As a manufacturer of world-class automobiles, the story of BMW goes back nearly 100 years and tracks the history of the 20th century and some of its most important achievements on wheels.
The story of BMW begins in 1913 with Bavarian-born Karl Friedrich Rapp, whose company, Rapp Motoren Werke, secured a contract with Austro-Daimler to manufacture the company’s V12 airplane engines. In 1916, Rapp resigned from the company and merged his company with Gustav Flugmaschinefabrik to form Bayersiche Flugzeungwerke—soon to be renamed Bayersiche Motoren Werke, or “Bavarian Motor Works,” the BMW we know today.
In 1917, BMW produced its first airplane engine, the six-cylinder Type IIIa. Two years later, using a BMW Type IV engine, Franz-Zeno Diemer set an altitude record of 32,013 feet.
In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, officially ending World War I and, in effect, putting BMW out of the airplane engine business. In 1922, however, after building air brakes for railway cars for three years, BMW returned to making airplane engines, which were used to set 29 aviation world records.
The BMW logo shows the color squares of the Bavarian flag on roundel with the BMW letters on top.
In 1923, BMW produced its first motorcycle, the R 32 with a flat-twin engine transversely mounted in a double tubular frame. With its two-cylinder, 494cc engine, the R 32 produced 8.5 hp with a top speed of 59 mph.
Five years later, in 1928, history was made when BMW produced its first automobile. The Dixi 3/15 PS was manufactured under license from Austin. It was made with a 743cc four-cylinder engine and, with 15 hp, had a top speed of 50 mph.
The next year, BMW introduced an improved version of the Dixi. The DA2 had an all-steel body and four-wheel brakes, and in 1930, it gave BMW its first win in an auto race. In all, BMW would produce 18,976 model DA2s.
In 1932, BMW would begin building the AM4, its first “real” car. The AM4 had a 782cc four-cylinder engine. With its suspended valves and a double chain to drive the camshafts, the AM4 could make 20 hp at 3,500 rpm and had a top speed of approximately 50 mph.
Pushing the boundaries of automotive engineering, BMW next introduced the famous 303 Saloon with an inline six-cylinder engine and BMW’s first of the now-iconic twin kidney-shaped radiator grilles. With the 303 Saloon, BMW introduced its benchmark independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering.
In 1936, BMW introduced its model 328, the most famous pre-war sports car. The 328 proved itself on racetracks throughout Europe and became a popular road car. Its light weight—only 1,830 pounds—was possible because of BMW’s innovative tubular spaceframe and alloy parts used in the car’s hood, doors and rear end. Its innovate 1971cc inline six-cylinder engine featured a hemi combustion design, producing a then-robust 80 hp, giving the 328 a top speed of 93 mph.
Meanwhile, BMW continued to manufacture world-class motorcycles. In 1935, Ernst Henne set a new world speed record of 173.7 mph riding a 500cc, 108-hp BMW motorcycle, a record that would stand for nearly 20 years.
World War II left BMW’s factories in ruins. When the war ended, the Allies imposed a ban on production – a response to BMW manufacturing airplane engines and rockets during the war.
When the ban was lifted in 1951, the first model BMW introduced was the 6 cylinder 501 luxury sedan, a poor choice for a country whose people and economy were left devastated by the war.
In 1955, BMW returned to form with production of the popular Isetta 250, built under license to Italian carmaker Iso. The Isetta 250 and its offshoot models represented BMW’s successful foray into the mini-car fad of the 1950s with its 245cc engine that produced 12 hp at 5,800 rpm and a top speed of 53 mph. Small, yes, but a mighty strong seller with a total of 161,728 built.
The BMW 507 was launched in 1956, featuring a light-alloy two-door body with a soft retractable roof. Its timeless design continues to influence BMW engineers, as evidenced by the shape of the recently produced Z8 Roadster, which clearly looks back at the 507. The 507’s large, all aluminum 3,168cc V8 engine was capable of delivering 150 hp with a top speed of 124 mph. Only 252 were ever produced, making the 507 a symbol of BMW’s long climb back after the war and a precursor of the many great automobiles BMW would go on to build.
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