BMW's Early History

To find the origins of BMW as a company, we have to go to 1913. That was when Karl Friedrich Rapp, a distinguished engineer who had been director of an early German aircraft company, set up business to manufacture aero engines. He established his company, the Rapp Motoren Werke, in the Milbertshofen suburb of Munich, capital city of Bavaria. His choice was made primarily because one of his major customers - the Gustav Otto aircraft company - was situated nearby.

Rapp's ero engines were a success, but he continued to look for more work to keep his company busy. In 1916, he secured a contract to build a large number of V12 aero engines on behalf of Austro-Daimler, which was finding that it could not build enough to meet escalating demand. Rapp sought a backer to finance his company's expansion and in March 1916 the Rapp Motoren Werke was renamed the Bayerische Motoren Werke. BMW - The Bavarian Engine Company - had been formed.

Unfortunately, Rapp had made the mistake of expanding too quickly. Within a year, there were problems. Rapp left the company and in his place came industrial tycoon Franz Josef Popp. It was Popp who laid the foundations of the BMW we know today.

You can also read this page about BMW engine history.

Model Produced CC Cyl Power
Description Wheelbase
Body Built
3/15 DA-1 1928-29 748 4 15 beam axle with transverse leaf spring, rear beam axle with leaf springs, footbrake operates on rear-wheels only 75 All-steel saloon body .
3/15 DA-2 1929-30 748 4 15 beam axle with transverse leaf spring, rear beam axle with leaf springs, footbrake operates on all 4 wheels 75 Saloon, 2-seater convertible, delivery van .
3/15 DA-3 1930 748 4 18 beam axle with transverse leaf spring, rear beam axle with leaf springs, foot brake operates on all 4 wheels, high compression engine and drop-centre front axle 75 Roadster, known as the Wartbury .
3/15 DA-4 1930 748 4 15 independent front suspension with leading arms and transverse leaf spring, rear beam axle with leaf springs, footbrake operates on all 4 wheels, high compression engine and drop-centre front axle 75 Saloon, convertible, coupe 18,976 total
3/20 1932-34 782 4 20 tubular chassis, independent front and rear suspension by transverse leaf springs 84.6 2-door saloon, 2-seater and 4-seated convertible saloons, convertible, delivery van 7,215
303 1933-36 1173 6 30 tubular chassis, independent front suspension, live rear axle with leaf springs 94.5 2-door saloon, 2-door with folding roof, convertible, sports convertible 2,300
309 1934-36 845 4 22 tubular chassis, independent front suspension, live rear axle with leaf springs 94.5 2-door saloon, 2-door saloon with folding roof, 2-door tourer, convertible, sports convertible 6,000
315 1934-37 1490 6 34 tubular chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with leaf springs 94.5 2-door saloon, 2-door saloon with folding roof, 2-door tourer, convertible, sports convertible 9,523
315/1 1934-36 1490 6 40 tubular chassis, independent front suspension, live rear axle with leaf springs 94.5 Roadster 242
319/1 1934-36 1911 6 55 tubular chassis, independent front suspension, live rear axle with leaf springs 94.5 Roadster 102
319 1935-37 1911 6 45 tubular chassis, independent front suspension, live rear axle with leaf springs 94.5 2-door saloon, 2-door saloon with folding roof, 2-door tourer, convertible, sports convertible 6,544
326 1936-41 1971 6 50 box section platform chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with torsion-bar springs 113 4-door saloon, 2-door or 4-door cabriolet 15,936
329 1936-37 1911 6 45 tubular chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with springs 94.5 Cabriolet or Sports Cabriolet 1,179
320 1937-38 1971 6 45 box section platform chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with springs 108.3 2-door saloon or 2-door cabriolet 4,185
328 1937-39 1971 6 80 tubular ladder-frame chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with springs 94.5 Roadster 462
327 1937-41 1971 6 55 box section platform chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with springs 108.3 2-door cabriolet (1937-1941) or 2-door coupe (1938-1941) 1,304
327/28 1938-41 1971 6 80 box section platform chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with springs 108.3 2-door cabriolet or 2-door coupe 569
335 1939-41 3485 6 90 box section platform chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with torsion-bar springs 117.5 4-door cabriolet or 2-door cabriolet 410
321 1939-41 1971 6 45 box section platform chassis, independent front suspension, rear axle with springs 108.3 2-door saloon, 2-door cabriolet or 2-door sports cabriolet 3,692
501 1952-54 1971 6 65 All Baroque Angel models had box section side-members and tubular cross-members chassis, double-wishbone independent front suspension, live rear axle located by an A-frame. Springing by torsion bars acting on all four wheels 111.6 4-door saloon 2,125
501A 1954-55 1971 6 72 . - 4-door saloon, 2-door coupe, 2-door or 4-door cabriolet .
501B 1954-55 1971 6 72 The 501B had plusher trim than the 501A - 4-door saloon 3,327 total
501/3 1955-58 2077 6 72 . - 4-door saloon, 2-door coupe, 2-door cabriolet 3,459
501 V8 1954-58 2580 V8 95 Base model 2.6 V8 - 4-door saloon .
501 2.6 1958-61 2580 V8 95 Base model 2.6 V8 - 4-door saloon .
501 2600 1961-62 2580 V8 100 Base model 2.6 V8 - 4-door saloon 5,914 total
502 1954-58 2580 V8 100 Luxury 2.6 V8 - 4-door saloon, 2-door coupe, 2-door and 4-door cabriolet .
2.6 Luxus 1958-61 2580 V8 100 Luxury 2.6 V8 - 4-door saloon .
2600L 1961-64 2580 V8 110 Luxury 2.6 V8 - 4-door saloon 3,117total
502 Super 1955-58 3168 V8 120 Base model 3.2 V8 - 4-door saloon .
3.2 1958-61 3168 V8 120 Base model 3.2 V8 - 4-door saloon .
3200L 1961-62 3168 V8 140 Base model 3.2 V8 - 4-door saloon 2,537 total
3.2 Super 1957-61 3168 V8 140 Luxury 3.2 V8 - 4-door saloon .
3200S 1961-63 3168 V8 160 Luxury 3.2 V8 - 4-door saloon 1,328 total
Isetta 250 1955-62 247 Single 12 . - . .
Isetta 300 1956-62 298 Single 13 The Isetta's had 4 wheels, although the rear two were very close together. The British Isetta's had 3 wheels - . 136,567 total
503 1956-60 3168 V8 140 One of the best looking coupes ever made. - Coupe, Cabriolet 412
507 1956-59 3168 V8 150 BMW's ultra-rare two seater V8 convertible, a classic. - 2 door Roadster 254
600 1957-59 582 Twin 19.5 All 600's were LHD with a single rear door on the right-hand side only. - . 34,318
700 & LS 1959-65 697 Twin 30 The Sport, CS Coupe & Cabriolet had 40 bhp - Saloon, Coupe, Sport, Cabriolet, CS Coupe 188,000


BMW Dixi

The BMW 3/15 Dixi

The 3/15

Inspired by the company's increasing success during the first half of the 1920s, BMW's head, Franz Josef Popp, started to look at ways of expanding its manufacturing interests some time around 1925 and it seemed that motor cars would be a logical addition to the BMW range of aircraft engines and motorcycles.

Theses were times of rampant inflation in Germany however. The effects of the 1914-18 Great War were still being felt and any attempt to sell luxury cars was likely to be doomed to failure. So Popp began instead by considering a revolutionary economy-car prototype designed by Professor Wunibald Kamm. This car was astonishingly advanced for its time, with chassisless aluminium-alloy construction, front-wheel drive, all-round independent suspension and a flat-twin engine - but it was too complicated to be built cheaply. Popp therefore decided to look elsewhere.

Not long afterwards, in 1927, a new economy car appeared on the German market. Badged as the Dixi 3/15, it was actually the British Austin Seven, built under licence in Eisenach. As it happened, Popp knew the owner of the industrial group to which Dixi belonged and he lost no time in proposing a deal under which the company and its manufacturing licences should pass to BMW. And so in September 1928, BMW bought the Dixi company and the famous blue-and-white roundel began to appear on a car which was now called the BMW 3/15.

Design modification, initially minor, soon began to make the 3/15 a very different car from its Austin relative and by the time it ceased production in 1932 it was almost as much the work of BMW's chief engineer Max Friz as it was of Sir Herbert Austin. It was no fault of BMW's that sales had dropped off after the Great Depression of 1930 and that BMW managed to build only 19,000 3/15s in four years while Dixi had sold 9,000 in one year alone during more prosperous times.

Throughout the period of 3/15 production, the car was built at the old Dixi plant in Eisenach. BMW headquarters remained in Munich, some 200 miles away to the south-west. This was where the company had been established in 1916 and it was here that aero engines and motorcycles continued to be built.

The 3/20

The main failing of the 3/15 was its lack on interior space and Frank Josef Popp instructed Alfred Böning to create a larger successor. Böning stretched the wheel-base by nearly 11" and although the chassis still carried echoes of Austin practice in its "A"-shaped layout, he gave it tubular side-members for greater rigidity. He also added the BMW-designed independent front suspension seen on the last DA-4 models of the 3/15 and then went one better by designing an independent rear suspension - advanced thinking for the early 1930s.

The engine was Austin-derived. Starting with the 747cc Austin unit, Böning gave it a new long-stroke crankshaft with plain instead of roller bearings. He replaced the side-valves by pushrod-operated overhead valves and substituted a water pump for the thermo-syphon cooling system. The 20bhp put out by this engine gave the new car its name - the BMW 3/20. Bodies were initially built at the Daimler-Benz body plant in Sindelfingen, although the contract was later switched to Ambi-Budd in Berlin. They were some 3" lower than the old 3/15 types, although still very upright in appearance.

The 303

Many people regard the 303 as the first real BMW and it certainly was the first BMW to have the now-famous double-kidney grille, probably drawn up by body designer Peter Schimanowski. The 303 was the cause of Max Friz's departure from BMW. He had designed an advanced aluminium-alloy four-cylinder engine to meet Franz Josef Popp's demand for more power. However, engine man Rudolf Schleicher proposed a small six-cylinder engine derived from the 3/20's four-cylinder. Add two more cylinders, ran his argument and you can machine it on the same tooling as the existing engine and so save money. Popp wasn't sure what to do, so he asked Wilhelm Kissel if he could consult the Daimler-Benz engineers! They voted for the six - and Friz left in high dudgeon shortly afterwards.

the 303's 1173cc six-cylinder engine had the same overhead-valve layout as the 3/20's four and the same bore and stroke dimensions. However, its block had been redesigned to give more metal between the bores and thus to allow for later capacity increases as well as wider main bearings. The chassis had the tubular side-members pioneered on the 3/20, but it had an improved front suspension, still with a transverse leaf spring, but now with triangular lower control arms. The over-stiff rear suspension was the car's biggest weakness.

The 309

The 3/20 was replaced in February 1934 by the 309. Despite the introduction the year before of the six-cylinder 303, BMW still believed it could sell a four-cylinder car. So it took the 303 chassis and its stylish range of bodies and fitted it with a new 845cc engine. The company's assessment of the market was spot-on, between 1934 and 1936, the four-cylinder 309 sold three times as well as the six-cylinder 303.

The 309's engine was simply a four-cylinder edition of the 303's six, which made use of the extra metal between the cylinders by having a larger 58mm bore. The 80mm stroke remained unchanged however. With 22bhp, a typical 309 was capable of 50mpg flat-out.

The 315

The fact that BMW's next six-cylinder car had a type designation so similar to the 5/15 applied to the licence-built Austin Seven, often causes confusion. This time however, the "15" didn't stand for bhp but rather the cubic capacity of nearly 1500cc - actually 1490cc. The 315 was announced in April 1934. Its engine was a long-stroke edition of the 303's small six, this time giving 34bhp and a top speed of about 60mph. Bodies however, were almost identical to those of the 303.

BMW 319 roadster

The BMW 319 Roadster

Roadsters - the 315/1 and 319/1

The greater performance of the bigger six-cylinder engines, the gradually recovering car market in Germany and the need to improve the company's image were all factors in the development of the BMW Roadsters of the mid-1930s. These cars had strikingly attractive two-seater bodies designed by Peter Schimanowski. Their lines owed more than a little to the vogue for streamlined shapes and also hinted at the way BMW styling would go over the next few years.

The Roadster was first shown with the 1490cc engine as a 315/1 at the Berlin Motor Show in early 1935. However, the engine was not the same as the regular 315s. It had three carburettors and 40bhp, which powered the very much lighter car to a remarkable 74mph.

When Germany removed the tax penalties on large engines in 1935, the 319/1 followed and was the first BMW to have the 1911cc engine. This too, had three carburettors and offered 55bhp compared to the 45bhp of the standard 319 engine. Top speed was 81mph. First seen in the Roadster model it was then offered with other bodies on the 319s which ran alongside the 315s between 1935 and 1937.

Cornerstone - the 326

Fritz Fiedler and chief designer Alfred Böning started work on the 326 in late 1934, designing for it a rigid platform-type chassis with box-section elements. The existing BMW front suspension was redesigned, its transverse leaf spring mounted above instead of below the frame and with torsion-bar springs for the read axle. Four-wheel hydraulic brakes became standard for the first time on a BMW and the steering was by rack and pinion.

The 326 was BMW's first four-door saloon and Peter Schimanowski's styling gave it a remarkably modern appearance. Its most striking feature was the front end, with enveloping wings and a grille which blended smoothly into the front panel. This grille, derived from earlier BMW designs, is the true ancestor of today's famous twin-kidney grille.

The 329

The 326's new styling immediately made existing production BMW's look old-fashioned. Afraid that sales of its roadsters - essentially fashionable cars - might therefore collapse while the 328 roadster was readied for production, BMW created a stop-gap model. It grafted the 326's new front end onto the body of the 319/1 and called the result a 329. The car remained in production for just one year, bridging the gap between the 1936 arrival of the 326 and the launch of the new 328 in 1937.

The 320 and 321

The 4-door 326 took BMW into new territory, but many customers still wanted a cheap 2-door saloon. So BMW developed the 320 for them.
The 320 was announced a year after the 326. It had a shortened 326 chassis and benefited from the latest BMW family styling. However, front and rear suspension were from the old 319 and the engine was detuned.

The 320 lasted until 1938 and was replaced by the 321. Essentially the same car, the 321 came with improved 326-type front suspension and a restyled rear end derived from the big 335. There was also a sports cabriolet. The 321 was never made in large quantities. The war restricted material supplies soon after its introduction and production stopped in 1941.

The 327

The 328 Roadster did much for BMW's reputation in the world outside Germany, but the real stars of the model range of the late 1930s were the 327 coupes and cabriolets. Stunningly styled by Peter Schimanowski, they epitomise the German touring car of the period with their sleek yet curvaceous lines, long bonnets and the hint in their rear quarters of a wild animal about to pounce. Gorgeous two-tone paintwork and the option of rear-wheel spats enhance what are still among the most attractive cars ever to wear the famous BMW roundel.

The launch of the 327 followed that of the 326 saloon at a discrete distance. the cabriolet was announced in November 1937 and the coupe in October the following year. Both had the short version of the 326's chassis as seen in the 320, but both also had the newer 326-type front suspension allied to a rear end carried on semi-elliptic springs. The short wheelbase and long-bonnet styling made seating strictly 2-plus-2.

At first, the 327s came only with a high-compression edition of the 326's engine. Then, from April 1938, the triple-carburettor 328 engine was offered optionally, cars so equipped being rather clumsily described as 327/28 models. Production of all types stopped in 1941.

BMW 327 convertible

327 convertible

BMW 328 racing car

One of the three 328 race cars built in 1941

The 328

The 328 completely dominated sports-car racing in Europe during the late 1930s and played a major part in establishing BMW's reputation outside Germany. The 315/1 and 319/1 roadsters had generated a formidable sporting reputation for BMW during the mid-1930s and it was enumerable that they would be replaced by a new car related to the 326. Böning and Fiedler were given very little time to do the job however and drafted in Alex von Falkenhausen and Ernst Loof to help. Both would have major parts to play in the later BMW story.

A prototype 328 was ready for the Eifelrennen event in the spring of 1936, where it won its class. However, potential buyers had to wait until February the following year before they could get their hands on the new model. The 328 kept the 94.5" wheelbase of the cars it replaced and retained broadly similar styling. Structurally and mechanically it was a compromise though, with a tubular chassis frame, the front and rear suspension of the 319/1 and the 326s brakes. However the real advance came in its engine.

This had the 2.0-litre block of the 326, but its redesigned cylinder head incorporated hemispherical combustion chambers. Relocated valves were operated by an ingenious cross-pushrod system and double valve springs allowed higher revs. Three solex carburettors completed the picture. In standard production trim the engine already gave 80bhp, which was good for an astonishing 93mph. However by 1940, the highly tuned 328s used by the works teams were giving an impressive 120bhp.

Among the famous 328s are the special "streamliners" which ran in the factory team in 1939 and 1940. Inspired by coachbuilder Wendler's 1938 streamlined coupe built for a private customer, BMW asked Carrozzeria Touring of Milan to make a closed coupe body for one of the works 328s in the 1939 Le Mans 24-hour race. The car took first in its class and fifth place overall, convincingly beating two standard-bodied works cars.

Plans to run a team of streamliners in the 1940 events were thwarted when Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939 ended international motorsport in Europe. Nevertheless, the streamlined 328s did run competitively in 1940 - in the Bresica Grand Prix, an event which pitted the best racers from Mussolini's Italy against those from their allies in Hitler's Germany. BMW entered four streamlined open 328s and a fastback coupe with bodywork designed by aerodynamicist Dr Wunibald Kamm (of Kamm tail fame) which won the race. The Bresica event is sometimes called the 1940 Mille Miglia and the cars the Mille Miglia 328s.

The 335

Germany's abolition of tax penalties on larger-engined cars in 1935 led to the creation of the 2.0-litre "six" and it also prompted BMW to develop a larger engine.
This 3485cc six-cylinder was not a derivative of the 2.0-litre, although the two engines did share certain design features. It was announced initially in understressed 90bhp tune, but could certainly have been developed to give much more.

The car that the big "six" was developed for was the 335. Larger than the 2.0-litre's of the mid-1930s, it was intended to compete against Horch, Wanderer and Mercedes-Benz. The 335 shared styling with the 2.0-litre model, although it had a longer wheelbase, a wider track and a bigger boot. Suspension followed 326 principles.

The prototype 335s were ready in 1938, but production was delayed until 1939 because of material shortages caused by the German military build-up. The basic body was a four-door saloon, although 118 two-door cabriolets were built by Authenrieth of Darmstadt and 40 four-door cabriolets by Graber in Switzerland. Production was halted in 1941, after just 410 (or 462, the figure is disputed) chassis had been built. Some remained unbodied.

BMW 502 coupe

Very rare 502 coupe based on 501 saloon

501 - The Baroque Angels

The 500-series cars may not have been BMW's most glamorous products, but these big and sturdy middle-class machines were the mainstay of the company's car division from 1951 up until 1964. They were nicknamed Barockengel - Baroque Angels - because their bulbous and flowing lines reminded people of the carved wooden figures in South German and Austrian churches of the Baroque period.

The first 501's had an uprated version of the pre-war 2.0 litre six-cylinder engine. In 1954, this was supplemented by a 2.6 litre V8 with around 50% more power; the six-cylinder 501 was also uprated and the coupe and cabriolet bodies announced.

In 1955, BMW announced the 502, basically the same car with extra equipment. This had either an uprated 2.6 litre V8 or a new big bore 3.2 litre V8. The 501 V8 remained unchanged, but the six-cylinder 501's were enlarged to 2.1 litres. Then the 3.2 litre V8 was in turn uprated for 1957's 502 3.2 litre "Super". Production of the 501 V8 ended, but the six-cylinder 501's remained on sale with their original names.

Front disc brakes and the (formally optional) servo became standard on the 3.2 Super in 1959 and on the standard 3.2 a year later. Then, in 1961, the six-cylinder 501's ceased production. the 2.6 litre was renamed the 2600, given the servo and front discs and joined by the 2600L with more power and better trim. The 3.2 became the 3200L and the 3.2 Super became the 3200 Super (also known as the 3200S). Its 160bhp V8 made it the fastest saloon then made in Germany and among the fastest in the world.

BMW Isetta

Isetta bubble car

The Isetta

BMW built the Isetta "bubble-car" under licence from ISO of Italy, which was primarily the maker of motor-scooters and three-wheeler utilities. ISO introduced the Isetta in 1953 and also sold a licence for its production to Velam in France. ISO's owner, Count Renzo Rivolta, eventually spent the profits from these agreements on making the Euro-American ISO Rivolta and ISO Grifo supercars.

The BMW Isetta 250 dispensed with ISO's two-stroke engine, using instead the four-stroke 247cc single-cylinder engine from the R25 motor cycle. From February 1956, there was a companion Isetta 300, with the more powerful 297cc engine from the R27 motor cycle. Other changes included smaller headlamp cowls after 1955 and a completely revised glass area with larger side windows from October 1956.

The original ISO car, the BMW version and the Velam all had twin rear wheels, but a version of the Isetta 300 built under licence from BMW in Britain from 1958 actually had a single rear wheel, because three-wheelers attracted less purchase tax and their road fund licence was cheaper. Just 1750 three-wheelers were built.
In the mid 1950's, the Isetta cost just 20% of the cheapest of the Baroque Angel 501 saloons.

The 600

The 600 was a logical progression from the Isetta and must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but sales of just over 34,000 in two years never matched BMW's expectations. Part of the problem was the price - the 600 was only just cheaper than the entry-level VW Beetle. But it was also undeniable that buyers in the late 1950's wanted cars that looked like cars and were quickly losing interest in economy models which suggested that their owners might not have much money. Without the short-lived vogue for economy cars which followed the Suez crisis of 1956-57, the 600 might have flopped badly.

Designed by Willy Black, the 600 was unashamedly intended as an enlarged Isetta with more power and a "proper" four-wheel configuration. Its front end was pretty much unchanged from the Isetta, but the wheelbase had been stretched to accommodate four seats and a conventional rear axle had been added. This introduced to BMW the semi-trailing arm independent suspension which would be seen on almost every new model for the next four decades.

The extra size and weight demanded a more powerful engine than the Isetta's and so the 600 had yet another motor cycle powerplant - this time the 582cc twin from the recently defunct R67. Top speed was a not unreasonable 64mph.

BMW 700

Rear engined and air cooled BMW 700.

The 700

The 700 was really the car which pulled BMW around in the late 1950's. Once again it was an upward progression in size from what had gone before - this time, the 600 chassis was stretched. By the time it entered production, however, the 700 had become BMW's first unitary construction car.

The 700 was again masterminded by Willy Black, the man who had designed the 600 which it replaced. Black drew on the company's motor cycle technology once again, although this time he enlarged the twin-cylinder engine of the R67 motor cycle to get the power he needed for this larger car.

Styling was by the Italian Giovanni Michelotti and it's themes certainly echoed those of his Triumph Herald, an exact contemporary of the 700. His first sketch was for a slant-roof coupe, which appealed to BMW, although it wanted more room in the passenger cabin. Michelotti therefore sketched a saloon variant - never as pretty - and the Bavarians decided to build them both. The 700 Coupe entered production in August 1959 and the 700 Saloon joined it at the end of the year.

Even though the 700 was more expensive than a VW Beetle, it's chic Italian styling brought in the buyers. Over the six years of its production, the car sold more than 188,000 examples and it became BMW's best selling car since 1945.

Engine power increased over those six years and from 1961 there was an up-market Luxus version. the in 1962 the 700 was renamed the BMW LS. Among the most desirable of these small cars is the Baur built cabriolet, but the most exciting was the limited-production 700RS, a competition roadster of which just 19 were built between 1961 and 1963.

BMW 503

BMW 503 with a Dixi behind it

The 503

The 503 was one way in which BMW hoped to crack the American market in the mid 1950's. The Baroque Angel saloons were not going to sell well in the USA, but BMW thought that an elegant grand tourer with the saloon's running gear and powerful V8 engine might.

The 503 used the saloon's perimeter frame chassis as well as it's running gear and it had an all-alloy body designed by Albrecht Goertz. Goertz was a German who had worked with the Raymond Loewy design studio on Studebakers in the late 1940's and early 1950's, then became a naturalised American and set up his own design studio. he was persuaded to submit designs for the 503 (and the 507) by BMW's American importer, Max Hoffmann. Tempted by Hoffmann's offer to take a Goertz-designed 503 in quantity, BMW embraced the Goertz proposals and showed a prototype at the 1955 Frankfurt motor show. Production began the following May.

Sadly, the 503's styling was flawed. The long bonnet hinted at power, but was spoilt by an ugly snub nose incorporating the traditional BMW grille. Electric windows were advanced for the time and the power operated hood on cabriolets was a first for a German car. But the saloon gearbox, mounted between the seats and operated by a woolly column change, did the 503 no favours. After September 1957 however, the gearbox was adapted so that a floor mounted change could be fitted.

The 503 was always an exclusive car, competing with such exotics as the (more costly) Mercedes-Benz 300SC and the Bentley Continental> Production averaged no more than 100 or so a year and it is likely that no two examples were ever exactly alike. Only a handful were delivered with right-hand drive. Despite their undeniable aesthetic shortcomings, the cars are very much sought-after today, however.

BMW 507

507, the inspiration for the modern Z cars

The 507

The 507 is probably the most widely recognised classic BMW of the 1950's. Like it's great rival the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, it was inspired by the US importer Max Hoffmann, who told BMW that he could sell a high-performance sports car in large quantities if the company could deliver.

In 1954, Ernst Loof designed and built a prototype on the 502 chassis with a 2.6 litre V8 engine. However an alternative style put forward by Albrecht Goertz at Hoffmann's suggestion won the day. The Goertz style was for a curvaceous roadster with optional hard-top. It was a shape which has worn incredibly well over the years and surviving examples of the 507 now change hands for extremely large sums of money.

The production cars had the 3.2 litre V8 in twin-carburettor form with 150bhp or, for the USA only, with 165bhp. Acceleration and top speed depended on which of the three optional axle ratios was chosen, but the performance of a 507 was broadly comparable with that of the contemporary XK140 Jaguar. BMW claimed a 507 was capable of 136mph with the tallest 3.42:1 gearing, although 120mph was nearer the truth. Yet this remarkable machine was never a strong seller. One problem was cost; another was BMW's inability to get production under way. Despite a launch at the 1955 Frankfurt motor show, the first cars were not delivered until the following year. By then Mercedes had become too well entrenched as the definitive supercar and the 300SL gullwing coupe's mutation into a roadster model in 1957 removed the 507's most obvious advantage. Lack of boot space in the first cars was also a major failing and BMW was forced to introduce a smaller "optional" fuel tank to free up more room.

Just 254 507's were sold between 1956 and 1959, all with left-hand drive. Some of the very last had disc brakes at the front instead of the all-drum system.

BMW 507

The beautiful 507, inspiriation for the Z8.