Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, or as we all know it today, BMW, doesn’t really need an introduction! Even those who are not interested in cars know about this brand. It is the vehicle we all dream of having and gets our heads turned when seen on the street or on the screens.
The brand has been around since 1916, and with that long history comes a challenging success story that makes the brand what it is now. BMW, as a brand, ages like a fine wine; it manages to always stay ahead with innovations, technologies, and designs that blow our minds!
Like their cars, the history of the brand is complex, fascinating, and never fails to amaze! But we wouldn’t expect anything less from such a prestigious brand that managed to create a league of its own, a brand that always stays on the top of the list of the most important car brands, no matter what! But how did it all begin? How did BMW become what it is today? Let’s find out!
The story of BMW is rooted in the story of its founders, Gustav Otto and Karl Rapp. In 1910, Gustav Otto founded his company, Otto Flugmaschinenfabrik. He was a pioneering German aircraft and engine designer. It all went well for him for a while, but soon enough, things spiralled out of control, and the government had to get involved in advising with reorganising the company. In 1916, Otto’s company turned into Bayerische Flugzeug-Werke AG (BFW AG). That’s how the (B) & (W) came into place in BMW, but what about the (M)? Coming right up.
Karl Rapp was also an aircraft engines designer; his company was named Rapp Motorenwerke GmbH, and it was founded in 1912—notice the (M) in Motorenwerke —but while Gustav had troubles with cost and revenue, Karl had problems with designs. Soon enough, he, too, like Gustav, lost his business to the Bavarian government. So how did these two entities come together?
Before the official merging of the two, the BFW company worked on producing aircraft engines. Business was good, and the company made a lot of profit due to the First World War. The BFW grew quickly and was able to build a large factory building right next to Munich’s Oberwiesenfeld airport. The factory was where engines for military aircraft were produced until 1918.
However, the war ended, and the world changed, especially in Germany. The ban on aircraft production after the end of the war in Germany led to another restructuring at the company. It was not until 1921 that the company returned to real business with the start of motorbike construction.
In the meantime, the financier Camillo Castiglioni acquired a majority shareholding in BFW AG. On his initiative, in the summer of 1922, the facilities of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) in the field of engine construction and the aluminium foundry were brought into the company. The old management was replaced, and the business continued under the new name BMW. That’s how THE BMW we all know was founded!
The First Vehicles
Following the war, in order not to go bankrupt, the Bayerische Motoren-Werke switched to engines for trucks and boats. However, they were only moderately successful in this business. So, they tried their luck with motorbikes and developed a two-cylinder boxer engine for motorbikes, which was available in 1920.
The first BMW motorbike, the R 32, was built in 1922; it was introduced for the first time at the Berlin Exhibition in 1923; the motorbike was an instant sensation! The chief designer at the company at that time, Max Friz, had installed the boxer engine transversely in a double-tube frame for better air cooling and transmitted its power directly to the wheel via a cardan shaft, an element still used in the company’s motorbikes till today.
The company did not enter the automobile business until 1928, when it took over Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach, another automobile manufacturer with one successful model, the Austin Seven. After the takeover, the company worked on developing the BMW 3/15, based on the Austin Seven. It was presented from 1929 onwards with different bodywork as the BMW 3/15 PS DA-2.
The small car achieved great popularity despite the world economic crisis. However, the car was not really a BMW development. The first car from Eisenach to be designed in-house was the BMW 3/20 PS. The car’s 782-cc engine was inspired by the Austin Seven’s four-cylinder.
The BMW 303: The Mother of all BMWs!
In 1933, with the arrival of the new head of engineering, Fritz Fiedler, the Bavarian company moved on to the production of the mother of all BMWs, the BMW 303. The family car’s primary asset was its engine; it was powered by a 1.2-litre six-cylinder engine. The six-cylinder engine was the first car to have what will go down in history as the famous BMW’s “kidney grille”, with its radiator grille in the shape of a double kidney.
The car could easily be regarded as the mother of all BMWs because of its platform (the shared set of designs and components) that was used later on for many other vehicles. The BMW 300 was clearly a smart decision from BMW; the company was well aware of Germany’s economic issues and conditions during the great depression. That’s why they presented what was, at the time, the cheapest car in Germany with a six-cylinder engine.
Bringing Trophies Home!
It didn’t take the brand a long time to make some noise in the racing world. BMW began to participate in racing sports in 1933, and not without success, of course! In 1933, the brand’s drivers Ernst Henne, Ludwig Kraus, Josef Mauermaier and Peppi Stelzer competed in the 15th edition of the motorbike race, the International Six Days Trial (ISDT), now known as International Six Days Enduro (ISDE).
They won the trophy, bringing it to Germany for the first time. In 1934 and 1935, the team prise for this long-distance race also went to the BMW team.
But it wasn’t only the motorbikes; the lightweight construction of the brand’s vehicles was another asset that allowed the cars to go for higher speeds. For example, the BMW 315/1 car drove with an aluminium body for the first time and reached 120 km/h. Together with the BMW 319/1 sports car, the 315/1 won numerous victories from 1931 to 1936.
Speaking of racing cars, we can’t talk about BMW’s early days in the racing world without mentioning the BMW 328. The car was introduced to the world for the first time with the best bang a brand could ask for! It was at the Nürburgring, a closed-course racing facility, during the Eifelrennen race with the iconic German racer Ernst Henne behind the wheels driving this sports car in the 2-litre class race and winning it at the first attempt—BANG!
The BMW 328 went on to win more than 100 races between 1936 and 1940. It was the fastest car that the company developed before World War II. Only 464 examples were built of the vehicle, and its massive success secured its place on the list of most iconic cars in history, not only that of BMW! The BMW 328’s aesthetic lines continue to delight sports car enthusiasts all over the world to this day.
The 1940s: The Bumps on the Road
During the Second World War, BMW participated in Germany’s war effort, and devoted itself mainly to the production of aircraft engines.
In 1944, Allied air raids severely destroyed the Munich plant, and the Allach also was affected. In mid-1945, the company was allowed to repair US army vehicles in Allach and produce spare parts, farming implements, and bicycles. Additionally, the company received permission to build motorbikes again; however, the brand could not do this for the time being.
However, in the same year, the company’s plants in Munich and Allach were dismantled by the US military government orders. It wasn’t until 1949 that the company regained control of its assets in Munich. When the company was not in charge of the Munich-Milbertshofen plant, all the machines were disassembled and shipped to different areas worldwide.
In the summer of 1947, the design plans for the first BMW post-war motorbike came to life, and shortly before Christmas 1948, the first BMW R 24 was raffled off among the workforces.
The first series-produced model sold like hotcakes in a market that had been undersupplied by the war and the post-war period. Moreover, as early as 1950, 18 per cent of BMW machines were exported.
The 1950s: Hello Luxury Cars!
Believe it or not, it took the brand more than 30 years to venture into the market it has been dominating for years: the luxury cars market! The brand started its luxury line with the BMW 501, a large-capacity saloon for the highest demands. As the Eisenach plant was under Soviet administration, it was also the first BMW production car to be built entirely in Munich.
The BMW 501 was a list of firsts; it was the first car built after WWII and the first car built entirely in Bavaria.
In 1954, the sister model BMW 502 appeared with the world’s first V8 light alloy engine. The two cars were nicknamed “Baroque Angels” by the German people because the cars’ designs reminded them of the Barque period.
As fate would have it, the war made it quite difficult for manufacturers to stay alive, and the two models were not the lifesaving boat the company needed at the time to survive.
By the end of 1959, the company was teetering on the brink. But soon enough, the brand bounced back, becoming synonymous with sporty saloons from Germany, always with outstanding engine technology and quality artistry.
In 1957 came the 700, a small, very competitively priced car that lifted some of the German company’s finances. At the end of the 1950s came the turning point: the Quandt dynasty that are still in charge of the German car manufacturer till today!
After the BMW 700 came the launch of the BMW 1500, the first model of the Neue Klasse (New Class) series, from which the 02 Series models would later be derived.
The 1960s: Expansion, New Inventions!
The 1960s were good years for the brand; the business was going well, even more than the Munich plant could contain. While the company’s initial plans were to buy a new location, it ended up purchasing the automobile manufacturer Hans Glas along with its own facilities.
The first model born in that period was the 1600 GT, a low-medium segment coupé sold under the brand name and consisting of a re-edition of the earlier Glas models but with a 1.6-litre BMW engine.
In 1986, the company developed another memorable invention, the BMW M30 engine! This was the first straight-six engine after the Second World War, produced for around 24 years!
Despite the setbacks, BMW was able to recover quickly. Not only recover, but also thrive in the most BMW way possible! From engines to motorbikes to cars, BMW never failed to amaze! However, the tough start was nothing compared to what fate had in store for the brand!