Bavarian Motor Works has been an engineering force to be reckoned with since March 7, 1916. That’s right, it’s now 100 years old! And aside from keeping up with ever-changing tastes, researching new technologies that optimize their production cars' performance and drivability, BMW has also always held an interest in motorsports and competition.
The manufacturer has overcome many obstacles over the last 100 years, including its recovery from the Second World War's devastation and their survival through the financial crisis of the 1950s. As the automaker tackled challenges, it began to flourish.Through it all, BMW held strong, and in order to celebrate its one-hundredth birthday it feels fitting to honor their past.
BMW began life manufacturing superior aircraft engines, and the company’s first major success was the design of the inline-six aircraft engine. Following the WW I armistice agreement, it transitioned to motorbikes, and in 1923, the revolutionary twin-cylinder R32 motorbike was released. It set the bar for an exciting future in motorcycles – but that is an article for another time. Then, in 1928, after the company purchased the Automobilwerk Eisenach company, the teeny-tiny BMW Dixie hit the road – BMW’s first car and a gateway into motorsports history.
The elegant 1935-36 315-1 was BMW’s first ever sports car, capable of 75-mph, a feat in itself considering the times. Then the 1936-40 BMW 328 came along with a top speed that neared 90-mph, and with excellent handling to boot. It was a benchmark in sports car design and is heavily sought after by collectors today. By 1938, the 328 became a class winner in the famed Mille Miglia. And from there, BMW’s involvement in motorsport only deepened: Soon Baron Fritz Huschke von Kanstein would win the Mille Miglia in 1940.
During World War II, BMW mainly focused their manufacturing efforts on the war, but in the early 1950s BMW came back strong by launching the roomy 501 model, the first car that the company produced after the war. It only got better from there: Next came the 502 featuring the world’s first light alloy V-8 engine, and then the gorgeous, limited-production 507 sports car made its debut giving BMW a triumphant win in the 1958 Austrian GP with driver Ernst Hiller. Then, finally, the 1959 BMW 700 — soon followed by its aerodynamic racecar sibling the 700 RS — both competed successfully. Additionally, demand for the 700 very well may have saved the company during the 1950's financial crisis.
The ‘60s were a rip-roaring decade for BMW and the 1500 and 1600 series exceeded exxpectations. The 1962 BMW 1500 engine was designed to accept high-performance tuning, and it set a new trend for future vehicles to come. Because of this car’s success, BMW was able to stop the production of their older, less popular models and look to the very bright future. The 1966 BMW 2000 was engineered to outperform most roadsters of the ‘60s and the TII model reached a new top speed of 115 mph. The 2002 followed closely behind, and then came the larger-engined six- cylinder 2500 and 2800 models of 1968 through 1977. BMW proved once more that it hadn't lost its motorsports flair when Austrian racer Dieter Quester sped off with several victories in the Formula Two series, then captured three European touring car championships in 1968, 1969 and 1977.
In the 1970s, BMW of North America was established, as was the term “Bimmer”, and the automaker’s passion for racing became even more evident when BMW Motorsport GmbH (better known as the M division). It was founded with the goal of dominating the racing circuit, and dominate it did, beginning with the revolutionary 3.0 CSL, otherwise known as the “Batmobile” for its aerodynamics and soaring wing. The Batmobile led to the legendary M1 supercar designed by Giugiaro and based on a partnership with Lamborghini. The partnership dissolved leaving BMW to pick up the pieces, but many fans still consider it the best car that BMW ever built.
To the delight of race fans, BMW never lost its devotion to the sport. The 1980s brought BMW’s long-awaited involvement in Formula One racing, and in 1983 it earned its first title in the series with Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet, reigning king of the Formula One World Racing Championship. The M series set a new standard in power and stamina by launching the enchanting M3 and M5 models by 1985, offering enthusiasts vehicles of great fun, beauty and agility.
The ‘90s gave birth to several noteworthy cars, like the E31 850CSi, among the most desirable BMWs of the period thanks to its 375-horsepower V-12 engine option. BMW also revealed a sleek successor to the 507 in 1999: The Z8 had a V-8 capable of 400 horsepower and 500 lb. ft. of blow-your-socks-off torque, and a convertible top. They also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans outright that year with the V12 LMR prototype.
By the turn of the millenium, BMW launched the audacious new MINI, and continued its victorious reputation in motorsports by continuing its involvement in Formula One and winning three consecutive FIA World Touring Car Championship seasons from 2005 to 2007 with Andy Priaulx and his BMW 320i.
Although internet writing makes it virtually impossible to cover every facet of BMW’s history, it’s still safe to say that BMW has accomplished a great deal over their first century. More importantly, its future is looking brighter than ever. Technology such as the innovative M Performance TwinPower Turbo will provide new M3s with more torque than previous models, their electric “i” models continue charging forward and the wider-track lightweight aluminum suspension makes way for outstanding handling and agility, so fasten your safety belts and come along for the ride.