The late 1920s was an inauspicious time to start making cars. But that’s what the German company BMW did, right before the Great Depression wrought global havoc. Midcentury was no picnic, either; the automaker almost went into liquidation in 1958. When the company’s first U.S. dealership opened in 1975, the brand was virtually unheard of. Now, forty-one years later, BMW is the top seller of luxury motor vehicles in the United States. According to a local Interbrand survey, it’s the 11th most valuable brand in the world. Here are the 10 models which made that meteoric rise possible. Read on — then check out Seven 2017 Sports Cars to Buy Now!
In 1972, BMW M was established as the company’s motorsport arm. The first M was the 3.0 CSL, a vehicle that created so much buzz on the track that a decision was made to extend the M brand into a production car. The M1 launched in 1978, becoming BMW’s only true supercar and its only mid-engined production car — a distinction it still has today. Created primarily to compete in the Procar Championship series, the engine was reverse-homologated for the street, meaning its performance was superb for the day – 277 horsepower from its 3.5L 6-cylinder engine, and a top speed of 163 mph. Only 453 of the hand-built supercars were ever made.
Max Hoffman was an American BMW importer who brainstormed this roadster that sat between the out-of-reach Merc 300SL and the modestly powered British alternatives from Triumph and MG. Featuring a purpose-built chassis and sheet metal penned by Albrecht von Goertz, the 507 was a comely roadster that was outfitted with 3.2L engines. Originally, this sexy little number was expected to sell for about $5k, but bloated development costs effectively doubled that figure. That put the 507 out of the reach of many potential customers, and only 252 of the droptops were ever sold. Hoffman later had a more accessible brainstorm that became one of the 10 Greatest Mercedes Benzes of All Time!
BMW ’72 Turbo
Six full years before the unveiling of the M1 came the ’72 turbo. A concept car imagineered by in-haus designer Paul Bracq, the Turbo would have lasting effects on BMW’s only supercar a little later on. It flexed the company’s technological muscle, featuring lateral sensors, an integrated roll cage, a collapsible steering column and one of the world’s first distance-warning radar systems. As the name suggests, it also sported a turbocharged engine, BMW’s first. Although only two Turbos were ever built, the M1 it foreshadowed would define the BMW brand for years to come.
BMW Nazca C2
The Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed Nazca C2 is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful BMWs ever made. It featured a glass top, gullwing doors and an all-carbon-fiber construction. The twin-turbocharged engine, a 380-hp, 5.0-liter V12, was tuned by BMW specialists Alpina, modified to give the Nazca C2 a top speed of 193 mph. Only three of these lookers were ever built, guaranteeing its status as an extremely unattainable automobile. Check out tomorrow’s most amazing supercars and concepts in our 25 Favorite Cars at the New York Auto Show!
BMW 1 Series M Coupe
The M series was BMW’s only supercar, meaning that company bigwigs were right not to bandy the term around willy-nilly. They did want to suggest that the 1-Series M Coupe had some serious guts, despite being housed in BMW’s most pedestrian vehicle. The car’s 335 horsepower (from a twin-turbocharged, direct-injection 3.0-liter straight-6) promised an incredible amount of power for a model that was light, nimble and well balanced. With a 6-speed stick shift to boot, its status as a future classic was virtually guaranteed.
BMW 700 RS
The four-door 700 is credited with saving the company from financial ruin in the late 1950s. The rear-engined, air-cooled economy car may have been underpowered, but it was also ultra-light, weighing just 1,350 pounds. With the 700 RS, BMW created an exceptionally rare hand-built race car dubbed the 700 RS — only 2 were ever made. Both cars weighed in at just 830 pounds fueled. They had a tubular steel-frame chassis, aerodynamic hand-built aluminum body, a windshield that’s actually the production 700’s rear glass and — get this — no seat belts! Interested in supervintage autos? Here are 5 Expert Tips for Starting a Car Collection.
BMW E9 3
The “Batmobile” got its nickname from the aerokit it came with, which included a large air dam, short fins running along the front fenders, a spoiler above and behind the roof, and a tall rear wing. Although the Germans have a laissez-faire attitude toward speed limits on their autobahns, the wings were not street legal. So you’d buy one of these things with the wings in the trunk and install them yourself. The Batmobile was modified by Alpina to weigh 440 lbs less than its CS source, and its 203-hp straight six could hit 60 mph in less than 7 seconds. Only 167 were ever built.
BMW M8 E31
For the longest time, the now-legendary 1990 M8 was just a rumor. When it was finally revealed, the public was only permitted a single peek at a California auto show. The M8 was originally built to go toe-to-toe with Ferrari, featuring a pavement-chewing 550-hp version of BMW’s S70 engine. (A different version of that would power the McLaren F1, the world’s first hypercar). But the M8 was too mighty for its own good and, like the object of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was locked up in in BMW’s Giftschrank (“poison storage”). Only the 850csi, a tamer version of the E31, ever made it to production. But you can ogle the company’s inspiration in The 10 Greatest Ferraris of All Time!
BMW 750IL V16
Simply put, this car is an E32 7-Series that incorporates a 16-cylinder engine. Wait, “incorporates” doesn’t really convey it. This thing was crammed, shoehorned, shoved inside. So tight was the fit that there was literally no room for the engine’s coolant to circulate. (The ad-hoc solution was to move the system to the rear fender.) The prototype was created to test production viability, but the obstacles were too numerous to work around.
The E46 is an entry-level luxury car, produced by BMW from 1998 to 2006. The “S54” 3.2L inline 6-cylinder is one of one of the most revered BMW engines ever made. (In fact, it made #2 in Jalopnik’s “10 Best Engines Of the Last 20 Years.”) The E46 offered its driver 333 horses without any forced induction, and all-wheel drive (“xDrive”) was re-introduced after a break of 18 years. The best-selling year for the E46 chassis was in the middle of its lifespan — in 2002, 561,249 were sold worldwide. Now get expert tips on scoring the best deal on your next car: How to Buy Anything!