Happy Centennial, BMW! Ten of the Most Important Cars in the Company's History

March 7 is a big day for BMW, as the German company celebrates its Centennial.
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Photo: Edited by autoevolution
BMW 3/15 (aka Dixie)1938 BMW 328BMW 501/502 V8BMW Isetta (aka Bubble Car)BMW 1500BMW M1 (road-going version)BMW E30 M31999 BMW X5BMW 2 Series Active TourerBMW i8 hybrid supercar
That is right, Munchen’s blue and white “roundel” is 100 years old today, and they even made a concept car to showcase their vision for the next century. They called it the Vision Next 100 Years, but this article is not about what BMW just showcased, but about the cars that shaped the history of this company.

The BMW company started out as a business entity called Bayerische Motorenwerke in 1916. It was formed from three other companies: Rapp Motoren Werke, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFw) and Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach.

The latter was acquired at a later date, and each of the companies was specialized in building engines or vehicles for various applications. The Rapp Motorenwerke used to create aircraft engines, and the company was restructured in 1917 after the departure of Karl Rapp, the company’s founder. BFw was a company that made airplanes in Munchen and that eventually produced the Messerschmitt planes.

Meanwhile, Automobilwerk Eisenach was Germany’s third company that specialized in making cars, established in 1896. Initially, they made bicycles and guns, but they eventually built cars under license. The three companies were successfully merged under one roof, and that eventually became BMW AG.

However, BMW's story is not all glamor and shine, as the company struggled to stay profitable and was almost bought by their current rivals at Daimler AG at some point. Fortunately, that did not happen, as German industrialist Herbert Quandt purchased a controlling interest in BMW and invested in the company’s future. The tycoon also owned the AFA battery factory that became Varta, a brand we believe you may have heard about. The heirs of Mr. Quandt still hold a substantial stake in BMW AG, and their fortune is estimated at over several billion euros.

However, the first car made by BMW came in 1928, mainly an Austin 7 built under license under the name of Dixi. Eventually, the company decided to change the name from Dixi to DA-1 3/15 PS.

Dixi - The Car That Started It All

BMW 3/15 \(aka Dixie\)
Photo: BMW
You cannot talk about the history of BMW without mentioning the Dixi. This name was initially used by the Automobilwerk Eisenach since 1904, but BMW acquired them and started building the same model under their new name.

People still call this car the BMW Dixi, but the company changed its name to DA-1 3/15PS. The DA meant German Version (in German, naturally) while 3/15 specified taxation class and horsepower rating. The vehicle was identical to the Austin 7 excepting the fact that it used metric fasteners and left-hand drive.

The essential part about the Dixi and the Austin 7 it was based on is that this model was the first car to feature the control layout that’s considered conventional on modern vehicles. This is not the first car ever to feature foot-operated clutch, brake, and gas pedals, but it was among the first mass-market vehicles with this configuration.

328 - Sports Car With Straight-Six Engine, Need We Say More?

1938 BMW 328
Photo: BMW
The 328 was one of the brand’s first sports cars. This model was only made in around 460 units, but it was groundbreaking regarding the technologies it featured. The 328 was built on a tubular space frame and had a straight-six engine with a hemispherical combustion chamber (that is where HEMI comes from, by the way). The car won the Mille Miglia, along with other prestigious races at the time, beating more powerful competitors.

This vehicle weighed just 830 kg (1,830 lb.) and produced 80 HP, enough for a decent power/weight ratio today, let alone in the mid-1930s. It was capable of reaching 155 km/h (96 MPH), which made it one of the fastest cars on the road at that time.

The ideas found in the BMW 328 influenced future vehicles made by this brand, as they all tried to reach a combination of engine power and suspension technology to grasp at a well-balanced mix that made them faster than their rivals.

501/502 - Baroque Angels

BMW 501/502 V8
Photo: BMW
This is the early predecessor of the 7 Series. At the time, the BMW 501 was the first car sold by BMW after the Second World War. The 501 and 502 were called “Baroque Angels” by the Germans, and you can easily see why this nickname was used.

The 502 is the first German car made after WW2 with a V8 engine. This made it the fastest passenger sedan in regular production in Germany at the time of launch. The 100 HP 2.58-liter engine propelled the 502 to a speed of 160 km/h (99 MPH). Unfortunately, its price was high, and it was not a sales success because of this.

The BMW 501/502 also marked an important step in passive safety, as it had a robust chassis with enhanced side impact protection. The fuel tank was placed above the rear axle to reduce fire risk in the event of an impact from the rear.

Furthermore, the 501/502 BMWs inspired other important models from this brand, like the 503 Coupe, 507 Roadster, and 3200 CS. All of these were developed using components first prepared for the 501 and 502.

Isetta - The Refrigerator Microcar

BMW Isetta \(aka Bubble Car\)
Photo: BMW
The Isetta was not a BMW design, but the BMW version of this microcar became famous in 1955 for being the first mass-production car to achieve a fuel consumption of 3 liter/100 kilometers (78 mpg US). This model was built under license by BMW and became the top-selling single-cylinder car in the world.

The Isetta was designed by the Italians at Iso, a company that made small three-wheeled trucks, motor scooters, and refrigerators. The name means little Iso in Italian and the model that bears it caused a sensation when it was first showcased, in November 1953.

If you are curious why all Isettas have a canvas sunroof, it was there for the driver and passenger to be able to exit in the case of a crash. The handle on the door was similar to the one you would get from a refrigerator (but with a lock) made by the same company.

BMW made several versions of the Isetta, and all were reengineered to such lengths that parts from a BMW Isetta and an Iso Isetta are not interchangeable. The German company made a total of 161,000 Isettas.What’s so special about this model? Well, it is credited for saving the German company from bankruptcy.

New Class

BMW 1500
Photo: BMW
The Neue Klasse from BMW marked the company’s financial rebirth and ensured that the Bavarian carmaker remained profitable for the coming years. Thanks to some of the models in the New Class, BMW achieved international fame and started their current fan base.

The first car of the New Class was 1500, a four-door executive car fitted with the then-new M10 engine. The power plant was called M115 at the time, and versions of it were made until the late 1980s. That is impressive for an engine launched in 1962.

The M10 engine was build in over 3.5 million units, and the block was the basis for the Brabham-BMW Formula 1 single seater. That particular version of the M10 engine was called the M12 and developed 1,500 HP in qualification spec and around 1,200 HP in race configuration.

M1 - Only Collaboration with Lamborghini

BMW M1 \(road\-going version\)
Photo: BMW
The Legendary BMW M1 is the first mid-engined BMW that was ever mass-produced. The second is also a part of this story, but we’ll focus on the M1 for now. This model is also the only BMW that had two logos on the back in factory trim. The M1 was originally commissioned by Jochen Neerpasch, BMW’s Motorsport chief, so that the company could start a one-make championship.

BMW’s M1 coupe was handbuilt and was designed by Giugiaro. This model should have been built in cooperation with Lamborghini so that BMW could reach the production number required for homologation, but financial problems for the Italian company eventually broke the deal. A group of ex-Lamborghini engineers started a company (Italengineering) that completed the M1’s design.

While it was not sold in large numbers, its legacy still marks the German company, and the remaining examples are worth serious money today.

M3 E30 - Touring Car Legend

BMW E30 M3
Photo: BMW
The first M3 is a car that needs no introduction, but we are going to do it anyway. The E30 M3 was the first performance version of the BMW 3 Series and evolved into the most successful touring car in the world. The M3 E30 was raced in numerous championships and kept delivering wins for the drivers who got behind the wheel.

The M3 E30 had a different body than the standard 3 Series Coupe, a different suspension, steering system, braking system, and driveline. The engine the first M3 used was called S14, and later models developed almost 385 HP in full-race trim. Road versions of the M3 E30 secured between 192 and 238 HP.

This model’s value is on the rise for some years now, as the company only made a total of 16,202 cars. While this is not the most powerful car you can buy today for its average asking price for attended examples, the value of M3 E30s could rise even higher in the coming years.

X5 - First of Many

1999 BMW X5
Photo: BMW
The first SUV from BMW was the E53 X5. It was developed at a time when BMW owned Land Rover, and the German company decided to launch its first Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV). The car was sold in large numbers even though hardcore BMW enthusiasts were not fans of the model.

Today, thanks to this first-generation X5, BMW has a broad range of SUVs and crossovers. And thanks to these, the German company is the world’s best-selling premium carmaker. Not to mention that they helped popularize the company's xDrive all-wheel-drive systems on most of its models. The X5 even has an M-version to suit the taste of those old-school Bimmer fans.

2 Series Active Tourer - New Horizons

BMW 2 Series Active Tourer
Photo: BMW
This car is another model that was hated-on by BMW purists and enthusiasts. The 2 Series Active Tourer is the first BMW ever to feature a front-wheel-drive configuration. While you can purchase it with xDrive all-wheel-drive, the standard configuration delivers its power to the front wheels, something unheard of in a BMW until this car came along.

Moreover, the 2 Series Active Tourer and its bigger brother, the Gran Tourer, are the first ever production BMWs to enter the MPV/minivan market. Their main reasons for existence are the popularity of premium compact MPVs such as the Mercedes-Benz B-Class, which is a direct rival and the best-sold people carrier in Germany.

i8 - Modern Heart of BMW

BMW i8 hybrid supercar
Photo: BMW
As promised, this is the second BMW ever to be made in a mid-engine configuration. You all know it if you have been on an automotive website in the last two years and browsed through the news.

The i8 is a plug-in hybrid vehicle from BMW that delivers supercar looks and handling with an unmatched level of efficiency. It also has a chassis made of carbon fiber and is also the first BMW with butterfly doors.

As you have seen, BMW has evolved immensely in the last century, and we can only dream of what they will do for the next 100 years.
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About the author: Sebastian Toma
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Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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