BMW 328 Roadster. Click image to enlarge
by Tony Whitney
This year marks the 75th anniversary of BMW automobiles (not BMW itself, as we’ll see later) and the landmark is well worth recording, since this prestigious German automaker has battled back from more setbacks than most of its rivals over the decades.
BMW may be a luxury brand icon nowadays, but at one time, the company almost sank without trace and when it started out, its first vehicle was a long way from the opulent and sporty machines we’re so familiar with today.
Bayerische Moteren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works) had its origins in a company that built airplanes and engines close to Munich’s first airport. The early days were complex from a corporate standpoint, but the company regards 1916 as the year in which BMW was officially founded, though its focus was in the air, rather than on the highways and byways. The old aircraft associations live on now in BMW’s famed logo, which represents a whirling airplane propeller in the blue and white state colours of Bavaria.
BMW was very successful building aircraft engines during the Great War, but at the end of the conflict the victorious allies banned the manufacture of such products in Germany for several years under the Treaty of Versailles. Following this move, BMW was forced to turn its attention to other activities and during the early 1920s, built “boxer” engines for motorcycles, supplying various manufacturers. Ultimately, BMW decided to build its own two-wheelers and, of course, it still manufactures motorcycles and currently has the widest range it’s ever offered.
1929 BMW 3/15 PS, the first BMW leaves the factory.
Encouraged by its success in aircraft engine and motorcycle construction, it was really no surprise that BMW decided to get involved with automobiles. The first product was a modest effort – a version of the famed Austin 7, a tiny sedan inspired by the much earlier Model T Ford and first seen in 1922. In Britain, the Austin 7 was the VW Beetle of its day and BMW built the vehicle under license, starting in 1929. The body was entirely made from steel, unusual at the time, and the car soon picked up the name “Dixi,” a moniker bestowed on it by the car-buying public, rather than the company. The car used a 750 cc four-cylinder engine developing a modest 15-horsepower – a far cry from the powerful BMWs in today’s lineup. Actually, BMW had cars of its own design in prototype form at the time (one of them even had a transverse engine and front wheel drive), but the licensing agreement with Austin was deemed the safest way to go for an emergent automaker.
The company calls the 1932 3/20 “the first true BMW’ and it came in both closed and convertible versions – common policy at the time. The first BMW with a straight six powerplant – still a mainstay for the marque – came in 1933. It was also the first BMW to feature the “kidney grille” – one of the most recognizable nose jobs in the auto industry. In 1936 came the model that was to establish BMW as a high-performance car builder – the legendary 328.
Work continued on aircraft engines and perhaps the most notable application was the famed Junkers 52 transport of the 1930s and 1940s. Several of these classic aircraft are still flying today and I once travelled in one to a BMW press conference in Germany. BMW was a pioneer builder of jet engines towards the end of the war and supplied power units to early German jet warplanes like the Me 262, Arado 234 and He 162.
Unsurprisingly, World War II did little to help the company’s progress in the car business and the post war years were challenging. Most of its production plants were destroyed by allied bombing and one factory was lost to Soviet occupation. The first postwar car was the 501 and the luxury sports car and coupe market was tapped with the 507 and 503 models respectively. Despite some interesting products, including the minute Isetta “bubble car” of the mid 1950s, BMW almost disappeared for good in the late 1950s, but was saved by the brilliant industrialist Dr. Herbert Quandt, who became primary shareholder. The Quandt family is still the main BMW shareholder today.
All kinds of products were explored in an effort to revive BMW’s fortunes, including the little 700, but the breakthrough didn’t come until the release of the 02 series of cars in 1966. These sporty sedans were enthusiastically received and set the stage for today’s 3-Series – the compact luxury sedan that every automaker on the planet strives to emulate. The 3-Series range has a lock on its market slot that no rival seems to be able to break, despite some outstanding efforts. The sixties also saw the introduction of the 3.0-litre CSL coupe, which spawned a series of great successors right up to the current 645Ci.
As BMW grew in stature, it became increasingly involved in motorsport at many levels. BMW engines have been very successful in Formula One and a BMW won Le Mans in 1999. The cars have been raced in all kinds of series around the world and it’s a weak touring car field that doesn’t have its swarm of 3-Series racers burning up the track.
As the years went by, BMW became involved in the very pinnacle of the luxury sedan market and has offered its 7-Series flagships for many years now to compete with rivals from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volkswagen, Lexus, Infiniti and Cadillac. BMW’s stake in the super-luxury class was entrenched by the purchase of Britain’s Rolls-Royce a few years ago. The company’s “M” range of performance models have few equals, even among competitors offering similar tuned versions of standard sedans and coupes.
On the environmental front, BMW has carried out extensive research with hydrogen as a fuel and operates a fleet of 15 7-Series sedans with hydrogen power from its Munich headquarters. Handily, Munich airport has a hydrogen fuel station where the gas is produced on site for vehicles used at the steel and glass “space age” terminal. The company also developed a unique “enclosed” motorcycle-like vehicle, the C1, which is not unfortunately sold in this country. BMW’s prototype electric car the E1 – which I once drove and enjoyed – came to naught like most such efforts, killed off by the progress hybrids and the expected (one day!) dawn of the fuel cell age.
BMW doesn’t come close to being one of the oldest automakers, but few manufacturers have developed more prestige around their names in a span of 75 years. Having just driven the new 507 horsepower V-10 M5, I’m convinced that the company has at least enough energy and creativity for another three-quarters of a century.