In our Fast Facts series, WhichCar delves deep into the history of automotive brands to bring you fascinating facts and intriguing information.
Here we focus on the Bavarian Motor Works – BMW – a company that has produced some of the world’s great sports sedans, roadsters and bikes since it was forced to abandon aircraft-engine manufacturing after World War I.
100 or 101?
BMW celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016, though it could be argued this year is more apt as the Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works) name first appeared in 1917 – changing from the Rapp Motorenwerke aircraft-engine company. BMW bases the start of its history on the previous year, however, as in 1922 it transferred its engine construction operations to the Bayerische Flugzeug-Werke AG company run by Gustav Otto, son of petrol-engine pioneer Nikolaus.
The blue and white centre of the BMW ‘roundel’ is often referred to as a spinning propeller owing to the company, and it’s easy to understand why this has passed into common lore. The BMW badge was first introduced in 1917 with the blue/white combination representing the colours of the state of Bavaria. However, in the late 1920s the company used the emblem as a rotating propeller in its advertising.
World War 1 to two wheels
Germany’s defeat in the First World War can be attributed to BMW’s transition into a manufacturer of wheeled transport. With the company banned from producing aircraft engines by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, it caused a stir at the 1923 Paris Motorcycle Salon with its first motorcycle, the R32. About half of the motorbikes offered today by BMW’s Motorad division still feature the twin-cylinder boxer/shaft-driven layout of the R32.
Hit for straight six
BMW built its first car in 1929, though it was built under licence from Britain’s Austin.
The 1934 303 was more notable for two reasons: its engine started what would be a long (and highly regarded) history of in-line six-cylinders. And its twin ‘kidney’ grille remains a design trademark on all BMWs to this very day. In a way, the 303 could be called the company’s original BMW ‘3’ series, as it was a compact sedan and there were successor models such as the 315, 319, 329.
Roadster lineage begins
In 1936, the 328 began a famous lineage of roadsters that would go on to include the likes of the 507, Z8 and Z4. The 328 – yes, powered by a six-cylinder engine – would dominate sports car racing in the 30s, and would also inspire a famous Jaguar: the XK120.
Germany was one of several nations to adopt a microcar designed by Italian company Iso when BMW launched the Isetta. It fitted its ‘bubble’ car with a 1.0-litre motorcycle engine for benchmark fuel efficiency, and it would find a popularity – more than 160,000 produced – that eluded many of the company’s larger cars.
The 2002 of 1968
Passenger car success for a BMW-built car came in 1968, with a car that was much bigger than the Isetta yet still relatively compact. The 2002 heralded the birth of the sports sedan (though Jaguar’s brilliant, if larger, XJ6 did emerge the same year). It was immensely fun to drive yet also practical with its four doors and boot. It was at its fastest in Turbo form, a variant that was sadly shortlived as the 1973 oil crisis panicked manufacturers and buyers alike. You might be familiar with the 2002’s successor: the 3 Series, which was released in 1975, retained the 2002’s spirited dynamics, and became BMW’s signature model.
M for Motorsport
BMW didn’t set up a separate motor racing division until 1972 – and its now-famous tri-colour stripes first featured on the aforementioned 2002 Turbo two years later. Another famous model was the CSL homologation, which became nicknamed The Batmobile after its extravagant bodywork that included a deep chin spoiler, blistered wheel-arches and a prominent rear wing.
The first of the company’s M cars was the 1978 M1 – a mid-engined six-cylinder supercar intended to allow BMW to take on Porsche in motor racing, only to come obsolete two years later as the regulations for the Group 5 racing series it was built for changed. (Though it did feature in a one-make Procar series, famous for featuring F1 drivers of the time.) Mid-engine specialists Lamborghini were originally approached to develop the car before their financial struggles forced BMW to resume control of the project.
The M division’s first modified road car was called the 1980 M535i with the M5 only emerging five years later. And in 1986 came another BMW icon. The M3 was essentially a homologation special built to validate its participation in motorsport – which it would dominate. Successive generations of both models.
BMW provided the engine for the Brabham team in 1981, powering Brazilian Nelson Piquet to the driver’s title two years later. After a 12-year hiatus, it returned as engine supplier to the famous Williams team between 2000 and 2005 before buying the Swiss Sauber team the following year to become its own manufacturer team. There was minimal success, however, and it left the sport in 2009 with just a single grand prix victory to its name.
Power for the world’s fastest car
Successful Formula One team McLaren announced in 1989 it would be the ultimate road car, the McLaren F1, and it sought out BMW Motorsport for the bespoke power unit: a 6.1-litre V12 with 468kW. Just 100 were made, and from its production birth in 1992 and for much of a decade after the F1 was the world’s fastest production car – capable of acceleration from 0-97km/h in 3.2 seconds and reaching a staggering (and officially recorded) top speed of 372km/h.
British brands obsession
McLaren aside, BMW seems to have a penchant for British companies. It purchased the Rover Group in 1994, though it would sell it just six years later after struggling to manage its sizeable acquisition (the Land Rover part went to Ford). BMW’s one smart decision, however, was to hold onto the Mini brand, building a new-generation model in 2001 that would become hugely popular – and hugely profitable – with a premium pricing position that was the antithesis of the original’s.