Luxury cars, high performance cars, well-crafted cars – these are the accolades given to Bavarian Motor Works, Bayerische Motoren Werke, or BMW. This German-based company is one of the world’s most respected automakers, renowned for crafting luxury cars and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) that offer superior levels of driving enjoyment. Here is a short history of BMW.
An Airplane Manufacturing Company
The company began in the 1900s in Munich as an aircraft manufacturer. Its early leanings are still present in BMW’s logo – white propeller blades against a blue sky – that was designed to reflect these origins; its blue-and-white color scheme also references Bavaria’s blue-and-white checkered flag.
Karl Friedrich Rapp was an engineer who had been director of an early German aircraft company. He set up business to manufacture airplane engines. His company was known as the Rapp Motoren Werke, and was located in a suburb of Munich, the capital city of Bavaria. His location decision was influenced by a customer nearby: the Gustav Otto aircraft company.
Rapp’s 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 airplane engines on behalf of Austro-Daimler, which was finding that it could not build enough to meet the 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. It was then that BMW was formed.
Within a year, however, Rapp ran into some problems. He expanded the company too quickly. Rapp eventually left the company and industrial tycoon Franz Josef Popp took his place. It was Popp who laid the foundation for the BMW that exists today.
Production of the Automobile – 1928
It wasn’t until 1928 that production began on the first BMW automobile: the Dixi. The car was popular, and its success helped the company weather the Depression. BMW’s best-known pre-World War II vehicle was the Type 328 roadster, a two-seater that racked up over 120 victories on the racing motorcar circuit between 1936 and 1940. Postwar BMW cars maintained this tradition, winning several racing, rallying and hill climb victories.
Post WWII Success
Right after the war, BMW was hurting like the rest of Germany and Europe. For several years, the company was not allowed to manufacture anything as punishment for its contribution to the war effort on behalf of Germany.
But the early 1950s saw the launch of the BMW 501 followed by the 502, which was powered by the world’s first light-alloy V8. This foreshadowed BMW’s ongoing commitment to developing new technology.
The Isetta, a small two-seat microcar became the best-selling BMW of that decade. It was powered by a 12- or 13-horsepower engine. The mid-1950s also saw the debut of the limited production 507 sports car that had an alloy body and used the 502’s V8 for propulsion.
In the 1960s, thanks in part to the immense popularity of the 1500 – a sporty family sedan – BMW sales strengthened significantly.
By the 1970s, BMW had established itself as a full-fledged car company. But it also was a pioneer for many emerging technologies, including turbo charging and advanced vehicle electronics. This gave it a reputation for quality and leading edge auto performance technology.
This was also the period when BMW of North America was established and consumers who coveted both sports and luxury cars became loyal owners. The 1970s saw the birth of BMW’s three-tier sport sedan range consisting of the 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series cars, and the creation of its performance M division.
More recently, the company has been expanding its reach worldwide. It opened its first U.S. manufacturing plant in the second half of the 1990s and it expanded its brand empire to include Mini and Rolls-Royce. BMW also continues to build motorcycles, something it has done since the 1920s.
The automaker’s famous advertising slogan describes each of its vehicles as “the ultimate driving machine.” Over the past few decades, BMWs have become the standard for performance and luxury in most of the “over $30,000” segments. The variety of automobile lines is impressive. The car manufacturer has family-friendly wagons, sedans, distinctive coupes, sports cars and workhorse SUVs. But its luxury vehicles all share a common characteristic: the ability to make drivers feel gloriously connected to the road.
This short history of BMW doesn’t do justice to its impact on the automobile industry.
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