BMW may be a powerhouse today, but for the better part of its 100th anniversary history, the Bavarian automaker was a small player on the world stage. Beginning life as an airplane engine manufacturer after World War I, BMW went on to manufacture motorcycles and, by 1930, their first motorcars. World War II proved disastrous for the automotive division, but by the early 1950s, BMW rebooted its automotive production at a new factory in Bavaria. Throughout the 60s and 70s, BMW continued to improve its production, challenging European rivals and increasing its market share in the U.S. By the 1980s, BMW was a major player in the luxury performance field, and has never looked back.
On the eve of its 100th anniversary, we’ve put together a short list of the most significant BMWs from the past, present and future.
More go-kart than car, the BMW Isetta shares little in common with today’s models, but it was the right car at the right time and kept much-needed revenue flowing into BMW’s coffers. With its chain drive and closely-spaced rear wheels, the Isetta was unconventional to say the least. A single front opening door allowed access for the driver, while power was delivered by a split-single cylinder 2-stroke engine. Originally designed and built by the Italians, the Isetta was licensed to various companies throughout Europe. BMW’s version debuted in 1955 with numerous engineering changes and a more powerful 1-cylinder 4-stroke engine. Although production lasted only 3 years, the car was an important part of the company’s history and enabled BMW to invest in larger, more modern vehicles.
This sleek roadster was built to challenge the Mercedes-Benz SL. Although the V8-powered 507 won instant praise for its styling, the car carried an exorbitant price tag of more than $10,000, and its performance was not as spectacular as its handsome good looks suggested. Even winning the admiration of stars such as Elvis Presley couldn’t convince others to buy the 507. BMW only sold a total of 252 models in its short 3-year run. In the end, the 507 nearly bankrupted BMW, but its imprint on future roadster designs is evident in cars such as the BMW Z3 and Z8. While only a few 507 production cars survived, a mint condition model now fetches in the neighborhood of around $2.5 million, proving that sometimes history, not the critics, is the best judge of great design.
In the eyes of many, the 2002 is the car that put BMW on the American automotive map and helped turn the company’s ailing lineup around. Although European production began in 1962, the 2000 series didn’t come to the U.S. until 1966. Over the next 10 years, it sold quite well. The 2-door 2002 had the functional interior of a small sedan, which made it popular with a wide variety of buyers. Although the 2002 ran with few changes over its production cycle, there were a few upgrades worth noting. In 1972, the high-performance 2002tii model was introduced, and in 1974 the car’s front end was restyled to accommodate the new 5-miles-per-hours federal bumper standards. Noted for its excellent handling, peppy engine and reasonable equipment, the 2002 remains a coveted collectible and can fetch anywhere from $7,000 to $25,000 depending on its model, year and condition.
Bavaria Sedan and 3.0CS Coupe
While the first CS coupe arrived in the U.S. in 1965, it was the robust 3.0CS of 1971 that really laid the groundwork for BMW’s future. Although it was larger than a Porsche 911, the 3.0CS offered similar performance but with more interior room and a stunning sense of style. Shortly thereafter, BMW’s U.S. importer Max Hoffman convinced the company to create a lightweight, lightly optioned version of its most powerful sedan, the 2800. Renamed for the U.S. market, the Bavaria sedan cemented BMW’s place in the minds of performance enthusiasts. This model is widely credited for BMW’s move toward adding a performance element to all of its luxury sedans. It was during this renaissance that BMW’s North American ad agency came up with the slogan, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” a catch phrase that still applies to every BMW built today.
The all-electric BMW i3 marks a major change in BMW’s DNA. Neither luxury- nor performance-oriented, this environmentally-friendly 4-passenger car pushes the boundaries of BMW design, engineering and accessibility to the masses. Although it’s powered solely by a small electric motor, the i3 can be equipped with an optional gasoline engine that does not directly drive the vehicle, but rather serves as a motor/generator to recharge the battery pack. The i3, along with its high-priced, high-performance plug-in hybrid sibling, the BMW i8, sets the stage for the future of BMW cars, and most likely, cars in general.
Most people who know BMW associate the brand with performance and luxury. The pinnacle of this image can be found in the high-performance M variants of BMW’s more traditional sedans, coupes and convertibles. Originally created to enhance BMW’s performance on the race circuit, the M division released its first production car in 1978 with its launch of the exotic M1 coupe. Although hailed in its day, the M1 wasn’t intended for mass production. The first affordable mass-produced M cars came shortly thereafter with the introduction of the M535i, and later the M635CSi. In 1993, BMW Motorsports became BMW GmbH and over time applied the M treatment to just about every car in the BMW lineup. Today’s M cars are noted for their immense horsepower, track-inspired handling and overall bad-to-the-bone attitude. If we had to wager a guess, we’d say the most desirable M car remains the M3, but equally appealing are the M5 and M6 Gran Coupe, as well as the X5 M SUV. The M performance cars have proven so successful that they spawned similar cars from rivals such as Audi (S and RS cars), Mercedes-Benz (AMG) and Cadillac (V-Series).
If BMW’s latest concepts are any indication of the company’s future, the Ultimate Driving Machine may very soon exclude the driver. Seeing the future of autonomous self-driving cars develop at GM, Google and Tesla, BMW is putting vast resources into developing its own line of driverless cars. Looking out over the next century, BMW’s Vision Next 100 concept predicts a car created using 4D printing, a technique that has yet to be invented. The Vision Next 100’s Alive Geometry creates a living vehicle that can mold and adapt itself to the driver’s needs, both inside and out. For example, should the driver choose to turn control of the vehicle over to the computer, the dash and center console melt away to create more room to stretch out. Outside, stretchable skin over the wheels’ wells can shapeshift for better aerodynamics when the car is turning.
Also on the horizon are more electric and hydrogen fuel cell-powered models. In the near term, BMW’s Vision Future Luxury concept points to a more lavish future, with cutting-edge build techniques that virtually eliminate seams and gaps, while producing a stronger, lighter interior comprised of wood, leather, glass and lots of high-tech gadgetry.