BMW Group celebrates 100 years as a company today, March 7, 2016. Over the last century, a small aero-engine manufacturer from the north of Munich has transformed into a world-leading premium manufacturer of automobiles and motorcycles. BMW has also continuously innovated, defining change and looking to the future. Today, the BMW Group is an international group of companies with production and assembly facilities in 14 countries and a global sales network.
Looking back at the history of the BMW Group reveals a long list of events that had an impact on the development of the company. Beginning with the ban on airplane engine production in Germany after the end of the First World War, when Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG purchased leftover production parts and formed an independent engine and vehicle manufacturing company, renaming it Bayerische Motoren Werke AG. Since the original company was founded on March 7, 1916, that date is today regarded as when BMW Group officially began.
The ambition and readiness to look for completely new and technically complex solutions has been at the core of development from the very beginnings of the company right up to the present day. The BMW IIIa aero-engine launched in 1917 demonstrated exceptional power, reliability and efficiency even when operated at high altitudes. These characteristics were based on the robust basic design as an inline six-cylinder engine and on the use of particularly lightweight materials combined with innovative technology for carburetor and ignition. In June 1919, test pilot Zeno Diemer created a sensation with a world altitude record flying to 32,021 feet (9,760 m) in a plane powered by a BMW IV aero-engine.
The company also chose an independent path when it developed the company’s first motorcycle. While other manufacturers were still working with the geometry of bicycles, the BMW R32 was consistently designed around the engine. The model presented in 1923 was the first motorcycle powered by a horizontally opposed twin-cylinder boxer engine, featuring a manual gearbox bolted directly to the engine and power transmission along a shaft instead of a chain or belt. These key attributes remain defining characteristics for BMW motorcycles with boxer engines to the present day. BMW motorcycle works rider Ernst Jakob Henne set numerous world records between 1929 and 1937 on two wheels. He achieved a speed of 173.68 mph (279.503 km/h) in his last record ride, which was to stand for 14 years.
In 1928, the company also became an automobile manufacturer and produced small cars based on established contemporary designs. However, all the common conventions of the period were broken when the BMW 303 formed the first mid-range vehicle launched under the brand powered by an inline six-cylinder engine. The model was presented in 1933 and established a profile distinguished by the distinctive contour of the radiator cover, which is today still recognizable as the BMW kidney-shaped grille. Most importantly, the car also featured low weight as a result of the tubular frame with twin down tubes of different cross sections. These were used for the first time in an automobile. The design engineers thereby refuted the widely held conviction that only a heavy vehicle could deliver stable driving characteristics. BMW patented the tubular frame with twin down tubes and continued to base its automobiles on the principle of optimizing weight.
Competitive sporting events were regarded as ideal for manufacturers of motorcycles and automobiles to impress the public and increase sales. The first racing success for the BMW brand was achieved in February 1924 when Rudolf Schleicher won the hillclimb on the steep Mittenwalder Gsteig. The slogan “Tested in Sport – Proven in Series” then became a familiar moniker. The victory gained by Georg Meier with a supercharged BMW racing motorcycle in 1939 was a particular landmark. Meier was the first rider from outside the United Kingdom to win the Tourist Trophy in the 500cc class, known as the Senior TT, on the Isle of Man.
The first automobile produced by BMW also proved its worth in sporting competitions. Just four weeks after the car went on sale, the BMW 3/15 PS achieved victory in the International Alpine Rally. BMW’s first mid-range automobile, the BMW 326 was launched in 1936 with a 50hp six-cylinder engine. The legendary BMW 328 roadster made its first public appearance on the racetrack in June 1936, when Ernst Henne proved his success on four wheels by driving to class victory in the Eifel Race on the Nürburgring circuit. The company was on a successful trajectory before the political changes in Germany brought the production program to an abrupt halt. Soon after, aero-engines again became the focus of government militarist objectives. Although the company derived massive benefit from the new rearmament efforts of the 1930s and 1940s, it has since lived up to its responsibility for the events during the period of National Socialism.
During the immediate post-war period, the company had to adopt a new approach in all aspects of its business. “Schorsch” Meier continued his earlier successes and won the German Championship in 1947. The first post-war motorcycle in the form of the BMW R24 came off the Munich production line in 1948. The team’s racing machines powered by BMW engines in the Sidecar Combination World Championship had a particularly impressive series of wins with 20 constructors’ titles and 19 riders’ titles between 1954 and 1974. In 1980, the BMW R80G/S created a sensation in off-road racing. Winning the European Off-road Championship was followed by victories in the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1981, 1983, 1984 and 1985.
The manufacture of automobiles only started up again in 1952 but without much business success. The BMW Isetta initially reflected the spirit of the times and more than 160,000 units of the “Motocoupé” were sold. The BMW 700 lived up to sporty ambitions, initially launched as a coupé in 1959 and a little later as a saloon. The successful sales of this car ensured the very survival of the company. At the Annual General Meeting held in 1959, the sale of BMW AG to Daimler-Benz AG was on the brink of being signed but was averted at the last minute. The restructuring plan developed under major shareholder Herbert Quandt was based on the independence of BMW AG, new structures and new models. The breakthrough came in 1961 with the BMW 1500 as the first model of the “New Class.” After just a few years, the company had progressed from a candidate for takeover into a flagship company.
This “New Class” was a symbol of individuality. In 1965, the most powerful model up to that point was launched with the BMW 1800 TI/SA as a platform for motor sport – and at the same time a new slogan began, which continues to be used today: “Freude am Fahren” – “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”
Initially, the post-war era only brought modest successes in motor racing but in 1966, Hubert Hahne won the European Touring Car Championship driving the BMW 2000 TI. He also became the first driver to take a touring car round the north loop of the Nürburgring in less than 10 minutes. The growing importance of motorsport activities was manifested by the establishment of BMW Motorsport GmbH in May 1972. In subsequent years, the collection of titles was enriched by the BMW 3.0 CSL, the BMW 635 CSi, the BMW 320 Group 5 and, most importantly, the BMW M3 Group A, which became the most successful touring car in the world.
At the beginning of the 1970s, when the upswing was brought to another abrupt halt by the “oil crisis,” the managers at BMW set about overcoming hard times and emerged from the crisis with renewed strength. The BMW 5 Series was presented as the successor to the “New Class” and demand started to gather pace from 1975. BMW responded with new models, expanded production and optimized sales structures.
In 1982, BMW took to the stage of Formula 1 as an engine supplier together with its partner Brabham. The big triumph followed just one year later when Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet won the World Championship. He was the first driver to take the title driving a car powered by a turbo engine. As a result of realigning its commitment to motor sport, BMW returned to the German Touring Car Masters (DTM) in 2012. The comeback brought with it maximum success. Canadian Bruno Spengler ended the inaugural season driving the BMW M3 as German Touring Car Masters Champion.
“The Ultimate Driving Machine” also became the guiding principle for BMW motorcycles. The company had launched the new models BMW R50/5, BMW R60/5 and BMW R75/5. Riding motorcycles had now become an enjoyable leisure pastime that could be enjoyed on the sporty touring machines. In 1980, BMW engineered the next pioneering achievement in the motorcycle segment, the touring Enduro BMW R80G/S, which was a precursor to the popular on- and off-road GS category of motorcycles.
At the beginning of the 1990s, managers at BMW were once again at a crossroads. In 1994, they took over the British Rover Group in order to acquire additional target groups with a wider range of automobiles. The endeavor was not a crowning success. In 2000, the Rover Group was sold again. BMW only continued with development of the MINI brand. The company had meanwhile undergone restructuring and had purchased the name and brand rights for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. Just before the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, the “Number ONE” corporate strategy had defined the principles for sustainable, profitable growth and long-term increase in value.
A new form of diversity also characterized the pioneering strategy, which created a sensation in the automobile sector in 1999. Even before the global SUV boom became established, the company launched the BMW X5, which combined all-round characteristics, a high seat position and all-wheel drive. The range now comprises five BMW X models, including two Sports Activity Coupés, which have found success.
The automobiles from the BMW i brand are the latest examples of intelligent, lightweight construction, and innovation. On the threshold of the next century of its corporate history, the BMW Group is taking on a pioneering role in designing a form of mobility that is independent of fossil fuels. Since 2013, the BMW i3 has provided the Ultimate Driving Machine in a pure electrically-powered premium automobile. Furthermore, the plug-in hybrid model BMW i8 introduced in 2014 allows drivers to experience the future of the sports car right now.