Early in the 20th century, Germany went to war, lost, and—in accordance with the WWI Armistice Treaty—was forced stop making airplane engines. For Bayerische Motoren Werke (Rapp Motorenwerke prior to 1916), this was a problem. So the small airplane engine maker turned to building farm equipment, household items, and railway brakes until 1928, when it diversified. Taking control of a small automobile factory in Eisenach, Germany, BMW officially became a carbuilding concern.
It’s not easy keeping a car company afloat for more than a century—and indeed BMW nearly didn’t survive, on multiple occasions, across financial turmoil and more than a few wars. But it persevered. You probably know all about the famous roundel badge, the legendary the 328, Elvis’ 507, David E. Davis infamous ode to the 2002 in Car and Driver, and BMW’s subsequent dominance of the compact sport sedan with the 3 Series. But along the way were also some forgotten oddities and obscurities that were nonetheless significant to the brand’s development. Here are six of them—maybe you’ll see one at a show, someday.
1928 BMW Dixi
With these chronologies, it usually helps to start at the beginning. This is BMW’s. The diminutive Dixi, the cutesy name of Automobilwerk Eisenach’s sole product, which was a British Austin Seven initially built under license. The factory had only begun rolling Dixis off the line for a year before BMW swooped in, and for 1928, the humble 15-horsepower car was known as the BMW Dixi. When the new automaker updated the car for 1929, the Dixi was dropped into the dustbin of history.
1933-34 BMW 303
Here it is: the first car with the BMW grille, the double kidneys, one of automotive design’s most enduring trademarks.
What’s more, the 303 was also the first BMW with a straight-six—the M78—an engine which not only laid the groundwork for another tradition but would survive BMW’s postwar rebirth until 1953. The 303’s engine was a scant 1.2 liters, producing 30 hp.
Eventually the kidney grille went from skinny and tall to low and wide, like a child stretching out a piece of Laffy Taffy. Hell, the next car on this list doesn’t even have it.
1959-65 BMW 700
BMW, as it turned out, needed saving more than once. And of all the cars that are today lionized as “the one that saved the company,” few might be weirder than the 700, a little economy car with a motorcycle engine in the back, no kidneys, and a steel monocoque body in between (BMW’s first).
Giovanni Michelotti designed the 700 as a more conventional take on the Isetta-like 600, in an era when BMW wasn’t afraid to go tiny. But it worked: BMW sold nearly 200,000 examples in six years—five times more than the bubble-butted 600. And to cement BMW’s motorsports reputation, it turns out that the 700 made for a damn good race car, winning at Monza, Hockenheim, as well as at the Nürburgring.
1970 BMW 2200 Ti Garmisch Concept
Introduced at the 1970 Geneva show, Bertone’s Garmisch—sharing its name with the Bavarian town that hosted the 1936 Winter Olympics, in case you forgot—may have been one of Marcello Gandini’s more obscure concept cars. But its shark-nosed styling defined BMW for the next 20 years.
How do you follow up on the legendary New Class? Few people could be entrusted with that question than Gandini, who proposed a handsome, angular, four-seat coupe, with huge rectangular headlights and a narrow, upright grille up front. Design chief Paul Bracq took the idea and ran with it. In 1972, the E12-generation 5 Series debuted, and it set up so much: the four headlights, the three-digit naming scheme, and even an early M-car—the M535i. And eventually it was a coupe, the E24-generation 6 Series, that finally closed out the era of the sharknose.
1972 BMW Turbo Concept
To celebrate the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, BMW went all out with a wedge-shaped, gullwing-doored, multi-colored, digital-gauged spaceship. Paul Bracq’s vision of the future included a namesake turbocharger from the 2002 Turbo, onboard diagnostics, even an early radar-based warning system. But what Bracq really wanted to emphasize was safety; the steering wheel was collapsible, the interior was padded, the dash leaned toward the driver for easy reach—another BMW brand icon—and the front and rear bumpers could deform and absorb impacts. A Bavarian Bricklin!
Surely the brilliant orange sunburst paint drew attention to that. The rest of the car drew attention to the fact that if it wanted to, BMW could go nuts. The look of this car would go on to inspire the BMW M1, as well.
1991-1993 BMW Nazca concepts
Those of a certain generation will remember this menacing Italdesign concept featured in Need For Speed II, the 1991 Nazca M12. For those who missed out on this glaring childhood omission, a primer: it was designed by the father-son duo of Giorgetto and Fabrizio Giugiaro. The cars had 5.0-liter Alpina-tuned V-12s from the BMW 8 Series, first developing 300 hp from the stock engine, 350 hp in the 1992 BMW Nazca C2 coupe, and by 1993, the Nazca C2 Spider had 380 hp from its enlarged 5.7-liter V-12. The car could reach 60 mph in 3.6 seconds and surpass 190 mph. The M12 and C2 had gullwing doors, but the C2 Spider had a T-Top, which is rad. The bodywork was all carbon fiber. What a way to usher in the ‘90s!
It’s the low, menacing, heavy-lidded C2 that really deserves your attention, as seen below complete with hardcore ’90s rock.
The C2 could’ve been successor to the M1. And it would have completed the circle for the senior Giugiaro, who designed both. Ultimately, BMW grew timid and cancelled the project, but its penchant for outlandish concepts hasn’t faded, and it even built the spaceship-looking i8 for production.