BMW sports cars are products of the same exacting engineering that created the world's top performance sedan. In this article, you will find profiles and pictures of some of the best of the breed.
Bayerische Motorenwerke, or Bavarian Motor Works, was established in 1916, producing first engines for aircraft and then for motorcycles. It moved into automobiles in the 1920s, assembling for the German market small British cars under license. BMW began to manufacture cars of its own design in the 1930s, and from the start, most had a sporting bent. The prewar highlight was the quick, pretty, and advanced-for-its-day 328 roadster.
BMW's recovery from World War II was labored as the company gambled and lost with big, expensive sedans before resorting in 1955 to the tiny, egg-shaped Isetta to stay solvent.
It was the sensational BMW 507 sports car of 1956 that reignited the company's high-performance personality. Though it didn't sell well, the vitality of the 507 inspired a series of good-handling two- and four-door cars that earned BMW credit for inventing the sports sedan.
Spiritual successor to the 507 was the BMW 2800CS of 1968. Discover how this shapely coupe and the variants that followed into the 1970s laid the groundwork for the BMW 6-Series of high-performance two-door models starting in 1976.
These cars led to the landmark BMW M1, a midengine supercar introduced for 1978. Breaking the supercar mold by being reliable and drivable as well as very fast, the M1 also inaugurated the famous M series of cars that represent the ultimate in BMW driving machines.
We'll get started on the next page with the BMW 507.
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The BMW 507 was the first sports car from BMW that could compete with the Jaguars and Ferraris. Born in 1916 as an aircraft-engine manufacturer, Bavarian Motor Works had branched out into motorcycles by the late Twenties and was looking to expand into the auto business. It got the chance when the Dixi company in Eisenach proposed that BMW take it over, thus giving the Bavarian firm a license-built version of the British Austin Seven.
BMW soon developed cars of its own that moved far beyond that humble little rattletrap, building a reputation for superb engineering in the process. This naturally embraced sporting models, of which the most famous and successful were the six-cylinder Type 328 and 327 of the immediate prewar years, and later, the BMW 507.
But then came World War II, and BMW emerged as divided as defeated Germany itself. Some of its prewar facilities were irrevocably lost behind the Iron Curtain in the new state of East Germany, while those that remained in free West Germany had been devastated by Allied bombing. Rebuilding from this rubble was slow and painful, and it wasn't until 1951 that BMW was able to return to car production, though it did so with a new postwar design.
Designated 501, this was a big, bulbous sedan that was altogether too costly for the German market at the time, though BMW was still far too small to field a cheaper, high-volume product, and complex construction more or less dictated a lofty price. The 501 chassis, for example, was a massive box-section affair with tubular cross-members and torsion-bar independent-front/live-axle-rear suspension.
Power came from an updated version of the prewar six with its complicated valvetrain. Nevertheless, the "Baroque Angel," as it came to be called, sold well enough to give BMW at least a toehold in the car business, and the firm followed up in 1954 with a new 2.6-liter pushrod V-8 for a derivative model, the 502.
What happened next was something of a surprise for such a struggling outfit: a return to sports cars. At the urging of influential U.S. foreign-car baron Max Hoffman, BMW recruited German-American industrial designer Count Albrecht Goertz to come up with a pair of sporty models using 502 chassis and running gear.
Goertz worked quickly, and the results appeared in September 1955 as the 503 and 507. The former, offered in cabriolet and closed coupe styles, was a smooth if sedate 2+2 tourer rather than an out-and-out sports car. That role was left to the dashing BMW 507.
Conceived as an open two-seater, the BMW 507 shared the big sedans' steering, suspension and track dimensions but rode a wheelbase shortened by no fewer than 16 inches. It also shared the 502 V-8, albeit tuned to 150 net horsepower, teamed with 4-speed gearbox. Early 500-series BMWs employed a remote-mounted transmission, but the BMW 507's gearbox was always in unit. Veteran BMW engineer Fritz Fiedler designed the chassis along 501/502 lines, though the structure was all-new (and shared with the 503).
The 503 was neat and clean, but it positively paled next to the BMW 507. Here was styling as elegant and exciting as anything from Ferrari, Jaguar, or Mercedes-Benz -- and completely unmistakable, a glamorous new image-leader for BMW. Compared with the Baroque Angel, it looked like something from the next century.
As with the American Corvette and Thunderbird, an optional lift-off steel hardtop was offered to supplement the standard folding roof, and looked great. In typical Teutonic fashion, the BMW 507 was fully equipped and solidly detailed but heavier than its lean looks implied. In fact, it and the 503 weighed little less than the big sedans.
Those who drove the BMW 507 were exhilarated by its straightline performance but disappointed in the rather ponderous handling and the all-drum brakes (improved by substituting front discs on the last few examples). Top speed was 120+ mph -- good going for the available power (and testimony, perhaps, to the aerodynamic efficiency of Goertz's styling) -- but with more than 2900 pounds at the curb, the BMW 507 was not as nimble as it could have been.
The BMW 507 was never intended to make real money -- and at an astronomical $9000 in the U.S., it didn't. As a result, production ended after less than three years and a mere 253 units. But as the most memorable BMW of these years, the BMW 507 was important to the firm's fortunes because it helped revive BMW's prewar reputation for fast, durable, uniquely styled road cars with impeccable engineering credentials.
In fact, it's fair to say that the BMW 507 is the granddaddy of today's "Ultimate Driving Machines," even if it didn't sire them directly. That it's also recognized as a classic in its own right is only fair too, for it was and always will be.
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BMW 2800CS, 2.5CS & 3.OCS/CSi/CSL
The BMW CS series was one of the automakers most successful models. A key part of BMW's startling sales success in the 1970s and 1980s was its introduction of a new engine family in the 1960s, with hemispherical combustion chambers, opposed valves in crossflow cylinder heads, and overhead-camshaft valvegear. The first of these appeared in late 1961 to power the make-or-break "New Generation" 1500 sedan. Since then, it's been built with both four and six cylinders in displacements from 1.5 to 3.4 liters, and remains an important building block at BMW today.
As this engine grew, the original "New Generation" sedan evolved through 1600, 1800, and 2000 derivatives. A new CS coupe variation arrived in 1965, combining the 2000 sedan's running gear, floorpan, and some inner panels with a handsome new pillarless body designed by BMW's Wilhelm Hofmeister and executed by Karmann of Osnabrück. Unfortunately, this 2000CS had but a 120-horsepower four and was thus somewhat underpowered, while its face was one only Frau Hofmeister could have loved.
But BMW is nothing if not persistent, and in late 1968 it corrected most every 2000CS flaw in a six-cylinder successor, the BMW 2800CS. To accommodate the longer engine, new sheetmetal was grafted onto the existing body ahead of the cowl, adding 2.9 inches in wheelbase but nearly five inches to overall length.
Together with a better-integrated "twin-kidney" grille motif and four headlamps, this simple change yielded more balanced proportions that completely transformed the coupe from ugly duckling to beautiful swan. Retained from the 2000CS were BMW's now-characteristic full-length, chrome-trimmed creaseline just below the belt, plus a gently wrapped rear window and horizontal taillamps.
Even better, the BMW 2800CS went as well as it looked. The new six (borrowed from the 2800 sedan, introduced at the same time) delivered a rated 170 horsepower from its 170 cubic inches -- the hallowed "1 hp per cu. in." ideal. It not only made for performance of a much higher order than the 2.0-liter four but was smoother, less fussy, very torquey, and an aural delight.
It also fulfilled another requisite of a truly great engine by being terrific to look at. All-independent coil-spring suspension with front MacPherson struts and rear semi-trailing arms was continued per established BMW practice, combining a supple ride with good handling and roadholding.
Karmann continued to build CS bodies and handle final assembly in Osnabrück. Interiors were trimmed neatly, if not luxuriously, with top-quality materials in the German manner. As in the 2000CS, the rear seat was more " + 2" than adult-size, though most grown-ups riding there wouldn't complain on short trips and the glassy cabin ensured that no one suffered claustrophobia. Adding to the spacious feel was a roomy front cabin with generously wide individual seats and the now-customary low-profile BMW dash.
This handsome package followed another recent Munich tradition by continuing for a good number of years, albeit with various displacement changes to accommodate market demand and, as time passed, preserve performance in the face of power-sapping safety and emissions regulations.
Thus, the BMW 2800CS gave way to the 3.0CS in 1971, followed shortly by the 3.0CSi with Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection. (BMW model designations in this period reflected displacement in liters rather than cubic centimeters.) Both also had disc brakes at the rear as well as the front (replacing the 2800's drums).
Also appearing in '71 was a lightweight, detrimmed competition special, the 3.0CSL, with aluminum substituted for steel in many body panels. Late 1972 brought fuel injection as well as a small bore increase that boosted capacity to 3003 cc. A year later, displacement was stretched to 3153 cc for a third CSL, which was available with various eye-catching aerodynamic addenda including a rear spoiler between shark-like fins, front-fender strakes, and front airdam. The CSLs were quite successful in road racing on both sides of the Atlantic, carrying BMW's blau-und-weiss banner against archrival Porsche, among others, and winning the European Touring Car Championship in several years.
At the other extreme, BMW responded to the first "Energy Crisis" with the downmarket 2.5CS of mid-1974. This had a smaller, less powerful version of the "big-block" six (as initially offered in the 1968 big-sedan generation) and lacked a few frills, but sold for DM 6000 less than the 3.0-liter CS. But though it continued through the end of the Hofmeister coupes in 1975, it saw only 844 copies, making it one of the rarer BMWs of modern times.
All of these cars are fast, but some are outstandingly quick. The BMW 2800CS could reach 128 mph, while the injected 3.0CSi was good for nearly 140 mph and 7.5 seconds in the 0-60 mph test. Surprisingly, the CSL was little faster than this in roadgoing trim, but then the winged and bespoilered jobs looked like they should have been on a racetrack anyway.
Aside from performance, plus styling that has held up amazingly well over the years, the best thing about owning one of these BMWs is that their running gear comes straight from the counterpart sedans, which means that the coupes are no more difficult or expensive to maintain. But even BMW now admits that the Karmann bodies tended to severe rust after a few years, and squeaks, rattles, and air leaks are common, as with most pillarless body styles. This may explain why the replacement 6-Series was built in-house, where BMW could keep a better eye on quality.
With a little care and feeding, though, any of these six-cylinder coupes will return a lot of driving pleasure while testifying to its owner's discerning good taste. You can't say that about every car, especially those from the Seventies.
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It's seen more engine changes than a cross-country freight train, but the BMW 6-Series remains a thing of beauty and a driving joy. It originated in 1973 to succeed the aging Wilhelm Hofmeister-styled coupes that began with the four-cylinder 2000CS. Development work was initiated under chief engineer Bernhard Osswald and completed by his successor, Karlheinz Radermacher. What bowed at the Geneva Salon in March 1976 was essentially a rebodied version of the recently introduced 5-Series sedan, powered by the M-52 "big-block" six of the superseded 2800CS/3.0CS coupes.
Penned by the artistic Paul Bracq, BMW 6-Series styling was -- and is -- modern and handsome, with BMW's familiar "twin-kidney" grille, broad hood and deck areas, and tall, glassy greenhouse. Unlike its pillarless predecessors, the BMW 6-Series had B-posts, though they were quite thin and, finished in matte-black, hardly noticeable. Karmann continued to supply bodies, but final assembly now took place at BMW's Dingolfing factory, not the coachbuilder's Osnabrück works.
Chassis design followed the well-established formula laid down with the pivotal "New Class" sedans of 1962: all-coil suspension with front MacPherson struts and rear semi-trailing arms, plus recirculating-ball steering. As BMW's new flagship, the BMW 6-Series got disc brakes at the rear as well as the front.
It also introduced two innovations: variable-assist power steering, which decreases boost as engine speed increases for better road feel, and the comprehensive Check Control warning-light system that keeps tabs on engine systems, fluid levels, and exterior light bulbs. (Both would spread to other BMW models.) The 2 + 2 cabin featured a pair of deeply bucketed rear seats separated by an extension of the front center console, which in turn mated with a new angled-middle "Cockpit Design" dash (now another BMW hallmark).
The BMW 6-Series arrived in Europe with the existing 3.0-liter carbureted six as the 630CS. Initial transmission choices comprised 4-speed Getrag manual or 3-speed ZF automatic. The U.S. version appeared for model year 1977 as the 630CSi, the "i" denoting Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection, necessary to maintain some semblance of performance in the face of stiffening federal emissions standards.
Though critics loved the BMW 6-Series' handling, comfort, and refinement, they judged outright performance disappointing. But BMW was ready with a more powerful, 3.2-liter engine, substituted on both sides of the Atlantic for 1978. Curiously, these cars were badged 633CSi, not the more logical "632CSi."
Since then, the BMW 6-Series has evolved through increasingly potent powerplants with chassis upgrades to match. The first came with the European 635CSi of 1978, identified by special front and rear spoilers, discreet bodyside striping, and wider, lacy-spoke Mahle-BBS alloy wheels, plus a 3.5-liter 218-bhp M-90 engine and close-ratio 5-speed manual gearbox.
Alas, a 635 didn't reach North America until 1985 and was much tamer, though it boasted three important chassis changes: "double-pivot" front control arms and 'Track Link" rear suspension (borrowed for 1983 6s from the big 7-Series sedans to reduce oversteer tendencies in hard cornering) and Bosch anti-lock braking system (ABS). By this time, all 6s had standard 5-speed manual and optional 4-speed automatic transmissions, the latter with electronic shift control.
More exciting was the limited-production M635CSi, presented at Frankfurt in September 1983. Developed by BMW's Motorsport arm (hence the "M"), it packed a modified version of the twincam, 24-valve M-88 powerplant from the mid-engine Ml (see entry). Performance was vivid to say the least: just 6.4 seconds 0-100 km/h (62 mph) and a blistering 158 mph maximum.
For 1987, BMW finally brought this autobahn stormer to North America as the M6, losing little performance in the process. Though luxuriously furnished -- twin air conditioners, eight-way power front sports seats, eight-speaker sound system, hand-stitched leather on seats, dash, and door panels -- it's blitz schnell off the line and cruises easily at 140 mph. Desirable?
In exchange for less performance, less money bought you the equally posh U.S.-market 1987 L6, available only with automatic. Standard manual transmission returned for the renamed '88-model 635CSi, which offered more power via the higher-compression engine from the big second-generation 735i sedan. Closer-fitting bumpers were among several updates throughout.
Alas, nothing lasts forever, and BMW's new 5-Series sedan (scheduled for early-'88 release at this writing) inevitably means that this beautiful bolide will be replaced (reportedly by a smooth all-new high-tech design). The good news is that the 6-Series we've come to know and love should continue through 1990 at least. It'll be one tough act to follow.
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Some cars don't get the chance they deserve. The BMW M1, BMW's first -- and so far only -- mid-engine production car, was one of them. Though conceived as a "homologation special" for production-class sports-car competition, it was never actually campaigned by the factory, whose motorsport policy veered toward building Formula 1 engines soon after the Ml was finalized. In the end, only 450 examples were built, almost all of them fully equipped road cars. Needless to say, they've already become prized collector's items.
The BMW M1 (which stands for "mid-engine car, first type") originated in 1975 as BMW's counterattack against the Porsche 911s then cleaning up in various sports-racing series. Even so, the only part BMW actually contributed was the engine: a much-modified 4-valves-per-cylinder version of its straight six, designated M-88.
Aside from the gullwing Turbo experimental of 1972, BMW had no experience with "middies," so it hired Lamborghini in Italy to design, develop, and produce BMW M1. Giorgetto Giugiaro's Ital Design (then also involved with the ill-starred DeLorean) was contracted for bodywork styling and construction.
Ital was told to retain some "BMW identity," which explains the use of the familiar "twin-kidney" grille motif. Still, the overall result was somewhat heavy-handed compared to Paul Brache's Turbo (especially around the rear quarters), lacking its grace and excitement. Perhaps Giugiaro's staff had had an off day.
The use of Italian specialist know-how should have worked brilliantly, but it didn't. Lamborghini welcomed contracts like this because it was on the financial brink at the time. As if by design, it slipped over the edge shortly after the Ml was locked up, leaving BMW no choice but to regroup. Accordingly, construction was farmed out to two other Italian firms: Marchesi, for the multi-tube chassis, and Trasformazione Italiana Resina, for the fiberglass body. Final assembly was shifted to Baur, the German coachbuilder long associated with BMW.
But by then it was 1979 (the BMW M1 debuted at the Paris Salon in October '78) and BMW was wearying of a project that wasn't likely to generate the publicity -- or victories -- expected of it. The BMW M1's sole moment in the competition spotlight came with the 1979-80 "Procar" series, a sort of European International Race of Champions staged before major Grands Prix. In it, F1 drivers competed against each other and a few non-GP pilots in identically prepared BMW M1s, a sort of pre-race side show. It was almost as if BMW was ashamed of what it had done.
And more's the pity, because the BMW M1 was a superb modern supercar by any standard. As in Lamborghini's Miura and Countach, the engine sat longitudinally behind a two-seat cockpit to drive the rear wheels via a 5-speed transaxle (by ZF). Suspension was naturally all-independent, with coil springs and twin A-arms at each corner.
Brakes were big discs all around, while massive 16-inch-diameter wheels and tires were wider at the rear than at the front, as is common in tail-heavy high-performers. The results of all this were vice-free handling, very high cornering grip, and excellent stopping power -- in short, real racetrack ability.
That's hardly surprising when you consider that the BMW M1 was developed in three versions: a 277-horsepower road car, built mainly to satisfy the 400-unit homologation minimum; a Group 4 racer with 470 bhp and suitable body and chassis modifications; and a Group 5 car with about 850 bhp from a reduced-capacity (3.2-liter) turbocharged engine (the others had normally aspirated 3.5-liter powerplants). The Group 4 version was the one run in Procar.
"Production" BMW M1s were pretty plush, their comprehensive equipment running to air conditioning and full carpeting. They were -- and are -- as nice on the road as any Ferrari Boxer and probably better built. The highly reliable 24-valve M-88 engine is another plus for would-be owners. In fact, this is a pretty young power unit with a lot of development potential as yet unexplored. As proof, a revised rendition powers the limited-production M5 sedan and M635CSi/M6 coupe built by BMW's Motorsport division.
The tragedy of the BMW M1 is that this great car was abandoned before it could prove itself. Will BMW again attempt something so specialized? At this writing, indications are that it will, but the car won't necessarily be mid-engined, and you can bet it won't be built in collaboration with a shaky outfit.
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The BMW Z3 did not get the warmest of receptions. Power-hungry types said they'd wait for the six-cylinder version. Fashion hounds criticized the front-end styling. No one warmed to the meek exhaust note. Being a BMW, there's a certain maturity about it, and for those who can forgive the modest engine output and stir its shifter, the rewards are many.
On sale in spring 1996, the BMW Z3 beat Mercedes-Benz's SLK and Porsche's Boxster to market in the European roadster renaissance of the mid-1990s. Juiced by an overhyped cameo in the James Bond flick GoldenEye, demand for the BMW Z3 deluged BMW's just-opened South Carolina factory, which was the car's sole worldwide source.
Part of the allure was the BMW Z3's overtly sporty long-hood, short-deck proportions, though some observers found the globular nose a mismatch for the rest of the body. BMW said the decorative front-fender vents "can be interpreted as a small stylistic tribute to the BMW 507 roadster."
Comparisons with the Mazda Miata were natural and showed the BMW to be seven inches longer in wheelbase, three inches longer overall, and nearly 400 lbs heavier. Both cars have a manual soft top with a plastic rear window, though the BMW Z3 easily has more passenger and cargo room.
To control costs, BMW reused the semitrailing-arm rear suspension from an earlier-generation 3-Series sedan, a design BMW Z3 press materials defend as "appealing uncomplicated." It works, though, and except for occasionally jitterbugging its tail in fast, bumpy turns, the BMW Z3 is composed, balanced, and agile. A bonus is a supple ride and nearly flex-free construction deserving of the BMW rondel.
Less worthy, at least in specification, is the 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine. It has little low-end punch and never seems really to stir the soul. But its smoothness invites running near the 6400-rpm redline. There, the car feels alert and modem drivers can experience the sporting flavor of a bygone era.
For while the four-cylinder BMW Z3 is thoroughly modern in its dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, and optional traction control, it's a throwback to the days when high speeds didn't come so easily, when one could exercise a sports car to its full potential without risking limb or license. That's rewarding by any measure.