Written by Peter Gleeson
BMW? Be honest, a thought is already in your head. If you are a certain age, the yuppies of the ‘80s and ‘90s come to mind, if you are older “damn expensive foreign cars" might be your thought, and if you are young enough to never have heard the Beatles in their heyday, then you may well be thinking, "Great badge to chip the engine, change the wheels and lose our license". What most people will not be thinking of is almost 100 years of history, an absolutely magnificent racing record (including dominating in some eras) and a car that is truly made with the driver in mind.
Where did it all start? Even that is debatable, but we will go with the considered opinion and the fact we can say we are the earliest to celebrate the centennial of BMW (OK, it’s 18 months early, but to be first you have to have a little artistic license.) March 7, 1916 was the day Rapp Motorenwerke became Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH. They were initially making aircraft engines and 1916 was a good time to be making aircraft engines…I understand demand was pretty hot. So they have a company with the name BMW, a supply and demand perfect storm and a logo that looks like a propeller actually the propeller interpretation came later, but I am limited on words here, so let’s stick with that. Then the war ended and allies had a problem with the idea of Germans making war plane engines (can't understand why). As a result, BMW was in serious financial trouble and actually had to close the doors for a few months. When the doors reopened, BMW had become an engine manufacturer, making engines for anything you might want. The allies still objected to any aircraft engines, so they ended that for a while and took up making brakes…yes, that’s right, BMW was a brake manufacturer for a short period in it's early life.
Now it gets interesting for all the fans of things that move forward on wheels. In 1923, Germany is hit with runaway inflation and BMW showed their first motorcycle, the R32, to massive acclaim. In 1928, they bought the Dixi Automobil Werke AG who were producing a licensed copy of the English Austin 7; in 1929 this became the BMW 3/15 and in effect, BMW’s first car. In a relatively short period of time, BMW started producing not just cars of their own design, but some seriously great cars in the interwar years. The 328 unveiled in 1936 with an almost modern marketing campaign, and became the car of choice for the gentleman racer in Europe. The 327 came along in 1937, interestingly in convertible form first, with the coupe coming in 1938, the 327/28 with the higher output engine turned the 327 into a seriously pretty and swift tourer. The 328 was introduced at the Eifelrennen race at the Nurburgring driven by Ernst Henne to win its class - from then on, it went on to win over 120 races in various forms, including class wins at Le Mans, RAC Tourist Trophy, Alpine Rally and Mille Miglia, with the 328 Touring Coupe going on to win the Mille Millia outright in 1940 at over a 100 mph average speed, at this time they were unbeatable in the 2 litre class.
By this time someone (not naming names here) had started fighting again in Europe, so very quickly it was back to that airplane engine supply/demand thing. Motorcycles were also built for the military, but no new cars at this time. After the hostilities, BMW was banned from being a car manufacturer and became an industrial manufacturer of mundane household implements, until the allies gave permission for motorcycle manufacture to start again in 1947. Very quickly attempts were made to get back into car manufacture, including building a prototype car BMW 331 with a 600cc motorcycle engine (this 331 never went into production.) The BMW 501 became the first production car after the war, it was seriously underpowered at first with the old straight six engine, although it was soon fitted with their new aluminum V8 engine, which certainly helped move what was a very heavy car.
Suddenly in 1954, Mercedes Benz introduced the 300SL and the 190SL at the New York Motor Show…BMW needed to do something and do it quickly. With input from Max Hoffman and wonderful designs by Albrecht von Goertz, the BMW 503 and 507 were quickly put into production, with the 507 unveiled to the public at the Waldorf Astoria in New York during the summer of 1955 and the 503 unveiled a little later in the year at the Frankfurt Motor Show. These two cars restored a great deal of the pride in BMW, which had not been seen since the unveiling of the 328 in 1936 and the wins it accomplished before WWII. Today you might need a mortgage for a gorgeous 503 like the one on the field, but you would need to sell your soul, first born and a few other very precious objects to acquire a 507.
Unfortunately, the 507 production was a massive financial stain on the company and by 1959 BMW was on the verge of bankruptcy; on December the 9th of that year Mercedes made an attempt at taking over BMW and only just failed. Very soon BMW acquired the backing of the Quant family and their cash helped stabilize the company.
While the 1950s gave us company that had the 507 and the Isetta as bookends for the decade, the early ‘60s started to show more promise; with the Neue Klass (new class) of sedan in 1962, solvency was guaranteed and the seeds of the true driver’s sedan was taking shape. While the Neue Klass started with a 1500 four door sedan, the seeds of what was to come were soon shown with the 1800 TISA. Only 200 were ever made of these homologation specials - which incidentally you could only buy if you were a licensed race car driver. Gaining wins and podium finishes against much sleeker and established opposition meant everybody was put on notice, BMW were serious about racing again.
1966 brought about the "02" Series, a less expensive and more spartan model aimed at raising volumes, but as is BMW’s history, very soon customers and very powerful partners were asking for larger engines in these well balanced little 02's. The USA importer Max Hoffman, who seemed to have a knack for knowing what the American customer wanted, persuaded BMW to install a 2 litre engine in the smaller body, this soon became the dual carbureted Ti, and then the fuel injected TII. By now, serious tuners were choosing these 02 bodies as the basis for competition, but BMW - never happy just sitting on their laurels - went to the drawing board and in 1973, gave the world the first turbo charged production car, the 2002 Turbo. Yes, I know you could set your watch by the Turbo lag and if not careful, you could serious diminish the very limited number available from its already low starting number of 1,672.
While the racing tuners were having great success with the 02 chassis, there was also some serious racing being done by Schnitzer and Alpina in the E9 chassis. The beautiful pillarless coupe body style (hey, I'm writing this :-) was introduced in 1968, and became a dominant force in long distance endurance racing, European Touring car, DTM and IMSA in America. In 1971, BMW decided to make the cars even lighter and made the first 169 CSLs, these were radically lighter than the standard CS, with aluminum doors, hood, trunk, thinner gauge steel, no power steering, electric windows, no under-seal, lexan (plastic) rear windows, thinner glass in windscreens…you get the picture. These initial 169 cars were carbureted and then to homologate the fuel injected cars for racing, BMW made 429 fuel injection CSLs. This was exactly the same time BMW decide it needed to facilitate the racing program and BMW Motorsport GmbH was born or as it soon became known, BMW M division.
The 3.0 CSL was the first racing project for the Motorsport division, gaining the massive success mentioned earlier. Next came a radical change for BMW, they wanted to launch an assault on Group 4 racing and make a special car just for this exercise. The 1972 E26 Turbo concept made for the Munich Olympics became the basis for the car that was to make the assault; although Paul Bracq designed the E26 Turbo, Giugiaro designed the M1 as we know it today. Unfortunately, hampered by delays and ultimately insolvency by their chosen partner in this exercise (a certain Lamborghini), by then the rules had changed and BMW were left without somewhere to race their M1. To the rescue came Jochen Neerpach, head of BMW Motorsport division, he devised a one make championship using racing modified M1s, calling the series M1 Procar. This allowed BMW to build the 400 homologation specials needed to make an assault on the World Championship for Makes - in total for both street and racing cars, only 456 (give or take one or two) were made. These cars were all hand made and at different stages there were three different makers involved in the process - Ital, Baur and BMW themselves. The Procar series served as support races for many of the European Formula One races, pitting drivers from varied disciplines against each other, including Formula One, ETCC, World Sports car etc in both 1979 and 1980. M1 Procar became a big draw for the fans; the 1979 season was won by Niki Lauda and the 1980 by Nelson Piquet.
At this time of all this development in BMW, in America Peter Gregg had made a serious name for himself in racing, including winning Daytona 24 Hours four times and IMSA GTO championship six times. Known as Perfect Pete, he wanted one of these M1 Procars he had heard so much about. In 1978 he ordered one for himself personally from Jochen Neerpach, but added little special personal additions, the most noticeable being the two seats - Procars came with one - and having them covered in the Black Watch tartan, something he did in many of his cars. So, we have a world class racing driver ordering a Procar from BMW and because of driving the 3.0 CSL at Le Mans in 1976 (the second Art car in the series), Peter Gregg had become close friends with Frank Stella. So Peter Gregg ask Frank Stella to paint his car when it arrived, after obtaining BMW blessing of course. Sadly, they were both at the Italian Grand Prix where their great friend Ronnie Peterson was fatally injured and Stella designed the car and his "Polar Coordinates" series of paintings in memory of their great friend.
BMW has maintained the wonderful link they themselves have helped foster between art and cars, the earliest painters/designers used by BMW were amongst the strongest artists of their day and are now considered by many to be amongst the most significant and certainly the most valuable artists ever. Names like Warhol, Calder, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, A.R. Penk, Jeff Koons and of course Frank Stella, means the Art car series, as a little idea from race car driver Herve Poulian who got his friend Alexander Calder to paint a model car and then took it to Jochen Neerpach who embraced the idea, remain the best and longest running marketing tool this author can identify in the car world. This car has been kept exactly as it was commissioned by Peter Gregg in 1978/79 and is one of the signature cars on the field today.
BMW has continued to innovate and experiment…always getting it right? Not always! But great art and great cars do not come from conformity. The Z1 with its drop down doors in the ‘80s, the first M3 (E 30) and the exquisite Z8 have shown the world that BMW is still prepared to take the risks and sometimes get it very right.
Most of the cars mentioned in the above article will be represented on the field by the very best or most significant of that particular period in BMWs history and special thanks go out to John and Nancy Martin, Steve and Annie Norman, Karra Canum, Brown Maloney, Steve Walker, Byron Sanborn and our own Jerry Greenfield.