BMW has had an interesting 100 years. It started out as a manufacturer of aircraft engines, then moved onto motorcycles, and finally started car production in 1928. It got pretty good at building cars, then became wrapped up in the Nazi war effort and was left in ruins at the end of the Second World War. It struggled to rebuild itself, first with luxury cars, then with sensible sedans. It used motorsport to build credibility, and the 1980s rise of Yuppies to build profitability. Today, BMW is one of the most respected names in the car business, but its success was never assured.
BMW Dixi (1928-1931):This is the car that started it all. The Dixi was actually a British Austin 7, which BMW bought the rights to make when it acquired a company called Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach. Other than the blue-and-white roundel logo, there’s little to link this simple machine to today’s BMWs, but the Dixi (later renamed 3/15) got BMW into the car business, and kept it there.
BMW 328 (1936-1940):BMW’s prewar achievements peaked with the 328. The sleek styling was matched by impressive performance for the period, helping to establish BMW’s motorsport pedigree. World War II pushed BMW off the course set by the 328, and it would take the company a long time to find its way back.
BMW 507 (1956-1959):The 507 may be the prettiest BMW ever, although it was also one of the least successful. In the 1950s, Germany was still in ruins, but BMW bosses nonetheless thought the best way for the company to move forward was to launch a line of luxury cars. Those cars never sold well, yet BMW still answered U.S. importer Max Hoffman’s calls for a sports car. It wrapped the mechanicals of the 503 sedan in a svelte aluminum body to make the 507. It was a sales dud, but today the 507 is one the most collectible BMWs.
BMW 2002 (1967-1976):BMW made some memorable cars before the 2002, but this was the one that really gave the company its identity. The boxy sedan’s mix of practicality and performance can still be seen in modern BMWs, as can at least a few of its styling elements. A clever marketing campaign also convinced consumers to pay a premium price for this small car because of its superior German engineering, a concept BMW and other German firms still cling to today. Among the many 2002 variants, the 2002 Turbo also helped bring forced induction to the mainstream.
BMW 3.0 CSL (1972-1975):The CSL was a “homologation special” built to legalize a hopped-up version of BMW’s E9-series coupe for racing. BMW stripped out weight wherever it could, flared the fenders and, on some versions, added a rear wing that earned the CSL the nickname “Batmobile.” Even the road-going versions looked like race cars, and they had the performance to match.Among its many achievements, the CSL won the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1975, firmly establishing BMW’s credentials in the U.S. Later, Alexander Calder applied a unique livery to a CSL race car, making it the first of what would be many BMW art cars.
BMW M1 (1978-1981):By the late 1970s, BMW had built plenty of sporty cars, but the M1 was its first (and, so far, only) supercar. The M1 boasted a purpose-built inline-six engine and a wedge-shaped body that’s pure ‘70s. Production issues and other factors capped the total number of cars at 450, and may explain why BMW hasn’t tried to build another supercar since. Aside from becoming a classic in its own right, the M1 lent a version of its engine to the first-generation M5, kick-starting BMW’s line of performance “M” cars.
BMW 3 Series (1975-present):The 3 Series is arguably the model that defines BMW today. It’s the car enthusiasts love, and rival automakers love to benchmark. Building on the success of the 2002 and other small BMW sedans, the 3 Series was basically the genesis of the modern luxury sport sedan. Over several generations, it’s consistently proven to be one the best driver’s cars around, but with practicality no sports car can match. The 3 Series also begat another legendary BMW: the M3.
BMW M3 (1985-present):The M3 is arguably the famous of the BMW “M” models, which are hot-rodded versions of the company’s regular cars. The legend started with the E30 generation, which boasted boxy fender flares, a big rear spoiler, and bespoke 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. It dominated in European touring car racing, but was ultimately supplanted by more civilized M3 versions that were easier to live with. For the current generation, BMW uses the M4 designation for the coupe and convertible, and retains the M3 name for the sedan only.
BMW M5 (1984-present):The M3 aimed to be a race car for the road, which numerous automakers had tried before. The M5 was something different. Vastly more luxurious and much stealthier than the M3, it packed a version of the M1’s inline-six into anonymous-looking 5 Series sedan bodywork. Over the years, the M5 has had some pretty exotic powertrains, including a naturally-aspirated V8, a V10, and the current twin-turbocharged V8. But it’s always been the car no one ever saw coming.
BMW i8 (2014-present):If this is what the future of performance cars looks like, than bring it on. A product of the same “i” division that created the i3 electric car, the i8 looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. From the dramatic styling, to the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic chassis, to the fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid powertrain, the i8 is a radical reassessment of what a sports car can be. It bodes well for BMW’s next 100 years.
That ride has produced some fantastic cars. Here, in chronological order, are 10 examples that stand out both for their significance in BMW’s development and their iconic status today.