“The Ultimate Driving Machine” is the perfect slogan for a German motoring company that has produced some of the most respected luxury cars in the world.
BMW stands for Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works) and at its heart has always been the “Motoren”. It has successfully engineered cars, motorcycles and aeroplanes around its high performance engines.
As part of the “German Big Three”, along with Audi and Mercedes-Benz, BMW takes centre stage as one of the biggest selling luxury car makers around.
But things started with planes rather than cars.
BMW's roots go right back to the start of the 20th century and it was the First World War that provided the spark to ignite its history.
Over the course of the next century BMW has suffered some serious setbacks as Germany's fortunes ebbed and flowed but it has powered through to become a must-have status symbol and badge of pride for those who can afford it.
Here are some of BMW's highlights.
BMW started life as Rapp Motorenwerke, making aeroplanes to help support the war effort.
BMW’s world famous logo was based on the blue and white Bavarian national flag, taking the shape of Rapp Motorenwerke's original emblem.
As the Allied forces swept through Germany after World War 1, they seized much of BMW's assets and destroyed them. This was the first of several major setback for the company.
The Treaty of Versailles banned aircraft production so the decision was made to switch to motorcycle manufacture.
It wasn't until 1929, when many further restrictions of the Treaty were lifted, that BMW actually first started to manufacture cars.
BMW's first car was the Dixi. It was an evolution of the English Austin 7, a small car that BMW's engineers had adapted into a more classy and powerful six-cylinder luxury car.
Josef Ganz was brought into BMW as a consultant engineer. Ganz was a controversial figure, well-known for his frequent attacks on established motor companies, accusing them of making clunky, downright unsafe cars. After a short but distinguished career, he was eventually forced to flee Germany during the Second World War and ended up in Australia working for Holden.
BMW started work on the BMW AM1, a small car with a sharp front-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive.
BMW started work on the 303 which was the first BMW to use a straight-six engine, as well as featuring BMW's signature “kidney grille” which is still in use today.
In the lead up to the Second World War, BMW thought it was making the smart choice by going back into aircraft production. Yet there were significant dissenters. BMW's leading voice, Franz Josef Popp, warned against going back into the arms race as it would open the door for the Nazi party to control them.
Unfortunately, Popp was right and BMW was pressured into making a wide range of aircraft for the infamous Luftwaffe.
Just like in the aftermath of the First World War, the Allied forces came in and stripped BMW of its factories and banned them for making motor vehicles of any kind. BMW had to scrape a living making pots, pans and even bicycles before they could finally start making engines again in 1948.
As BMW's production had taken a pretty serious hit it decided to concentrate on building high-class, luxury cars with high-profit margins.
Cars such as the 501 cost four times the average German's wage at that time. The 501 was spacious, safety-conscious and powered by BMW's M337 straight-six engine. Unfortunately, it failed to compete with Mercedes-Benz and suffered from production delays.
The German public was noticeably moving in an opposite direction. The popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle, or the “people's car”, was based on its affordability for the rising middle-classes.
BMW decided to play both the luxury market and the popular market, but again they failed to make a real impression.
The BMW 600 was an affordable, family car but it was not a commercial success. It did little to challenge the larger and more powerful Beetle.
However, it did pave the way for the successful BMW 700.
Just as the end was in sight, with plans to merge with Daimler-Benz reaching a seemingly inevitable conclusion, BMW rolled out a winner at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
The 1500 was a sporty, compact sedan with front disc brakes and four-wheel independent suspension. It was also the first BMW to have the signature “Hofmeister kink”
It became the start of the “New Class”. The “New Class” was admired by industry pundits and the general public alike, and finally BMW got the luxury reputation it had fought so hard for.
BMW, riding on the success of its “New Class”, released the large “New Six” sedans. These piqued the curiosity of motor enthusiasts, as these sporty numbers differed greatly from their competitors, and managed to make the rest of the market look decidedly boring.
The “New Six” helped BMW to become a commercial success and helped it break out of Bavaria and go international.
Riding on its success in the swinging 60s, BMW entered the 70s in style. Its new HQ in Munich was styled around four giant engine cylinders – a tribute to what had made the BMW reputation.
Bob Lutz took control of BMW and helped set up its first international sales division in France in 1973.
BMW showed off its sporting prowess on one of the most infamous race tracks in the world, by winning the 24 Hours Nürburgring an incredible 19 times, and the 1000km Nürburgring twice.
BMW's 3.0 CSL was the first car to be developed by BMW Motorsport and flew the BMW Motorsport colours – red, blue and purple. The CSL was nicknamed “the Batmobile” because of its aerodynamic wings.
BMW Motorsport launched its M series with the classic M1 – the guttural roar of its powerful six cylinder engine and sublime styling made it an instant classic. Only 455 M1s were ever made making it an instant collector’s classic.
The road version of the M1, the E26, was a born and bred supercar. The M1 E26 used the six-cylinder engine from the 3.0CSL and could reach an impressive 165 mph.
BMW founded a think tank, BMW Technik GmbH. Freed from the need to constantly develop its current models, the tank's engineers, designers and technicians were able to concentrate on creating futuristic concept cars. Its first project was the sleek Z1 Roadster which was released in 1988.
The 1990s and beyond
BMW continued to go from strength to strength. In order to preserve some automotive heritage, BMW bought the British Rover Group, which gave them the rights to Rover, Mini and Landrover. This also gave them the rights to many classic car brands that had fallen out of use, such as Austin, Morris and Triumph.
Later BMW purchased Rolls-Royce, giving them a huge corner in the luxury car market.
BMW Motorsport continued to hit it out the park, winning 6 titles in the British Touring Car Championship in the early 1990s alone.
In 1999, the BMW X5 debuted at the Detroit Auto Show. This was BMW's first SUV and placed its sporty, powerful engines in a 4WD all-terrain vehicle.
Controversial design chief Christopher Bangle took charge in the early years of the new millennium. His complex curved and concave designs were named “flame surfacing”. These “Bangle-ised” new designs and design language ruffled the feathers of many established BMW enthusiasts but are now mirrored by other car brands.
BMW relaunched the ultimate small classic car, the MINI, in 2001. The car was not nearly as mini as its ancestor but kept its sporty feel and chic design.
In 2012, Forbes.com ranked BMW as the No. 1 most reputable company in the world. BMW, after a slow start and long history of financial trouble, has finally ridden its way to the top of the pile and show no sign of giving up its throne.
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