasive man, and he usually backed up his convictions with a solid order.

The 503 and 507 two-seaters, introduced at the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show, were BMW’s answer. The 503 was a touring car that could be had as a cabriolet or coupe. The 507 was an out-and-out sports car, and came in open form only, although an optional removable steel top was available.

Albrecht Goertz and BMW 507, June 2005
Albrecht Goertz and BMW 507, June 2005. Click image to enlarge

Both were styled by Albrecht Goertz, a German-American who had worked with Raymond Loewy at Studebaker during the creation of the beautiful Studebaker Starlight and Starliner coupes.

There was no contest between the two new models; the 507 stole the show. While the 503 looked tall and old-fashioned with its vertical BMW-trademark split grille and horizontal body lines, the 507 was sleek, swoopy and taut. And it was hard to believe that it came from the same company that produced the tiny, egg-shaped Isetta.

BMW 507
BMW 507. Click image to enlarge

Its grille was split in a horizontal motif that stretched almost from headlight to headlight, and was canted back at the bottom, giving the 507 a shark-like appearance.

The 507 was based on a shortened 501/502 chassis with a wheelbase of 2,479 mm (97.6 in.). It was powered by the aluminum V8 enlarged to 3.2 litres (193 cu. in.) and developing 155 horsepower.

Suspension was independent with A-arms in front and a solid axle at the rear, with longitudinal torsion bars front and rear. A front anti-roll bar was fitted.

BMW 507
BMW 507. Click image to enlarge

With a weight of 1,315 kg (2,900 lb), the 507 was a quite good performer. In 1957, Road & Track magazine reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 8.8 seconds, and estimated its top speed at 200 km/h (124 mph). It called the handling qualities “really excellent.”

The 507 was a beautiful image car for BMW, but alas, there were problems. Due to limited production capacity, BMW was slow to make the car available in quantity. And when it did come to North America two years after its Frankfurt introduction, it was very expensive, in the order of $9,000, a high price for that time.

In contrast, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, which offered an outstanding racing heritage, much higher performance, fuel injection, and stunning styling with the mystique of gull-wing doors, was priced at about $7,500.

BMW built only 253 507s from 1956 to 1959, and in spite of the high price, it’s doubtful that the company made much, if any, money on it. But it did leave a beautiful legacy, one so powerful that BMW chose to evoke its styling cues in its new roadsters. The 507 is a rare and sought-after collectible today.

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