BMW didn’t always build ultimate driving machines.
From airplanes to motorcycles to micro-cars, not everything BMW built was luxurious
While it offers all premium vehicles today, that wasn’t always the case for BMW. Like many European automakers, it was hit hard by the Second World War, and for a while it depended on some cheap and oddball cars to keep it going.
BMW’s roots are in airplane engines, and the company was started in 1913 by Gustav Otto, son of the man credited with inventing the four-stroke engine design used today. His firm would eventually become part of Bayerische Motoren Werke — Bavarian Motor Works — known as BMW.
The aircraft company developed a six-cylinder engine for high-altitude flying and produced it for the German military in the First World War, but the victorious Allies shut down the country’s aircraft production at war’s end, and BMW turned to making motorcycles, along with engines for boats and trucks.
It started working on automobile prototypes in 1925, but ultimately decided it made more financial sense to use an existing design. Britain’s best-selling car was the Austin Seven, which German automaker Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach was building under license as the Dixi 3/15 for local sales. BMW took over the firm and got the Dixi with it.
The little Dixi was very basic, and while BMW upgraded it — including a brake pedal for all four wheels, instead of a hand-operated lever for the front ones — it remained inexpensive enough that many drivers struggling with the postwar economy could still afford it. BMW even made an 18-horsepower sports version, up from the Dixi’s usual 15 horses. While its price limited its sales, it was popular among enthusiasts for amateur racing.
BMW’s first original auto design was the 3/20PS of 1932, named for its 20-hp, four-cylinder engine and was available as a sedan or with a convertible roof.
It was common for fledgling automakers to outsource their coachworks while they concentrated on the mechanical production, and in one of those strange twists in auto history, the 3/20 bodies were supplied by Daimler-Benz, which had plant capacity to spare and was not yet a fierce rival.
But the 3/20 was just the opening act for the car that was unveiled the following year and indicated the company’s future path, at least for the next little while: The BMW 303. It had a 1.2-litre in-line six-cylinder engine, twin carburetors, four-speed transmission, and a top speed of 90 km/h. Daimler-Benz was still making the bodies, but with a new addition by BMW designer Fritz Fiedler: The first twin-lobe “kidney” grille.
The 303 was followed by a string of increasingly larger and more expensive cars in the “3” series. They included the 328, which made 80 hp and was developed for racing. It initially won a competition at Nürburgring in 1936 at an average 101 km/h, and went on to post hundreds of victories over the next few years. But racing, and car production overall, would soon come to a halt, after Germany’s forces invaded Poland in 1939.
BMW’s aircraft-engine division had returned to production in the 1920s when the postwar ban lifted, and it again supplied the military during the Second World War. Germany’s government ordered the end of civilian-vehicle production in May 1941, and BMW built personnel carriers, motorcycles, and stationary engines for the war. But most of its factories were eventually damaged by bombs, or stripped by the Allied forces as they advanced through Germany, and had to be rebuilt at war’s end.
BMW restarted motorcycle production in 1948, but its Eisenach plant — home to most of its car production — was now within a zone occupied by Russia. Its plant managers used leftover parts and tooling to produce cars, which they shipped to Western Europe under a favourable exchange rate. BMW cut its ties to the plant and successfully sued. Not only did the factory have to change its name, but dealers had to alter the logos on any cars they had in stock.
BMW restarted its car production in 1952. It had been a premium manufacturer before the war and that’s how it returned, initially with the large and luxurious six-cylinder 501. It added the V8-powered 502 and 503, and capped the series with the stunning 507 roadster. But, still affected by the war’s economic effects, Europeans were primarily buying cheap cars such as Volkswagen’s Beetle, or the tiny “micro-cars” offered by some manufacturers.
BMW was in financial trouble when its chassis engineer spotted a strange, egg-shaped car at Geneva’s auto show in 1954. Built by an Italian scooter company, the Isetta had a rear-mounted two-stroke engine, and its entire front end was the door. The German automaker obtained the license and tooling, and built the Isetta with its own motorcycle engine.
The Isetta didn’t single-handedly save BMW, but it helped bring it back from the edge, and while the four-seater BMW 600 version of it didn’t do well, the more conventionally styled (but still powered by a motorcycle engine) BMW 700 finally brought in the profits.
Extensive financial restructuring — including rejecting a takeover bid by Daimler-Benz — and the 1962 introduction of the new and very successful four-cylinder 1500 sedan put the Bavarian automaker on solid ground and finally looking at a successful future.
The BMW 303 of 1933 was the first appearance of the famous “kidney” grille.