BMW did not start out making high end high performance cars. Before they were “the ultimate driving machine,” BMW was an aircraft engine manufacturer. In October 1913, Karl Friedrich Rapp started BMW in a former bicycle factory near Munich. Rapp called his new enterprise “Rapp-Motorworks.” The aircraft engines he produced didn’t exactly wow the world. Rapp’s engines had serious issues with reliability. Unable to turn his company around, Karl Friedrich Rapp resigned from his company due to financial troubles.
Meanwhile, down the street from the old bicycle factory near Munich that Rapp housed his company in Gustav Otto operated a business building small aircraft. Otto was the son of the inventor of the four stroke internal combustion engine. His company, “Gustav Flugmaschinefabrik” was very successful. Rapp Motorworks was taken over by Austrians Franz-Josef Popp and Max Fritz. Together with their financier Camillo Castiglioni, they struck a merger deal with Gustav Otto and formed Bavarian Aircraft Works. Two years later, in 1918, the company changed their name to BMW and the company known for producing the ultimate driving machine was born.
In 1920, after several years of great success for BMW’s aircraft engines, the predecessor to BMW’s well known logo was debuted. The logo was designed to represent propeller blades against a blue sky. The white blades against the blue sky are also representative of Bavaria’s blue and white checkered flag. In 1928, BMW began production on the first BMW automobile. Called the Dixi, this first generation Beemer was extremely popular. In fact, the success of the Dixi helped BMW get through the Great Depression.
The 1930s were a time of great innovation for BMW. In 1932 they launched a new model called the 3/20PS. This car featured an innovative engine. It had a 782cc 4 cylinder engine with suspended valves and a double chain for driving the camshafts. All of this technology resulted in 20 horsepower at 3500rpm and a top speed of 50mph. In 1933, BMW introduced the 303 Saloon which was the first BMW inline six engine to hit the market. Overall the 1930s saw advancements in technology that the venerable car maker still uses today.
In 1936, BMW’s best known pre World War II car hit the market. The car was the Type 328 roadster. The 328 is legendary in racing history. With sleek lines and top of the line ground breaking performance, the 328 collected over 120 victories on the racing circuit from 1936 to 1940. BMW has continued to have a rich racing tradition throughout the decades. The 328 featured a 2 liter in-line 6 cylinder engine.
During the 1940’s, BMW reverted to manufacturing aircraft engines to supply the demand created by World War II. Great strides in technology, power and the distance planes could fly were using BMW engines were made in the mid part of the decade. In 1944, BMW’s Munich plant was bombed and destroyed during air raids. By the end of World War II, BMW was in ruins. Five plant locations were either destroyed or dismantled. The Allies imposed a three year ban on production because of BMW’s involvement with the Axis movement. Though the US granted BMW permission to repair US Army automobiles and there is no further work on new automobiles during this decade.
In the early 1950s, BMW introduced the 501 – a luxurious sedan that reflected the styling and trends of that era. The 501 was soon followed by the launch of the BMW 502 – the world’s first light alloy V8 engine. This is one of the earliest signs of what has become BMW’s ongoing commitment to pioneering new technology in the automotive arena. BMWs best seller of this decade was a precursor to today’s Mini. The Isetta was a petite two seat microcar with a 12 or 13 horsepower engine.
In the 1970s, BMW was finally entering the market as a full-fledged car company. Their long standing history of being at the forefront of emerging technology began to strike a chord with consumers who were newly enamored of technological advances. This was also the decade BMW rolled out the three-tier sport sedan system of the 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series that they still adhere to today.
In the more recent decades, BMW has established itself as a worldwide leader in luxury automobiles. Their racing history sets them apart from other luxury brands as all of BMW’s sedans retain a sporty sensibility in both form and feature. BMW has expanded its line to include everything from roadsters to sedans to SUVs. They’ve also added to Rolls-Royce and Mini to their family of ultimate driving machines.