Even if you’re not a gearhead, BMW probably still means something to you. For the past 40 years or so, thanks to great cars and inventive advertising, people have associated the cars with styling, performance, and a relative degree of exclusivity. If you don’t like cars, you still know that a BMW is something to be desired.
But it wasn’t always this way. Whereas Mercedes-Benz has been building cars for presidents, kings, and tyrants since the 19th century, BMW’s rise has been a relatively recent development. Founded during wartime, it didn’t begin building cars until well into its second decade. And due to World War II, it took another 11-year hiatus before its first attempt to rebranding itself as a luxury automaker.
But for the past half-century, the company’s ascent from also-ran to global power has been nothing less than astonishing. No one before or since has been able to combine performance, luxury, and design as effortlessly as BMW, and today, they’ve grown into a brand that offers a premium vehicle in almost any segment you could imagine.
On March 7, BMW turned 100. We could fill a book about BMW’s history, but for brevity’s sake, here’s a very brief look at BMW through the ages.
1910s: An industrial beginning
In 1916, aircraft engine manufacturer Rapp Motorenwerke became Bayerische Motorenwerke, adopting a blue and white roundel as its logo. Contrary to popular belief, its blue and white logo isn’t meant to represent a spinning propellor – it was taken from the design of the Bavarian flag. After World War I, it was bought by rival manufacturer Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, or BFw, but decided to adopt the BMW name. With Germany’s military in tatters, the company focuses on building industrial engines and brakes for trains.
1920s: The birth of BMW cars
BMW finds a new lease on life by entering the motorcycle business with the popular R32, a novel bike that featured a 500 cc boxer engine, and a driveshaft instead of a traditional chain. In 1928, the company bought Dixi Automobil Werke, and began building the 3/15 PS, later known as the BMW Dixi. Though it’s little more than a British Austin Seven built under license, it’s nevertheless the first car to wear the BMW roundel on its grille.
1930s: BMW builds its first icon
In 1933, BMW introduced the 303, its first car to feature both an inline-six engine and its twin-kidney front grille. In 1936, it introduced the 328, a 90-plus mile per hour aluminum-bodied roadster that has since become one of the most iconic prewar European sports cars ever made. Production ends in 1940 as Europe plunges back into war.
1940s: Back at war
During World War II, BMW is forced by the Nazis to shift its focus back to aircraft engines. It builds over 30,000 engines for the Luftwaffe, including the 801, a 1,500-plus horsepower engine found in fighter planes. It continues making R12 and R75 motorcycles for the military as well. After the war, the Soviets seize the company’s eastern Eisenach factory, founding EMW and building pre-war models well into the ’50s. What’s left of BMW is in shambles; it survives the rest of the decade making pots and pans to supplement its meager motorcycle sales.
1950s: The near-death of BMW
After being turned away by Ford and Simca after requesting to build late-model cars under license, BMW sales director Hanns Grewenig argues that the small company should focus on building low-volume, high-profit luxury vehicles. The baroque 501 was introduced to compete with Mercedes-Benz sedans in 1951, but sales are slow. Following American importer Max Hoffman’s advice, the company dumps most of its resources into developing the 507 roadster. It’s universally praised for its beautiful styling, but its $12,000 price tag puts it into Rolls-Royce territory, and production ends after just 252 cars are built. It spends the rest of the decade building the Isetta microcar under license, and falls into such dire financial straits that by 1959, its board of directors entertain the idea of selling the company to Mercedes.
1960s: The incredible comeback
In 1960, Herbert and Harold Quandt become the company’s primary shareholders and set to revitalize BMW (the Quandts are still involved in the company today). The air-cooled, rear-engined 700 is a popular seller in Europe, but the 1961 “Neue Klasse” cars set the company on its path to global success. Compact, cleanly designed, and surprisingly sporty, the new cars (led by the 2002 coupe) introduce the concept of the “Sport Sedan” to enthusiasts around the world. By 1963, it offers dividends to its shareholders for the first time since the 1930s, and in 1966, it buys Glass GmbH, tripling its production capabilities.
1970s: The birth of BMW as we know it
With the sporty Neue Klasse cars globally successful, BMW blends performance and luxury in a way that’s never been seen before. In 1972, the company forms its Motorsport division to transforms its CS coupe into the 3.0 CSL racer, one of the most dominant performance cars of the decade. The 2002 gets an optional turbo for 1973, making it the third factory turbocharged car in automotive history. With an eye toward global expansion, the 2002 and New Six sedans are replaced in 1972 and ’76 respectively with the 5 and 3 Series. Sold under the tagline “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” BMW becomes a global luxury powerhouse to finally rival Mercedes-Benz. It closes the decade with the M1, one of the best-handling and advanced sports cars the world had ever seen.
1980s: A status symbol, and more
By the early ’80s, BMW’s car lineup as we know it today is largely locked into place. The 3 Series (which gets a four-door version in 1982), 5 Series sedan, 6 Series coupe, and 7 Series flagship are coveted for their mix of restrained style, excellent handling, and great performance. But those traits began to be lost on many buyers; their now cemented reputation as upper-class status symbol makes them the perfect avatar for the acquisitive creature of the ’80s: The Yuppie.
In 1986, BMW transformed the 5 Series into the performance-bred M5, raising the bar for the sport sedan to near-supercar status. It followed up in 1986 with the smaller, more track-focused M3. With excellent road manners, a perfectly tuned suspension, and a free-revving 300 horsepower inline-six, the first-generation M3 is considered by many to be the greatest BMW model ever made.
1990s: Global domination
After almost a decade of development, a new 5 and 7 Series bowed for 1989 to see the company into the new decade, with an all-new 3 Series following suit in 1991. The new models are sleeker, faster, and more tech-focused than most of its rivals. In response to the roadster revival, it launches the Z3 in 1995, followed by the limited Z8 in 1999, both end up starring in James Bond films. In 1999, at the height of the first SUV craze, it launches the X5 to compete with the Mercedes ML-Class and the Lexus RX.
And the company continues to grow. In 1994, it opens its first U.S. plant in Spartanburg, S.C., and licenses its cars to be built in Kaliningrad, Russia, for Eastern markets in 1999. In 1996, it buys the British Rover Group, taking over Mini, Land Rover, Rover, and MG. It sells Land Rover to Ford and spins Mini off into a sub-brand in 2000. In 1998, it buys Rolls-Royce.
2000s: A controversial design shift
While the company continued to grow in the first decade of the 21st century, it would come to be dominated by the vision of chief designer Chris Bangle. Baroque, complex designs for the 3, 5, 6, and 7 Series and Z4 roadster replaced heritage-based conservative styling and were met with controversy, though some, like the much maligned 7 series have aged surprisingly well.
While successful new models from Mini and Rolls-Royce largely silenced early skeptics, BMW introduced a number of new X-model SUVs and crossovers to appeal to as many customers as possible. From a performance standpoint, the decade is dominated by the 2000-’06 E36 M3, the 333 horsepower coupe that followed in the E30’s footsteps and made a convincing claim for the best-handling German car of the decade.
2010s: An eye to the future
At its centennial, BMW is nothing less than an automotive powerhouse. Barring the worst of the recession years (’09-’10) sales have increased every year since 2002, and today, it offers no fewer than 23 models in the U.S. alone, many of them SUVs and crossovers. But while you’d think this “something for everybody” mindset would take away from its “Ultimate Driving Machine” roots, the company is keeping the faith with an impressive number of performance cars. The M3 and M5 are as good as ever, the M6 Grand Coupe is a masterpiece, and the upcoming M2 is shaping up to be one of the best driver’s cars on the planet.
In 2014, the company introduced the i8 supercar, a mid-engined, carbon fiber hybrid that could go from zero to 60 in 3.6 seconds, top out at an electronically limited 155 miles per hour, and, if driven very carefully, can return an amazing 134.5 miles per gallon. By building the crossovers that the public wants, the performance cars that brand loyalists crave, and pioneering EVs and hybrids, BMW seems on track to make its next century as eventful and groundbreaking as its first one.