BMW turns 100 this year. And throughout much of its history, it has been benchmark manufacturer.
The Bayerische Motoren Werks grew out of an existing aircraft and motorbike manufacturer in 1916, during World War One. As many such firms did, it started building cars in 1933, launching a license-built version of the Austin 7.
Success before World War 2 was followed by deep financial trouble in the Fifties. That it’s main factory ended up in Communist East Germany didn’t help. But in the early Sixties it created the Neue Klasse saloon, the right product at the right time, which sold very well indeed. It’s on the back of that car’s success that BMW as we know it was developed.
Looking through its back catalogue, BMW has made notably few duds. But there are undoubtedly highlights. Click through the gallery below to see BMW’s greatest hits.
BMW 328 (1936-1940) BMW’s first sports car was essentially a parts bin special, but a lightweight chassis made it a masterpiece. Indeed, many view it as the first modern sports car. Powerful and fast, it was an immensely successful racer, including a class win at Le Mans and victory on the ’40 Mille Miglia
BMW Isetta (1955-1962) By the mid-50s, BMW was pretty much on its knees. A funny little bubble car from Italy, built under license and re-engineered around a BMW bike engine, generated the profit needed to invest in new models. Over 160,000 were built
BMW 507 Roadster (1956-1959) Design at the behest of US importer Max Hoffman, the 507 should have been a winner. Used tried and tested running gear shared with saloon siblings, including a sonorous 3.2 V8, and wore an achingly pretty body. But it was heavy, underpowered and ended up being monumentally expensive. BMW hoped to sell thousands, but only 252 were built
BMW 700 (1959-1965) The Isetta laid the ground work for the 700, which really saved BMW from going under. The small car market was booming and this went straight for the jugular. It was high-quality, excellent to drive and still relatively affordable. Nearly 190,000 were built
BMW Neue Klasse (1962-1977) By the early 60s, the burgeoning band of middle managers created big demand for a high-class mid-size car. BMW answered the call with the Neue Klasse. A comprehensive range of engines and bodies was launched over its run, with production reaching 1.2 million. The company’s future was secured and the template for all models that followed was set
BMW 3.0 CSL (1972-1975) Built in response to Ford’s domination of touring car racing, the CSL won 5 European Championships in a row. Lighter and more powerful than standard CS, later versions gained iconic ‘Batmobile’ bodykit. Was also successful in GT racing; turbo version topped 200mph at Le Mans
BMW 3-Series (1975-present) If the Neue Klasse revived BMW, the 3-Series is the foundation of its current success. It picked where the old car left off, but improved the recipe where it mattered. Each generation since has followed the same format. More than 10 million have been built
BMW M1 (1978-1981) While the M1 was in development, main contractor Lamborghini went bankrupt and the FIA’s class system changed, rendering it obsolete. Still it was pushed through to production and what a thing it was. Gorgeous, with pin-point handling and a jewel-like 286bhp 3.5 engine. And it was adapted to the new racing rules, with big success
BMW M3 (1985-1992) Probably the most touring car racer of all time, for many the E30 M3 is still the best. Speed and handling reset the boundaries for what a saloon could do
BMW 7-Series (1986-1994) E32-gen 7 was the first that could genuinely go toe-to-toe with the Mercedes S-Class. Never quite as good, but turned BMW into a genuine player in the luxury saloon market
BMW 8-Series (1989-1999) Ostensibly replaced the 6-Series, but aimed further up the food chain into Porsche 928 territory. A genuine and luxurious 4-seater with supercar-baiting performance from a 300bhp 5.0 V12, high-tech gadgets and innovative chassis tech that gave excellent handling. And it has pop-up headlights
BMW Z1 (1989-1991) The first sports car since the 507 and, much like the older car, not a very good one. Heavy – despite plastic body – and not fast, but it looked like a concept car and had doors that retracted into the body, even when driving
BMW 5-series (1996-2004) The 5 has always been very good, but the E39 generation really established BMW as the big executive saloon maker to beat. High-tech, handsome and brilliant to drive
BMW Z3M Coupe (1999-2002) Ugly as sin, but good grief was it good. Searing pace from 321bhp M3 engine and it was decently practical. But the big story here was the handling, pin-sharp and endlessly driftable. At the time, many called it the best-handling car in the world. Some still would
BMW X5 (2000-present) The first car to successfully marry the best bits of an SUV and a saloon. Essentially a high-rise 5-Series with similar performance and handing. Not much good off-road, but who cares. You were sat high up in something that still felt like a saloon, and drivers loved that. About 1.5 million have been built
BMW i8 (2014-present) Space-age hybrid showed eco cars could be fast and fun. Advanced carbonfibre structure holds hybrid drivetrain and tuned 3cyl Mini engine, giving 911 Carrera-matching performance. Great handling too, and looks like nothing else on the road. No where near as economical as claimed, but still a lot better than rivals
By Only Motors Images via Favcars.com