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75 Years - The History of BMW, Part 2

Three-quarters of a century of this great automobile manufacturer

Courtesy of BMW

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This article was first published in 2004.

In Part 2 of this series we take a look at the BMW models of the last 40 years – including some that you wouldn’t normally associate with the marque!

BMW 1500: The break-through of the New Class

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In the mid ’50s, the BMW developers realised that there was urgent demand for a modern medium-sized car. Development work started but initially there were not sufficient financial resources to realise the task of creating a completely new medium-sized car.

At the beginning of the ’60s, however, the situation changed from the ground up. Finally, the new “mid-size car” was designed as a stylish, medium-sized four-door vehicle with a sporting suspension set-up and a powerful engine: comfortable enough to seat five passengers, agile enough for fast stretches. Marketing experts gave it the name “New Class”: In 1961, the BMW 1500 debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

Underneath the bonnet there was an all-new, straight-four engine displacing 1.5 litres. A maximum output of 80 bhp gave it a top speed of almost 150 km/h (93 mph). A superb suspension further added to the car’s outstanding performance. Its driving behaviour was neutral in almost all conditions. The suspension set-up was firm but not uncomfortable. The interior featured safety features such as padded upper and lower dashboard edges and a low and cushioned steering-wheel hub.

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The BMW 1500 was very positively received by the international specialist press and customers alike. No more than one year after production start-up, the BMW 1800, a sister model sporting a 1.8-litre engine and delivering 90 bhp, was launched, followed by the BMW 1600 and 2000 in 1964 and 1966 respectively. In 1969, the top model of the New Class hit the showrooms presented in the guise of the BMW 2000 tii, the first BMW production vehicle to feature a fuel injection system. The new coupé line, which had been on offer since 1965 comprising the 2000 C and CS models, was also based on the New Class.

The outstanding success of this New Class helped BMW to gain international recognition as a manufacturer of modern automobiles coveted by customers the world over. While the BMW 1500 ceased in 1964, the entire model series, almost identical in terms of looks, continued to exist until 1972. During this period the New Class became the most successful BMW model series. In all 329,626 saloons came off the Munichproduction line.

Beginning of a new automotive era: The 02

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On 7 March 1966the BMW AG celebrated its 50th anniversary. On this particular day, Gerhard Wilcke, then Chairman of the Board, presented to the guests invited to the Bayerische Staatsoper a new model, the BMW 1600-2.

Being smaller and more stylish than the then-current New Class saloon models, this new model served as a basis for the model range from then on. The 4 centimetre lower roof, the somewhat flatter windscreen, the round headlights and the circular taillights accentuated the car’s dynamics and sportiness. But presumably only a few of the guests noticed these design cues at first glance, as this new saloon had a much more striking feature: It had only two doors, a feature to which the model owes part of its model designation (–2).

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Apart from very few details, the interior of this new model was, technologically speaking, on par with the previous four-door BMW 1600, the production of which ceased simultaneously: It was powered by a four-cylinder engine displacing 1,573 cc and producing a maximum output of 85 bhp. As is the case with all BMW models produced at that time, the engine, which was inclined by 30 degrees, was front-mounted. The suspension, combining an A-arm front axle and a semi-trailing arm rear axle, was also derived from the “New Class”. The braking system was highly advanced and efficient with disc brakes at the front, a feature which had so far been reserved for upmarket automobiles or sports cars. But the 1600-2 was not exactly what you would call cheap. At DM 8,650, the entry-level model’s price corresponded to the annual income of an employee. What customers did get for their money was a state-of-the-art car with a total weight of 940 kg, offering a formidable power/weight ratio. The 0-62 mph sprint took about 13 seconds, and with a top speed of 166 km/h (103 mph) it was one of the fastest cars at that time.

The concept was much more promising for the future than initially expected by critics and dreamt of by its supporters. Thus, for example, some Munich dealers, who doubted this concept’s success, kept asking: “Who’s going to buy this car?” Their customers soon taught them otherwise: in the first production year BMW manufactured 13,244 units. In 1967, the four-door car’s production volume of 38,572 units almost exceeded the production figures of the four-door version with 39,930 units produced.

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In 1968, a new “small” BMW caused a sensation among automotive enthusiasts of all ages: The 2002, the ultimate sports saloon for many years to come. The 2002 was available at a price of DM 9,250. Under the bonnet there was a 2-litre engine producing 100 bhp, giving the car a top speed of 170 km/h (106 mph). 339,092 units came off the production line until production ceased in 1975, thereby raking in the lion’s share of profits made by the 02 Series.

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However, in 1973 the 2002 turbo with 170 bhp caused an even bigger stir. It was the first German production car to be equipped with a turbocharger. This top-class model of the 02 Series reached its top speed at 210 km/h (130 mph) and was available for ten months exclusively in white and silver.

1968: The 2800 breaks the 200 km/h limit

As the New Class and the 02 Series had been so successful, BMW could afford in 1968 to continue the tradition of the ’30s and bring up-to-date the six-cylinder engine. The 2500 and 2800 models, with which BMW re-entered the segment of big saloons, celebrated its premiere. The spacious body with its characteristic dual headlights had a markedly functional appearance, making it completely different from the simultaneously launched coupé.

Both body variants were powered by the same engine: The power unit, inclined by 30 degrees, featured a seven-bearing camshaft with twelve counterweights ensuring vibration-free operation, and an overhead camshaft. One of the technological innovations of both engines, which featured the same layout, was the so-called triple hemispheric swirl-action combustion chamber incorporated into the pistons, intensifying the combustion process and therefore boosting performance. The 2.5-litre engine produced 150 bhp. The 2.8-litre engine developed 170 bhp, enough power to catapult the 2800 into the exclusive circle of 200 km/h cars. Also, the 2500, peaking at 190 km/h (118 mph), had little to fear from competition.

From 1972 onwards: The 5 Series

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“The new 2-litre four-cylinder car made by BMW bears the model designation BMW 520 (say: five twenty), thus deviating from the hitherto used type designation. The first figure denotes the type of car, the second and third figures standing for the cubic capacity.” With these words the new generation of BMW automobiles, the BMW 5 Series, was presented at the 1972 Motor Show in Frankfurt.

The BMW 520 and BMW 520i models’ looks marked the beginning of a new era in terms of design: large window areas and a low waistline were the most striking features of this new design incorporating the characteristic dual headlights. Inside, strict functionality was predominant. With these models, BMW had created a new style which was to have a decisive internal influence for decades.

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The new model met with great enthusiasm, and, as usual, performance-minded BMW customers were soon calling for further, even more powerful models. After a year BMW launched the BMW 525, the first 5 Series model with a six-cylinder engine. With this first generation of 5 Series cars, which was discontinued in 1982, BMW was in a position to more than double the production of automobiles in this class. More than half of all 5 Series cars went to customers abroad.

The 2nd Generation 5 Series

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In the summer of 1981 BMW presented the successor models in Munich. Although, at first sight, the difference to the predecessor models was not immediately obvious, much refinement had been done to optimize the body, the interior and the technology. This time, BMW presented as many as four different models, varying in engine output from 90 to 184 bhp. In 1983, for the first time in the company’s history, BMW entered the fiercely contested diesel market with the BMW 524td. The BMW diesel engine was a straight-six power unit with a cubic capacity of 2.4 litres, turbo-charging and a maximum output of 115 bhp. A top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph) and acceleration from 0–100 km/h (0–62 mph) in a mere 13.5 seconds set unprecedented standards in terms of dynamics among diesel-engined cars.

After a lifecycle of 7 years, the all-new vehicles of the third BMW 5 Series generation replaced this model series, which had achieved a sales record with more than 722,000 units sold.

The 3rd Generation 5 Series

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In January 1988, BMW introduced to the public a completely new 5 Series, enhanced in every detail. For the first time, BMW’s mid-size models were, for the time being, exclusively equipped with six-cylinder engines, with a maximum output of 115 bhp (524td) and 218 bhp (535i) respectively. After a short while, new variants were added. In 1985, the new estate car models, a first in this class, bearing the designation ‘Touring’ debuted. One year later there were also 5 Series models featuring V8 engines. With more than 1.3 million units delivered to customers, this 5 Series entered the company’s history books as one of the most successful model series ever.

The 4th generation 5 Series

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In 1995, the 4th 5 Series generation celebrated its premiere at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The saloon had been enhanced in every respect and its static and dynamic torsional stiffness was unparalleled in its class. A special highlight was the fact that the 5 Series was the first volume car worldwide to feature a suspension made completely of light alloy. For the first time ever, BMW ceased to offer a four-cylinder variant within the 5 Series. BMW gradually introduced all current petrol engines and six-cylinder diesels incorporating variable camshaft control, followed by the two V8 engines in 1996. Equipped with the most powerful series-production engine of all times, the M5 was presented in 1998 as the top of the model series. The M5’s engine, which produces 294 kW/400 bhp, featured, amongst other things, oil supply with centrifugal control, and electronically-controlled individual throttle valves.

Since 2003 the innovative new generation of the 5 Series models has continued successfully the tradition of the New Class.

From 1975 onwards: The 3 Series

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Expectations were high when BMW unveiled the first 3 Series in Munich’s Olympia stadium in the summer of 1975. BMW opened a new chapter with the launch of the 3 Series. Technologically speaking, the 3 Series was the result of a further development of the 02 Series. Although, from outside, it bore resemblance to the 5 Series, its character was completely unique. A characteristic feature of the new two-door car was its distinct wedge-shape design, which was much disputed by the public at the beginning. The designers also trod new paths as far as the interior was concerned: The cockpit design included the centre console angled towards the driver, a typical feature of the BMW interior for many years to come.

And yet again, gloom was foretold for this BMW model series when it was launched. But again customers reacted positively: in the category of up to 2 litres cubic capacity, the BMW 320 was voted the world’s best saloon by the readers of Europe’s biggest car magazine in 1976. The 3 Series outperformed the 02 Series in every respect: in May 1981, the 1,000,000th 3 Series vehicle came off the production line, making the 3 Series the most successful BMW model series of all time.

The 2nd Generation 3 Series

In the autumn of 1982, the second generation of the 3 Series replaced the previous models. By the end of the first production year, BMW had already sold 233,782 new 3 Series cars. At that time, however, the real attraction had not yet even been released. In the autumn of 1983, the 3 Series featuring four doors hit the showrooms. The small BMW class had already attracted a considerable number of customers who very much approved of the car’s improved fuel economy and increased comfort as a complement to its sporting performance. In 1985, BMW launched the 325iX four-wheel drive and the 324d diesel. Above all, the six-cylinder diesel engine with a peak power of 86 bhp quickly gained the reputation of being the diesel engine offering the most running smoothness in the entire market.

In 1986, BMW presented the 3 Series Convertible, the first fully open four-seater from Germanyfor 11 years. With this convertible BMW created once again a trendsetter on four wheels, soon to be followed by the next one: In August 1987, BMW presented to the public a small touring. This utility and sports car has not only been most successful with customers who frequently transport bulky goods, but also with all other groups of buyers simply due to its attractive appearance.

The 3rd Generation 3 Series

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In 1990, the third generation of the 3 Series, a four-door saloon, was put on the market, gradually followed by the coupé, convertible compact and a touring. When this model series reached its pinnacle at the end of the ’90s, customers could choose from five body variants and ten different engines, the spectrum ranging from a four-cylinder diesel engine delivering 66 kW/90 bhp to a high-tech six-cylinder engine on the M3 with a maximum output of 236 kW/321 bhp.

The 4th Generation 3 Series

In May 1998, the current BMW 3 Series was launched, first of all in the form of a four-door saloon. The 320d made its debut as BMW’s first direct injection diesel engine with a maximum output of 100 kW/136 bhp, a top speed of 207 km/h (129 mph) and a fuel consumption of 5.7 litres. Owing to its running smoothness in particular, it outperformed all its competitors in its class. These days, the current 3 Series comprises coupé, touring and convertible versions, thus offering customers a wide range to choose from.

From 1977 onwards: The 7 Series

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In 1977, BMW introduced a successor model in the luxury performance segment: the first 7 Series model. The saloon took up BMW’s new design language, which had been introduced with the 6 Series Coupé, and combined a highly prestigious exterior and a plethora of technological innovations. At the beginning, customers could choose between three different models with a 2.8-litre (170 bhp), a 3.0-litre (184 bhp) and a 3.2-litre (197 bhp) engine respectively.

The 745i launched in 1980 became the flagship model of the first 7 Series. This car featured a 3.2-litre six-cylinder turbocharged engine which produced 252 bhp. The second and the third digit, which had so far been referring to the engine’s cubic capacity, signify in this case that the car’s engine is on par with a 4.5-litre naturally aspirated engine.

The Second 7 Series – with V12

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People reacted almost euphorically to the introduction of the second-generation 7 Series model in 1986. Critics were thrilled by its aura of discreet noblesse, coupled with sporting elegance, excellent acceleration, superb driving characteristics and state-of-the-art technology. While the first generation 7 Series models had been exclusively equipped with six-cylinder engines, the 750i, the flagship of the second-generation 7 Series, was added in 1987 as Germany’s first twelve-cylinder saloon since the end of the ’30s. The 5-litre light-alloy power unit, whose power peaked at 300 bhp, delivered a maximum torque of 450 Nm and featured separate injection, ignition and catalyst systems for each of the two cylinder banks. It was no surprise that this milestone in BMW’s automotive history reaped a great deal of success in its segment. When production ceased in 1994, more than 48,000 BMW 750i/iL cars had left the BMW factories. A total of approximately 310,000 customers decided in favour of the second-generation 7 Series model.

The Third Generation 7 Series

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BMW launched the third generation of the 7 series in 1994. Having almost the same external dimensions as the previous generation cars, extremely elegant lines and new technological features, the new 7 Series generation offered not only an even higher degree of active and passive safety but also set new standards in terms of motoring comfort. If customers wished, they could order the 730i, 740i and 750i models as stretched versions.

After seven successful years the legendary BMW twelve-cylinder engine received a far-reaching upgrade for use in the new 7 Series. Cubic capacity was increased to 5.4 litres and maximum output was raised to 240 kW/ 326 bhp. At the same time, engineers managed to lower fuel consumption in the ECE test cycle by 11 per cent and by 19 per cent in city traffic. Two years later, the diesel era dawned on the BMW segment of upmarket saloons as well: the turbocharged six-cylinder engine in the 725tds produced 105 kW/143 bhp, reached its top speed at 206 km/h (128 mph) and consumed moderate 7.5 litres of diesel fuel. Later on, this engine was replaced by the six-cylinder direct injection power unit in the 730d. A V8 engine featuring Common Rail direct injection, featured by the 740d, was added later. About 330,000 customers purchased cars of the third-generation 7 Series, which was discontinued in July 2001.

The 6 and 8 Series Coupés

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In the middle of the ’70s the wild years of the legendary BMW racing coupés were over and with the launch of the 6 Series in 1976, BMW presented an elegant, low-profile upmarket coupé, which was exclusively available with a six-cylinder engine during its entire lifecycle. Measuring 4.75 metres in length and offering abundant space inside with a high degree of comfort, the 630 CS, 633 CSi and their successor models sold extremely well: when production ended in 1989, more than 86,000 units had been sold. Never before had a BMW coupé been so successful.

The 8 Series Coupé, of which more than 31,000 units had been sold between 1989 and 1999, was a further technological milestone in BMW’s history of coupé: Powered by eight- and twelve-cylinder engines, it was no problem for this car to reach a top speed of up to 250 km/h (155 mph).

A racing car for the road: The BMW M1

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Whilst the 6 Series made its debut, engineers were secretly working on the development of a distinctive BMW sports car, which caused a worldwide sensation in 1978: The BMW M1. This high-performance coupé was the first product to be made by the BMW Motorsport GmbH. In 1979, the M1 was presented as part of the ProCar Series, which had been especially created for this car, within the framework of Formula 1 racing throughout Europe.

The mid-engined car was powered by a big straight-six engine displacing 3.5 litres. The purchasable road version’s power unit, which was longitudinally mounted in front of the rear axle, conveyed maximum power of 277 bhp to the rear axle. Even at a standstill, the M1 exuded an air of superior dynamics. Acceleration from 0–100 km/h (0–62 mph) came in less than 6 seconds, the sprint from 0–200 km/h (0–124 mph) took a mere 20 seconds, these being acceleration rates only reached by a handful of automobiles world-wide at that time. The suspension, the layout of which had been adapted to the requirements of the Group 4 M1 delivering 470 mph, easily coped with the deceleration, acceleration and lateral acceleration rates that are standard in racing.

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Although the M1 was a sports car par excellence, the driver and the co-driver did not forgo the benefit of comfortable motoring. It is true that the springs were rather firm but the suspension’s absorption qualities on bumpy roads were high enough to prevent excessive strain on the passengers. The passengers were very well protected inside the tubular space frame made of square steel profiles with a bonded and riveted plastic body shell. Torsional stiffness was exemplary. In the boot underneath the front lid there was enough room to store the luggage needed by two persons for a weekend trip. Passengers were even in a position to enjoy the advantages of automatic climate control.

The BMW M3

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When the era of the M1 drew to an end, the BMW M3 entered the scene in 1986. With the launch of this compact two-door car, BMW followed for the first time a consistent path of parallel development of production and motor sport cars: The road version, 5,000 units of which had to be made available within one year to gain approval as a touring car, was designed, right from scratch, in such a way as to meet racing car requirements. It was tailor-made to Group A specifications.

Right from the beginning, the snow-white racing car in the typical BMW Motorsport colours scooped huge numbers of trophies, victories and titles. Driving the M3, Roberto Ravaglia from Italy won the Touring Car World Championship in 1987. This was the first and only world title bestowed in this vehicle category.

The high-performance saloon, whose four-cylinder four-valve engine produced a maximum output of 195 bhp, featured a catalytic converter as standard. It set the course of future motor sport. In the following five years the M3 dominated the touring car racing scene and became one of the most successful touring cars. More than 17,100 road versions of the first M3 sold.

The BMW Z1

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Ten years after the debut of the M1, a sports car with a body made of plastic caused great excitement amongst the public: The Z1, originally intended to be a technological spearhead, was designed and produced by the BMW Technik GmbH to serve as a showcase for alternative body concepts. The roadster features a monocoque chassis made of pressed sheet steel components and a bonded plastic floor. This design is lightweight on the one hand, and offers maximum stiffness on the other. The panelling consists of thermoplastic and is bolted on. The electrically-operated doors, which drop down into the side sills, are a further special feature of this car.

Under the Z1’s bonnet there is a 2.5-litre inline six-cylinder engine with a maximum output of 170 bhp, giving this roadster a top speed of 220 km/h (137 mph). By 1991, 8,000 units of this vehicle, which has fascinated people until this very day, had been sold.

The BMW Z3

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As soon as the Z1 had been taken out of the programme, customers called for a successor. In 1995, the Z3 made its debut, the first BMW from America. It is exclusively produced at the Spartanburgplant situated in South Carolina, and from there it goes all over the globe. The Z3 Coup´ was over and above the BMW models with four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines respectively, the Z3 is also offered in two M versions: The M Roadster and the M Coup´ both feature the M3’s 3.2-litre high-performance engine, delivering a maximum output of 325 bhp.

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