Of the luxury brands, no automaker has gone all-in on electric power quite like BMW. Yes, Audi and Mercedes are quickly playing catch up, but thanks to the all-electric i3 and i8 hybrid, the Bavarian brand has long held the lead. And with a host of hybrids, as well as the rumored i5 sedan on the way, it looks like it could increase the gap even more. But don’t think that means a stroke of luck and a crash course once the Tesla Model S became a cause of concern to the status quo. BMW has been working on EVs for nearly 50 years, and had things turned out a little differently, it could’ve launched one nearly three decades ago.
In 1972, the eyes of the world focused on BMW’s hometown of Munich as it hosted the Summer Olympics. While the Games were quickly overshadowed by tragedy, an early image of two orange BMW 1602s leading a serving as pace cars for the marathon was an important coup for the brand. But the Inca Orange cars were no ordinary Neue Klasse models; they were all-electric. And with that, the world was introduced to the 1602e.
BMW had the 1602e planned for some time before the Olympics. Development started in 1969, partnering with Bosch to develop an electric motor for the car, and Varta to replace the 1602’s standard 1.6 liter inline four with a dozen lead-acid batteries, which weighed in at a whopping 771 pounds. The result was perhaps predictable; the lithe, nimble 1602 became an electric vehicle that maxed out at 62 miles per hour, and could go just 19 miles on a charge, provided that you kept it at the recommended 31 mile per hour speed.
Still, the 1602e was notable in that it was far more livable than other nascent EV city cars out there. What’s more, it even had regenerative braking to keep the car running for longer. The 1602e began and ended with these two cars, but BMW continued to toy with the idea of electric power.
In 1975, just as the company was rolling out its all-new 3-Series, a group of engineers sought to build on the 1602e’s strengths and began exploring the feasibility of a production model. Using a late-model 700, a rear-engined compact from the early ’60s, the project was dubbed the LS. Despite its lighter weight and years of development, the small car took 14 hours to charge, and could only muster 19 miles on a charge at a speed of 40 miles per hour.
Throughout the 1980s, BMW continued to work to develop battery technology, experimenting with sodium-sulphur batteries. They weren’t as capable as modern lithium-ion batteries, but they were three times as dense as the lead-acid units used in the earlier cars. In 1987, it took 10 all-wheel drive 325iXs off the assembly line, converted them to front-wheel drive, and gave them to the German postal service to test. Despite the project never amounting to a production model, the cars had a range of 93 miles, or about 12 more than the first year i3, which debuted 27 years later.
Encouraged by the success of the sodium-sulphur batteries, BMW commissioned its Technik division to built an EV from scratch. After over 20 years of experience, the final product was ready for the 1991 Frankfurt Motor Show just 10 months later. Dubbed the E1, it was a striking city car with 32 kilowatts of power, 110 pound-feet of torque, and a range of around 100 miles — which would make it a competitive pure EV even today.
BMW built five E1 prototypes, and debuted an updated version, the E2, at the 1992 Los Angeles Auto Show, prompting some speculation that it would enter production. But it was already out of date; BMW was already experimenting, battery technology was changing, and a production E1 would never see the light of day.
For the rest of the decade, it conducted public tests of 25 3 Series coupe EVs on the German island of Rügen. Those cars topped out at over 80 and had a healthy 93 mile range. In 2008, BMW decided to have an even larger public program, offering over 600 electric-powered Mini hardtops to customers in U.S. and European cities. An electric 1 Series coupe followed in 2010.
And that brings us to the present day, with the bold, Richard Kim-designed i3 and i8. The i Series cars may have been around for a few years now, but they’re far from old news. What’s more, the i5 could debut as early as 2018. The fact that BMW has a range of fully-formed, well-thought electric vehicles is no accident or rush job. These cars are the product of nearly half a century of development. As EVs continue to find an ever-widening audience, look to BMW to stay ahead of the curve.