BMW

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Ahhh, the Munich mother, and creator of the E30. We all recognise the blue-and-white badge on the bonnet of our beasts, but what does it signify? Here's a run-down on the history of the Bavarian Motor Works.

Contents

Origins

Like so many of the world's car companies, BMW didn't start out making cars. Their story begins properly in 1913, when two Germans came together in Munich to form an aircraft engine company that would supply the German air force. The technical brains behind this company was Karl Rapp, whose name formed the basis of Rapp Motorenwerke GmbH.

One would expect the outbreak of WWI to be kind to the company, and it was, thanks to regular orders from the Austro-Hungarian empire. But as the war effort escalated, Rapp's wobbly, rattly engines failed to keep pace with the march of technology, and it was only thanks to the innovative designs of a young engineer called Max Friz that the company was able to continue. Friz developed the Rapp engines into a record-breaking engine called the IIIa.

The success of the IIIa was the downfall of Rapp. When the powers behind the company realised that the technical potential lay in the hands of young Friz, they terminated Rapp's contract, effectively ousting him from the company he had created. To disassociate themselves from his name, the company was renamed to Bayerische Motorenwerke GmbH, the first iteration of BMW. The famous roundel badge, portraying the initial letters above the blue-and-white of the Bavarian flag, comes from this time.

Unfortunately for the new form, things didn't go too well. As you may know, the Axis powers didn't win WWI, and in the following resolution the Treaty of Versailles placed huge restrictions on Germany's production capabilities, shutting down BMW's production at a stroke, and they were left producing a trickle of bespoke industrial machines.

At this point some clever finances stepped in. Another ex-aircraft company, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFw) was finding its post-war business increasingly difficult. It had diversified into two industries; fitted kitchens and motorbikes, but was struggling to turn a profit with either. With its machinery becoming increasingly antiquated, it was acquired by the richest man in Central Europe, one Camillo Castiglioni. A keen aviator and canny investor, he also bought the rights to the BMW name and the machinery and patents with it, and thus set about incorporating that into BFw by transferring the equipment of the former to the factory of the latter, renaming the company BMW AG. He remained as president of the firm until 1929.

It was under Castiglioni that the real masterdeal was struck. As a competent manufacturer of aircraft engines and motorbikes, it seemed only natural for BMW to move into automobiles. With that in mind, BMW purchased Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach A.G in the neighbouring state of Thuringia. This company, known as AWE, was producing a licensed copy of the Austin Seven, known as the Dixi.

First Cars

The Dixi was BMW's first automobile. Having acquired both the rights and the tools, BMW first set about increasing production, then improving the performance of the model. Renaming the car the BMW 3/15, it went through a number of technical iterations which, leaving the engine untouched, affected everything from the gearing to the brakes. BMW also used the platform for its first sports cars; 150 hand-crafted roadsters with a high-compression 18hp motor called the 3/15 DA-3 Wartburg. Remember that name, we'll need it later.

The trouble with the 3/15 was the licensing. Despite the changes BMW made, the car was still heavily based on the Austin Seven, and BMW had to pay royalties to the British manufacturer for every model sold. To that end, they set about building their own car by attaching the technologies they'd developed to a newly-designed chassis. Power would still come from an Austin-derived engine, but BMW's aviation expertise boosted power from the feeble 15hp to a more practical 20hp, which earned the car its moniker 3/20.

BMW thrived in the Thirties. Its first six-cylinder car, the 303, would also be the first BMW to sport the iconic kidney grilles. From there the cars would come thick and fast, with another ten models being released in four-door saloon, coupe and roadster form until World War II, when the factory was inevitably converted for the war effort.

Post-War

In 1945, when the rubble had settled and the smoke cleared, BMW found itself in a quandary. Its operational headquarters were in Munich, but its factories were in Thuringia; territory now under the control of the Soviets, who put the BMW factory back into commission and used it to continue production of the pre-war models 327 and 340. It wasn't until 1952, after the separation of Germany into East and West, that BMW was able to reclaim its name and trademarks. The Eisenach factory would remain under state control as EMW, producing a rattly Communist motor known as the Wartburg.

While the old factory slogged on under foreign control, BMW's Munich operations retooled for their post-war future. Their first new models, launched in the Fifties, were enormous luxury products; V8 leviathans that earned the nickname "Baroque Angels" in Germany. But these sumptuous sedans and roadsters were too rich for most people's blood, and BMW was forced into producing the "Bubble car" under licence from Isetta, in order to have a better-selling mass-production vehicle in its stable.

The lack of sales of its top-end vehicles, and the corresponding need for poverty motoring throughout Europe, saw BMW developing its own bargain-price solutions, which came in the form of the BMW 700 saloon. Released at a tipping point in BMW's finances with the company facing both bankruptcy and a competition buyout, these little cars quickly captured the heart of the market, and rescued BMW's reputation as a maker of sporting sedans. A Sports version of the 700 was released, and BMW also began its co-operation with Baur to bring a convertible to the market.

Neu Klasse

BMW may have found its financial salvation in the small 700, but the firm always knew its heart lay in larger saloons. They rapidly set about building increasingly larger cars. The Sixties would see BMW release its New Class 1500 model with the now-iconic Hofmeister Kink; a returning curve at the base of each car's C-pillar to denote rear-wheel-drive performance. Alongside these, BMW launched the New Six sedans with six-cylinder 2.5- and 2.8-litre engines, as well as a new range of sleek V8-powered roadsters, starting with the 3200 CS.

This change in fortunes saw BMW climb the ranks as a global competitor in the luxury market. As a sign of their increasing financial success, BMW built a new headquarters in Munich and moved there in 1972. BMW HQ remains there today.

E-Numbers

Main article: List of E-Numbers

The Sixties and Seventies were fertile years for BMW, with a slew of products dramatically expanding their range of cars. An indicator of this is the E number - an internal designation used within BMW to identify specific designs. The E stands for Entwicklung, the German word for development or evolution. Some E-numbers were one-off concept models, some never left the drawing board. But the successful ones entered series production, and by counting the E-numbers you can see just how busy BMW's design office was during that period.

We're not sure what the first Entwicklung was, but the first to enter production was the E3, the first New Six, with the E9 as its two-door version. Similarly, the New Class 02 models, which only had two doors, were designated E6, E10 and E20 for the Touring, Two-litre and Turbo models respectively, although these cars are more commonly referred to by their model numbers, especially the 2002tii.

The E-Numbers were also applied to other manufacturers' projects for whom BMW did consultancy work. A good example is the AMC AMX/3 sports car, whose chassis underwent significant redesign work at BMW. For that, it was designated the project code E18.

In this way, the Zone is named after the 30th Development Model, the E30.

Series

The E-numbers are useful for BMW engineers but they don't really tell the consumer anything. If we jump all the way back to the BMW's first car, the Dixi, you'll see it was called the 3/15 with "15" denoting the horsepower. The "3" denoted the tax code on the engine; the bigger the engine the more tax you paid, and the Dixi was tax band 3.

Likewise, each successive generation of cars received a numerical name that identified its engine capacity, power output or body style. In 1972, with the next generation of cars coming out, BMW named its new line of saloons the 5 Series, denoting that it was the fifth generation of BMW vehicles at the time.

The naming system, like everything German, was thoroughly planned. Alongside its E-number, each car would be given a 3-digit model number to identify series and engine size, as well as the occasional letter to mark engine characteristics. And so, in 1972, the first 5 Series cars, the E12, rolled out of the Dingolfing factory bearing the badges 520 and 520i, declaring the cars as 2.0 models with and without fuel injection.

The 3 Series E21 would follow two years later, and the 7 Series E23 two years after that, neatly sandwiching the 5 Series in a menu-friendly Small, Medium and Large layout. The 6 Series E24 was then slotted in as a mid-size roadster, with mechanicals directly borrowed from its 5 Series sibling. All cars would share styling cues to identify them as a family generation.

It wasn't until 2004 that this family would grow. As each Series matured and the E-numbers grew, so too did the proportions of the cars within the series. By the new millennium, the 3 Series was bigger than the original 5, which necessitated the creation of a new small car, the E81 1 Series.

Z Cars

BMW has always had a love affair with roadsters. These open-top sports cars have for decades been icons of performance and luxury, and since these are the two design characteristics that typify every BMW, it's only natural that the company would try to maintain one model in its range.

The original roadster was the 507. Released in 1956, it featured a hand-wrought body shell and V8 engine both from aluminium, whose levels of luxury were matched only by the manufacturing costs. The 507 was undoubtedly one handsome beast, but it was ill-timed and ill-judged; the launch coincided with a massive economic recession, and what was supposed to be the flagship model almost sank the company. BMW's losses brought it to the edge of bankruptcy, and the 507 was swiftly and silently cancelled after just 252 units.

Fast forward to the Eighties and you find the economy on a much firmer footing. The Yuppies, on the days when they weren't shouting "Buy!" or "Sell!" into brick-sized phones, wanted two-seater sportsters to maintain their adrenaline fix, and BMW set about designing their solution. The result was the Z Series.

The first Z car, the Z1, was launched in 1987. True to its 507 origins, it featured a 2.5-litre straight-six engine taken from the E30, installed in a custom light-weight chassis with an innovative suspension setup. Its key selling point was the plastic body panels, which allowed the whole exterior to be unbolted and switched for one of a different colour. Unfortunately, these features (and the price) proved too much for the market, and like the 507, the Z1 was unceremoniously withdrawn in 1991.

But it's not fair to consider the Z car a failure. What the 507 and the Z1 have in common, besides losing BMW oodles of cash, was their service as proving-grounds for BMW innovation. By mixing tried-and-tested elements with completely now solutions, such as the Z1 axle, BMW were able to gauge what would work on a production vehicle and what wouldn't.

Late Z cars would go on to massive success. The Z3 and Z4 roadsters were so successful they were relaunched in coupe and M versions. The Z8 was styled to capture the essence of the original 507, including the V8 engine under the bonnet which pushed the car away from roadster and into supercar territory.

Motorsport

Main article: Motorsport

The Motorsport story beings in 1972 with the release of the E9.