Bayerishe Motoren Werke in German, Bavarian Motor Works in English. We all know it as BMW, a company specializing in the “ultimate driving machine” and making driving enthusiasts very happy. Established well over a century ago, BMW has a long and storied, if not a bit rocky, history as to how it became one of the most revered automakers in the world.
Founded in 1916 with a rooted history of producing aircraft engines for wartime efforts, it wasn’t until 12 years after its establishment that BMW made its first car, the Dixi. As time progressed, BMW learned post-war that automobiles and motorcycles were its future. And mere days within becoming a merger with Daimler-Benz in the 1960s following financial woes, BMW found a way to dig itself out, thankfully from cars like the Isetta (the unsung hero of Steve Urkel). Since then, as they say, the rest is history, resulting in some the greatest things on four wheels the world has ever seen, both for the road and in motorsports. And it is BMW’s motorsports successes as far back as 1936 with the 328 that led to the existence of BMW’s famous Motorsport division, or BMW M, today.
We take a look at 10 of the greatest BMWs ever made (in no particular order), BMWs that truly helped establish the company’s reputation for building some of the most iconic automobiles, making what the company is today.
Arguably one of BMW’s greatest hits, if not the greatest, the BMW M3 is quintessentially everything that the company stood for with its push for superiority in German touring car championships. The result of homologation requirements, or motorsports league rules that required manufacturers to make a certain quantity of road-going production versions of their touring racing cars prior to qualifying for participation, the E30 generation 3-Series-based M3 was BMW’s answer to the Mercedes-Benz W201 190E-based 2.3-16v Cosworth, which kept snatching up all of the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft or German Touring Car Championship) victories. This led to one of history’s greatest automotive and motorsports battles, to which roots the creation of cars like the current BMW M3 and its competitor, the Mercedes-AMG C-Class. Built between 1985 (as 1986 model year cars) through 1992, the 16,202 E30-generation M3s were made with a naturally aspirated inline four-cylinder, dubbed the “S14” motor, varying in displacement from 2.3-liters, to 2.5-liters throughout the car’s evolution.
The introductory generation BMW 5-Series, also known as the “E12,” also led to the creation of its top-spec model, the M535i sedan. As you guessed from the “M” prefix, this designates the car’s full treatment from BMW’s revered Motorsports division. Featuring a detuned version of the mid-engine M1’s “M88” inline-six cylinder with a manual transmission, the M535i featured 210 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of twist, a bespoke BMW M-Technic body kit, sport-tuned suspension and steering, and more. Altogether, this roots the foundation for another one of BMW’s most iconic models, the revered M5 sedan. The BMW M535i helped prove to the world that practical four-door sedans can be sports cars as well. The first-generation “E12” M535i, as well as the succeeding second-generation “E28” M535i, never made it to North America. The M5 was eventually born as a M535i but with even more performance in 1985, eventually leading to the end of the M535i.
Following BMW’s restructuring in the 1950s, the company worked hard to design and produce a car for the 1960s that could sell in great numbers and help put some money into their pockets. Part of its Neue Klasse (New Class in German) era of automobiles, the 2002 was the smallest of the bunch, riding on a shortened platform of the larger four-doors, the 1500. Because of its excellent handling, the 2002 is what brought world recognition to BMW as an automaker and producer of sports sedans. The 2002 went on to become the company’s most successful selling model of the time and also takes credit for being the precursor to another one of BMW’s most successful selling models, the 3-Series.
The BMW M1 is pegged as one of the company’s iconic flops. At the height of motorsports in the late 1970s into the 1980s, BMW entered an agreement with Lamborghini to build an all-new mid-engine sports and race car for a new series, as part of new homologation requirements. Sadly, things went south, forcing Lamborghini to back out and BMW to fend for itself. The company managed to complete the project with a bunch of former Lamborghini engineers, under BMW’s Motorsport division. They didn’t make many, only 453 examples, making it one of the rarest BMWs in existence. And yet, more trouble plagued the M1 as the league it was destined for was canceled and BMW shifted its focus to Formula One, stopping the M1’s purpose in its tracks. Power comes from BMW’s legendary 273 horsepower M88 naturally aspirated inline-six with independent throttle bodies for each cylinder.
Introduced in 1992, the E36 BMW M3 was based off of the third-generation 3-Series. Although purists complain about the E36 M3’s growth in size and weight over the original E30, the E36 M3 was more of a major transitioning period for the M3 by adding luxury to its equation. With this model, BMW established the M3 as more of a status icon and a luxury sports coupe, rather than a race car converted for the road. It set the stage for all succeeding M3s to follow by making the car equally as much about luxury as it is about performance. Unfortunately, the American-bound E36 M3s were severely watered down compared to their European siblings, with less power and fewer options. Still, it offered incredible performance for the era, even with its 240 horsepower 3.2-liter naturally-aspirated inline-six, versus Europe’s much more potent 282 horsepower motor.
Billed as another one of BMW’s most iconic flops was the company’s original 8-Series Coupe. Introduced in 1989, BMW created the 8-Series coupe as the ultimate in the company’s push towards innovation and technology. The result was a car nobody had ever seen before, fulfilling the stereotype of being “way ahead of its time.” Although it featured many firsts, such as the first V12 production vehicle with a six-speed manual (850i) and a CAN BUS computing network for all of the in-car functions, it was the modified BMW Motorsport that truly matters. Featuring an enlarged M-tuned version of the 850i’s already big V12; a standard six-speed manual; BMW M-tuned suspension, brakes, and steering; and much more, the 850CSI is simple one of the greatest cars ever built by “the Roundel.” It offered an unparalleled combination of performance, luxury, and innovative technology never seen before in a single package. Only 1,510 850CSIs were ever made with only 225 imported into North America between 1994 and 1995.
BMW Z3 M Coupe
One of BMW’s greatest oddballs also happens to be one of their greatest cars ever made. Based off of the E36 generation 3-Series, the Z3 came to life as a new sports roadster for the brand in an attempt to copy the success of the Mazda Miata, but in the premium market. However, it wasn’t the Z3 roadster that was as much of a shining moment as the “shooting brake” variant — the hardtop Z3 Coupe, more specifically, the Z3 M Coupe. As suggested by the M designation, the BMW Motorsport division created the M Coupe, a heavily modified version of the Z3 Coupe, featuring the same engine, transmission, and similar tuning as the E36 M3. The Z3 M Coupe is often regarded as one of the finest examples of the E36 3-Series platform next to the M3 itself.
Although the original E12 M535i helped established BMW’s reputation for making high-performance sports cars out of practical sedans, it was the second-generation M5 that truly solidified the car’s footing as one of history’s greatest performance icons. Based on the third “E39” generation 5-Series, its 400 horsepower V8 and incredible handling meant it could not only keep up with Porsches in a straight line, but in the corners as well. Purists refer to the E39 M5 as quite simply one of BMW’s greatest acts, epitomizing the company’s peak in the late 1990s as the purveyor of “ultimate driving machines.”
Conceived by recommendation from U.S. importer Max Hoffman in the 1950s, the BMW 507 is one of the company’s earlier models. It was built as an intended competitor to Mercedes-Benz’s incredible 300SL roadster of the time, yet as a more premium alternative to the “cheaper” Triumph and MG roadsters. It featured BMW’s first-ever production V8, a 3.2-liter unit, with around 150 metric horsepower and a four-speed ZF manual. Elvis Presley had two, which by itself should explain why the 507 is iconic and thus, one of the greatest BMWs ever made.
Last and certainly not least, the BMW E9 coupes were based off of the same “New Class” era of BMWs in the 1960s. Though much bigger than the smaller 1600/2002, the E9 is more notably the precursor to the 6-Series and 8-Series coupes. The more notable versions are the later variants of the E9 coupes, often referred to as the 3.0 CS and 3.0 CSL cars. It takes the title as one of the greatest BMWs ever made because of the 1972 3.0CSL, a homologation special built specifically to qualify the 3.0CS for the European Touring Car Championship that year. Approximately 1,265 3.0CSLs were built, featuring a racing body kit for improved performance, and a heavily modified version of the 3.0CS’s “M30” naturally aspirated inline-six.
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