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.

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