Out of the Box

The BMW X Coupé and the most elegant two-wheeler of its time

A zeppelin on rails powered by a giant propeller at the rear, a three-wheeler delivery vehicle, a coupé in a provocative asymmetrical design: could these possibly be connected with the history of BMW? In the series Out of the box, BMW Magazine Digital presents some surprising finds from the BMW Archives along with the quiet stories of the corporate past that were too soon forgotten by the shifting zeitgeist.

Michael Seitz

The precursor

At the start of the new millennium, the BMW Design team deliberately set out to polarise the automotive world with their BMW X Coupé. Rarely had so much innovation been concentrated in a single object. First there was the concept: a highly unusual hybrid for its day, which combined the commanding driving position of an SUV with the sportiness of a coupé. Then the diesel engine beneath the bonnet, considered at the time rather unsophisticated for the elegant world of coupés, and the body panels on which the designers’ clean lines twisted like the flames of a flickering fire. More than this, however, the X Coupé revealed striking asymmetries – for example, in the form of the huge tailgate which simultaneously served as a door for rear passengers. Accessed only from the car’s right-hand side, the tailgate – with its equally asymmetric sweep of glass – swung up and back to allow passengers into the rear seats. The study provided a preliminary glimpse of the ideas that fed into the world’s first Sports Activity Coupé, the highly successful BMW X6 presented in 2008. As such, the BMW X Coupé was an important precursor.

BMW X Coupé, 2001

Hurricane force

Designed in the early 1930s by German engineer Franz Friedrich Kruckenberg, the visionary Schienenzeppelin, or rail zeppelin, was powered by a 12-cylinder aero engine built by BMW. Just like its 600 hp engine, the rail zeppelin – so named for its streamlined silhouette – was entirely designed in line with lightweight construction principles. In 1931 it set an incredible record speed of 230 kilometres per hour. But the concept was abandoned on account of a number of design drawbacks. These included the fact that the locomotive could not tow carriages, its metre-long rotor blades were a danger to passengers waiting on the platform, and the turbulence caused by the rear propeller was powerful enough to send station furniture flying into the air. It also proved difficult to schedule the express train into the Reichsbahn timetable. To fully utilise the speed benefits would have required a separate rail network.

Rail zeppelin, 1931

A good idea at the wrong time

The rules for driving a three-wheeled truck in the late 1920s were the same as for motorcycles. Engines up to 200cc were tax free, required no driver’s licence and were authorised for anyone over the age of 16. Consequently it was a boom time for mini vehicles. In 1932, BMW launched a robust vehicle concept that featured a cargo area in front of the driver. Soon afterwards, however, driving laws changed and three-wheelers no longer enjoyed their advantages over conventional delivery vehicles. At about the same time, the market saw the arrival of the first three-wheelers with a cargo area behind the driver’s cab, a design still common in Italy today. It wasn’t long before the concept disappeared from the market.

Three-wheeler delivery vehicle, 1931

Well conceived, but never built

By the early 1950s, BMW was back in business with motorcycle production and had also resolved to return to car production. Its engineers opted to revisit their earlier success in the shape of the premium class BMW 501 Saloon, but there were soon doubts as to whether such an ambitious and expensive vehicle could really generate sufficient commercial interest at this time. So the Board of Management urgently tasked the development department to come up with a small car design. However, the prototype that resulted – a rounded four-seater vehicle powered by a motorcycle engine behind the large “kidney” radiator grille – was abandoned on capacity grounds following the launch of the BMW 501. Luxury, it was decided, better suited the BMW brand – even if it went against the zeitgeist.

BMW 531, 1951

A once-in-a-lifetime anniversary for any high achiever merits a festive retrospective – to celebrate the high points, landmarks and triumphs and to highlight moments along the way that gave rise to the best ideas and most successful innovations. For the BMW Group there have been plenty of these over the course of its history.

But hidden in the shadows of such milestones are many less well-known stories, concepts that were too soon forgotten by the shifting zeitgeist. A great idea born at the wrong time, perhaps; an early prototype or an unsung strategist who shared little of the glory bestowed on the ultimate prize-winner. Many of these deserve a second look, for they reveal some hidden links and remarkable journeys of their own. So we scoured the BMW Group Archives and turned up a raft of less familiar concepts. It marks the start of the Out of the box series in BMW Magazine Digital, which presents the results of our search.

Forgotten beauty

Since the launch of the R 32 in the early 1920s, BMW motorcycles had played a large part in offering individual mobility for the first time to broad segments of the population. This initial wave of customers sought a mode of transport that was robust, reliable and suitable for everyday use. As motorcycle designs reached technical maturity, the focus shifted to a new set of criteria. By the early 1930s, the Munich-­based manufacturer was developing a different design idiom and commissioned the young motorcycle engineer Alfred Böning to come up with a spectacular new prototype. His BMW R 7 was a motorcycle with a streamlined silhouette, designed in the popular art deco style of the day. It also featured a number of exceptional technical solutions in its flat-twin boxer engine, chassis and fairing. But BMW decided not to go ahead with the elaborate design on cost grounds – a decision that seems entirely reasonable given the circumstances of the mid-1930s. Many of Böning’s ideas went on to be realised after the Second World War, however, and he continued to work for BMW Motorrad until 1972. But his elegant prototype became lost in the mists of time.

BMW R7, 1931