To some, it’s one of the most beautiful cars of the 1950s. To others, it’s the car that began BMW’s transformation from a struggling microcar builder into the performance-minded powerhouse it is today. But had things turned out only slightly differently, the BMW 507 – and the brand itself – could’ve been nothing more than an automotive dead-end consigned to the ash bin of history.
The 1950s were a time of rebuilding for the German auto industry. While Mercedes was wowing the automotive world with the technological powerhouse that was the SL300, Volkswagen was beginning to take over the global import market, and Borgward was inventing the sport sedan segment with its Isabella TS, BMW was still struggling to rebuild. Simply put, World War II devastated the company; while Mercedes-Benz made the rides of choice for the Nazis, BMW was busy making military motorcycles and aircraft engines, something the Allies knew all too well. By the end of the war, endless bombing runs had destroyed the company’s Munich headquarters. What’s more, its three eastern plants were seized by the Soviets, crippling the company’s production capabilities.
Car production didn’t resume until 1951 as a result, and even then, its only model was the 501 — a big, baroque sedan that was more warmed-over ’30s-era luxury sedan than modern car. By 1955, the company was on life support, surviving on motorcycle sales and the moderate success of building the Italian Isetta microcar under license from Iso Rivolta. Despite struggling through the decade, New York-based importer Max Hoffman saw potential in the brand, and he convinced the struggling company to take a chance on a radical new sports car. In its desperation, it did.
In the 1950s, Hoffman was something of a savior of the German auto industry. From his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed showroom on Park Avenue, Hoffman was the first man to import Volkswagen into the U.S. In 1953, he convinced Mercedes-Benz that a sports car based on its W194 racers could make a big splash in stateside. Debuting in New York in 1954, the 300SL almost single-handedly established the Mercedes brand in the U.S., and 80% of 300SL production was sent our way. The following year, his recommendation that Porsche build a competition-ready 356 resulted in the iconic Speedster, which helped establish the company as the darling of weekend racers across the country.
Hoffman knew about BMW’s prewar sporting success with the 328 roadster, and believed it could do it again with a cheaper, American-friendly 300SL-fighter based on its V8-powered 502 sedan. In 1954, the company set to work on the car, dubbed the 507. The car was to use as much from the existing BMW parts bin as possible, and was overseen by Ernst Loof, who had a major hand in the ’30s with the 328. Hoffman rejected all of Loof’s designs, and insisted that the company tap designer Albrecht von Goertz for styling. By 1955, the car was ready, debuting at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. The 507 looked great, but from the outset, it had some serious problems.
Powered by BMW’s 3.2 liter, 148 horsepower V8, the 507 could go from zero to 60 in just under 10 seconds, and had a top speed of around 140 miles per hour, instantly making it one of the world’s premier sports cars. But its 29 gallon fuel tank was mounted behind the seats, making the cockpit reek of gas. Worse, BMW’s cost-cutting techniques didn’t exactly work; Hoffman asked the company for a $5,000 sports car, it debuted in New York at $9,000, and by the time it went on sale in late 1956, the price had climbed to over $11,000 – more expensive than the mighty 300SL.
In the end, the car that was meant to save BMW only pushed it closer to the brink of disaster. The company only managed to build 252 of the cars before production ended in 1959, losing money on each one. Its cheaper Goertz-designed 503 grand tourer fared little better. Mechanically similar to the 507, the company only managed to sell 413 of those in the same time span.
By the end of its sports car experiment, BMW was in such dire straits that board members began calling for Mercedes-Benz to absorb the company. An infusion of cash by industrialist Herbert Quandt, the timely failure of Borgward, and the game-changing “Neue Klasse” cars of 1961 all helped to save the company from the brink and help it grow into the performance powerhouse it is today. Had BMW’s story ended with the 507 and a Mercedes merger, it’s likely we never would’ve known the Ultimate Driving Machines we revere today.
With BMW firmly established as an automotive powerhouse, the 507 has become a legend. If anyone saw a 507 in the ’50s, it was likely in a tabloid, serving as Elvis Presley’s ride of choice while stationed in Germany in the U.S. Army. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was a cheap old roadster, popping up in old Road and Track classifieds, and changing hands for a few thousand dollars. But time was generous to the unpopular sports car. Its design has become recognized as one of the most beautiful of the decade, and many Bimmer fans look on it as the breaking point when BMW moved away from old-fashioned luxury cars and became the focused, performance-based brand it is today.
As a result (and because of its rarity, of course) the 507 is now one of the most sought after collectible cars in the world. The car pictured here was sold by RM Sotheby’s in 2014 for a whopping $2.4 million, placing it firmly in the pantheon with mid-century Ferraris and Jaguar racers. Frankly, it deserves it.
It may have been unloved in its time, but the 507 is a truly fantastic sports car. Underneath all the hype, all the myth-making, all the legends, and all the what-ifs, the 507 is a sprightly, dynamic machine that gave the BMW roundel the allure it enjoys today. This Thanksgiving week, we couldn’t think of a better car to be thankful for.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
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