BMW History

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BMW History



 1916 - present


Dixi. Ever heard of them? Well most likely you have if you’re a fan of the Bayerische Motoren Werke. Although BMW would evolve from a grouping of several companies in the early part of last century, the most influential was Dixi, who were very astute in their ability to obtain the license to assemble British Austin Sevens in Germany.

It was in 1928 that BMW officially took over Dixi, and they would continue to manufacture the Austin Seven, naturally re-badged as a BMW. Nearly everyone now knows that the famous BMW badge was a stylized rendering of a propeller at speed, used primarily because, apart from motorcycles, BMW's principal product was aircraft engines (most finding their way into German Luftwaffe’s aircraft during the 1930s and 1940s).

The 303, And The Kidney Style Grille

It would take BMW until 1933 to develop their own design, the “303”, using a 1173cc six-cylinder engine good for 30bhp. This car was the first to use the famous 'kidney' style grille, which has featured on nearly every BMW car, in one form or another, ever since.

The “303” was superseded by the “315” in 1934, now fitted with a 1490cc engine, but the following year it too would be replaced by the “319” with a 1911cc 45bhp engine. All were built from a tubular chassis frame, very advanced for the time, and allowing BMW to further develop the more sporting “329” of 1936.

The 328 had a streamlined, curvaceous, two-seat body style, independent front suspension and hydraulic brakes. Mechanical improvements included the development of a new cylinder head with opposed valves and part-spherical combustion chambers, the valves being operated by a complicated cross-pushrod arrangement.

Three downdraught Solex carburettors helped the now enlarged 1971cc engine to develop around 80bhp, and make the “328” good for a top speed of around 95 mph (over 100 mph was attainable if the engine was tuned for competition work). But unlike the Dixi built Austin Seven, the “328” was particularly expensive, and only 461 were sold before production ended at the outbreak of the war.

The 328 Gains A Stellar Reputation

Despite the short lifespan of the car, and limited number manufactured, the “328” quickly gained a reputation on the circuits of Europe as a stellar race car, even winning its debut race at the Eifelrennen in 1936. In 1937 a well known sports editor for Autocar magazine would achieve over 100 mph at Brooklands in the UK, and the following year the 2 litre class of both the Spa 24 Hour and Le Mans races would be won by BMW “328’s”.

Despite the factory being busy manufacturing for the German war effort, they were able to manufacture 5 purpose built 328s for inclusion in the 1940 Mille Miglia – as racing in Italy would not come to a halt until they too joined the Axis. Two of the cars had streamlined closed coupe bodies, while the remaining three had a streamlined open two-seater style.

To ensure their competitiveness, BMW developed extremely lightweight frames, and refined the engines boosting power from 80 to around 135bhp! The cars were naturally very successful, given that the British teams were not represented and it became an all German/Italian affair. Only one car retired, the remaining four finishing well up the leader board and Huschke von Hanstein, who would later take a posting as Porsche's Competitions Manager, winning the race outright – with an average speed of 100mph.

Dixi Austin 7
Although BMW would evolve from a grouping of several companies in the early part of last century, the most influential was Dixi, who obtained the license to assemble British Austin Sevens in Germany...

DIXI Roadster
The Dixi Roadster was the forebear of many great sports-cars to come...

BMW 328
Good performance but oh-so-expensive, only 461 328's would be built...

BMW 507 The 507 was styled by Count Albrecht Goertz, and could be ordered as either an open car or hardtop coupe...

BMW CS Series
The "CS" series are arguably the prettiest and most collectable of BMW's...

Unfortunately the 3.0CSL was available as a left hand drive only...

BMW 2002 Turbo
The 2002 Turbo proved BMW 4 cylinder engines could offer performance as well as reliability and durability...

The mighty M1 owes much to Lamborghini, Marchesi and Baur...

Previously overlooked by serious collectors, the 635CSi is fast becoming sought after and should prove a wise investment...

BMW and EMW, A Match Not Made In Heaven

Unlike other German auto manufacturers, BMW were not able to enter postwar car production immediately after the war, taking until 1952 to be in a position to begin manufacture. It is worth noting the emergence of Eisenacher Motoren-Werke, or EMW, following the end of the war.

The East German company continued to build cars from a former BMW plant and, for a time, continued to trade and operate as BMW but, despite the existence of the iron curtain, legal action from the West forced EMW to change their name. Another oddity is BMW’s licensing of the Iso Isetta "Bubble Car" in 1955.

Looking more like a novelty than a real car by today's standards, the vehicle was in fact way ahead of its time and proved to be very popular in Germany, taking on rivals Heinkel and Messerschmitt. Even today, with the advent of the Mercedes Smart car, manufacturers realize the importance of having a small economical city car available.

With folding roof and wrap around rear window, the driver and passenger entered via a front hinged door that also lifted the steering wheel when opened. Built with 4 wheels for the local market, some 3 wheel versions were manufactured for the export market. Powered by BMW's 247 or 297 cc single cylinder motor, the vehicle had a top speed over 50 mph and was the forebear to such vehicles as the BMW 600 and 700.

The 501 Signals BMW's Return

But BMW’s first “traditional” car following the war was the “501” saloon, and while it looked new on the outside, BMW engineers stuck with the pre-war 1971cc engine. The same chassis and bulbous body would morph into the “502” in 1954, but now some serious performance was on offer courtesy of a new overhead valve 2580cc V8 engine.

Using aluminium cylinder heads, the engine was good for around 100bhp and it was on the basis of this car that BMW later offered two more sports-cars, the 3168cc Type 503 Cabriolets/Coupe, and the short-wheelbase two-seater “507”, with a 150bhp version of this engine.

The 507 was styled by Count Albrecht Goertz, and could be ordered as either an open car or hardtop coupe. Its chassis was a shortened version of the 501/502/503 design, featuring a mainly tubular construction with box-section members. Independent front suspension was by longitudinal torsion bars and wishbones, the live rear axle also having torsion bars and radius arm location.

Standard versions of the 507 could do the 0-60 mph dash in around 11 seconds, the car being good for a top speed of 135mph. overall fuel consumption was estimated at 17mpg. Even so, the 507 was not a commercial success; considered by most as far too expensive, BMW dealerships were bereft of customers and so in 1959, after only 253 examples had been built, the 507 was dropped.

The Bertone Styled 3200CS

In the early 1960’s BMW would go on to build arguably the prettiest of their designs and one of the most collectable, the bigger and bulkier “Bertone” styled 3200 CS. But despite good looks and sizzling performance, the prohibitive costs would see only 603 manufactured. Management, wisely, decided to invest heavily on the development of a new range four-cylinder saloon cars.

The first sporty car to come from this pedigree was the 2 litre 100/120bhp 2000C/CS Coupe, which was assembled for BMW by Karmann at Osnabruck. These cars inherited the new BMW six-cylinder engines for 1969, and by 1971 had a 2985cc engine good for 200bhp, and were dubbed the “3.OCSi”.

It would seem that while BMW knew that they commercially needed a 4 cylinder car for mass-market appeal, they simply couldn’t resist the temptation to continue to build fine 6 cylinder sports-cars. One of the most prized collector BMW’s is the 3.0CSL, built to go head -to-head with Ford's fabulous new “Capri” in touring car racing (which incidentally say a lot for the Capri!).

Obviously more powerful, the 3.OCSL also used many light alloy body panels. The final development of this design was affectionately known as the “Batmobile”, although disappointingly only 39 would be built; all featuring large front and rear spoilers along with other mechanical refinements. In touring car racing these cars would remain seriously competitive until the late 1970's.

The Homologation Special, With A Little Help From Lamborghini

To follow up this success, in 1976 BMW would produce a new series of coupes, the “6-Series”. But the designers had favoured comfort over weight, and the now “fat” performance BMW models were considered by most as more a “Grand Tourer” than Sports. BMW must have thought so too, and when inevitably drawn to the race circuits of Europe they would develop a homologation special, interestingly originally designed and developed for BMW by Lamborghini.

The mighty M1 had a multi-tubular chassis, all-independent suspension, a fibreglass body with mid-engine mounting and, best of all, a wonderful 24 valve 3.5 litre version of BMW's racing 'six,' good for a healthy output of 277bhp. Styling had been by Giugiaro, and construction of the cars was originally to have been at Lamborghini, but following financial difficulties with the Italian marque assembly was taken on by Baur of Stuttgart.

The M1, though revealed in 1978, was still not ready to go on sale at the time, and to keep up the interest in the meantime, fleets of M1’s were used in the “Procar” series of races, preceding World Championship GP races in 1979 and 1980.

Most commentators considered this as simply a very costly publicity exercise. BMW enlisted top level drivers such as Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet (who won in 1979 and 1980, respectively), these drivers no doubt enticed by the 500bhp output and 200+ mph top speed that racing Ml’s could reach.

And despite such frightening performance, BMW would also develop a turbocharged version, said to produce 850bhp; not for the faint hearted! M1 road cars were not too far behind their racing brothers and, while obviously more refined, offered the same excellent road-holding and were good for 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds with a top speed of over 160 mph. In 1981 production of the M1 would end, after 465 had been built.

Designworks USA

In 1992, BMW acquired a large stake in California based industrial design studio Designworks USA, which they fully acquired in 1995. In 1994, BMW bought the British Rover Group (which at the time consisted of the Rover, Land Rover and MG brands as well as the rights to defunct brands including Austin and Morris), and owned it for six years. By 2000, Rover was making huge losses and BMW decided to sell the combine.

The MG and Rover brands were sold to the Phoenix Consortium to form MG Rover, while Land Rover was taken over by Ford. BMW, meanwhile, retained the rights to build the new Mini, which was launched in 2001.

Chief designer Chris Bangle announced his departure from BMW in February 2009, after serving on the design team for nearly seventeen years. He was replaced by Adrian van Hooydonk, Bangle's former right hand man. Bangle was known for his radical designs such as the 2002 7-Series and the 2002 Z4.

In July 2007, the production rights for Husqvarna Motorcycles was purchased by BMW for a reported 93 million euros. BMW Motorrad plans to continue operating Husqvarna Motorcycles as a separate enterprise. All development, sales and production activities, as well as the current workforce, have remained in place at its present location at Varese.

A Reputation Built On The In-Line Six

BMW’s reputation has been built around it’s wonderful in-line 6 cylinder engines, and to this day they continue to earn much acclaim from industry commentators. We have tried to keep the story brief for internet readability, however in doing so have paid little attention to some very worthy 4 cylinder cars, such as 1972’s 2002 Turbo.

Regardless of engine capacity, one must never loose sight of the fact that BMW have always built a sweet and supple chassis, usually one that all other cars are judged by. So good that, in nearly every review of a BMW that we have read, past and present, the reviewer states that the chassis could “handle more power”. BMW may not be the first car to come to mind when looking for a collectable, but if you are looking for a drivers car...

Also see: BMW Car Reviews | BMW Colour Codes | The History of BMW (USA Edition)
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