Classics

A legend: the BMW 507

Sensual, stylish, dynamic: the BMW 507 was one of the most extraordinary roadsters of its day. But in 1955 there was not yet a market for its qualities. Today the most elegant BMW of the early period is worth a small fortune.

By
Jan Wilms

Let us rewind to a time when widescreen Cinemascope gave moviegoers a whole new visual experience. When technology could be something other than merely functional. When designers shaped dreams using the vocabulary of form. And when speed and performance were synonymous with individual freedom. This was the start of the age of the magnificent sports car, vehicles which restored a sense of optimism after the privations of the post-war years.

The favourite dreamweaver of this time was the BMW 507. Following its unveiling in 1955, the stylish design of the two-seater roadster for a while surpassed all the competition. And owing to its very limited production, it quickly became a legend in its own lifetime. Today it is one of the rarest of all classic cars.

When it was unveiled in 1955, the two-seater roadster’s stylish design for a while surpassed all the competition.

Albrecht Graf Goertz pictured in 1988 at a BMW 507 rally in Florence and Siena, Italy. In 1955, the BMW Board of Management gave him free rein over the design of the BMW 507. His featherweight roadster is one of the most elegant BMWs ever built.

The incredible story of the BMW 507 begins in the 1950s, when the entire car market was in a state of flux. During the years of the economic miracle in Germany, BMW successfully built a reputation with its large, luxury 501/502 saloons. But internally the company still harboured fond memories of the BMW 328 and its great motor sport successes of the pre-war era. Although the company’s engineers had not lost the knack for building cars with a distinctive athleticism, what was missing was new, impressive proof of performance that would once again put BMW on the map as a brand that embodied sheer driving pleasure.

The quest for performance

Preliminary plans and a prototype were created in 1952. Based on this, the Nürburgring branch of the BMW Research and Development department built a “507a”. Although this won the Concours d’Élegance at Bad Neuenahr, it failed to reflect new global tastes. At this point, US importer Max Hoffman brought the young industrial designer Albrecht Graf Goertz into the picture. A former disciple of design guru Raymond Loewy, Goertz had emigrated from Germany to the USA in 1936. The BMW Board of Management gave the young designer free rein – and he promptly rewarded them with two featherweight drafts for the 507 and the 503 Sports Coupé/Convertible. It was the start of a new design idiom for BMW.

A glimpse inside the cockpit of a BMW 507 hardtop. The photograph was taken in the early 1980s, the period in which the elusive roadster was rediscovered and launched on a second career as a star turn at auctions and exclusive collectors’ events.

Rock ’n’ roll legend Elvis Presley was an enthusiastic BMW 507 driver. Given its high price tag, the elegant sports car was aimed predominantly at customers for whom money was no object. Right: modeller Johann König inspects a 1:1 clay model of the BMW 507.

Rock ’n’ roll legend Elvis Presley was an enthusiastic BMW 507 driver. Given its high price tag, the elegant sports car was aimed predominantly at customers for whom money was no object. Right: modeller Johann König inspects a 1:1 clay model of the BMW 507.

Goertz’s lines and detail for the BMW 507 were new, but nevertheless harmonious and infused with convincing clarity. Striking attributes were the sensual shoulder line and muscular wheel arches, the filigree front windscreen and the opulent chrome-plated detail – circular headlamps, side-vent “shark gills” (reprised in 1995 in the BMW Z3), and an eye-catching, finely wrought radiator grille, which for the first time incorporated forward-leaning trademark kidneys. The overall appearance of the BMW 507 was powerful to the eye yet slender in form, distinctively BMW yet remarkably unique. The sculptural outer shell was then paired up with the ideal partner for the drive system: the advanced 3.2-liter V8 engine from the BMW 502, which with a modified camshaft configuration and increased compression ratio boosted output to a sporty 150 hp.

“The Dream Car from the Isar” at the 1955 Frankfurt Show

Shortly afterwards, the car was the focus of attention for an excited public at the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA) of 1955. Thanks to an aluminium engine and body, the BMW 507 Touring Sport tipped the scales at just 1,220 kg and clocked an impressive 220 km/h. And as the catalogue promised, it offered excellent handling despite soft suspension. It also came in a range of variants: convertible soft-top as standard, hardtop and racing trim optionally available. The press wrote euphorically about the “Dream Car from the Isar” (the river that flows through Munich), labelling it a “sensation”.

But the 507’s success story came to an end before it had really even started. BMW had paid dearly for the enthusiasm the model triggered. Its price tag of 26,500 deutschmarks was equivalent to the cost of a detached house at the time and difficult to justify even for a luxury product. Orders dribbled in in homeopathic doses and came predominantly from celebrity customers such as Alain Delon and Elvis Presley – a BMW fan since the launch of the Isetta – and for whom money was absolutely no object.

Low order numbers drove BMW to even more expensive one-off production. Even US super salesman Hoffman, who himself had originally promised to take 2,000 units, could do nothing to shift the 507 despite its V8 engine. In 1957, BMW revised the 507 for a second series and simultaneously increased the sale price to 30,000 deutschmarks. This would prove a bold – and ultimately fruitless – marketing strategy. By December 1959, the end of the BMW 507’s construction period, just 251 examples had been sold. The 507 faded from view almost as quickly as it had arrived, like a passing comet. That was until its rediscovery in the 1980s, when it was suddenly launched on a second career as a star turn at auctions and exclusive collectors’ events.

A touch of magic for BMW

Although the 507 remained invisible on the roads, it performed an invaluable service for BMW, proving that sportiness, elegance and unique individualism could all be combined at the highest level. Even if the car failed to bring the much-needed and hoped-for financial success, it revived customer confidence in BMW in the early 1960s. The cash cow came later in the form of the bestselling BMW 1500, a functional and sporty mid-range model. But would this model have been so desirable had the company not generated enthusiasm for the unattainable dream car, the BMW 507? Almost certainly not.

The touch of magic that the 507 brought catapulted BMW into a different world. Thanks to its timeless design, the roadster continued to make its presence felt right down to the modern era, when the BMW Z8, presented in 1999, was hailed as a futuristic reinterpretation of the 1950s jewel. Today just 220 examples of the BMW 507 remain registered for road use. Those fortunate owners can expect the value of their investment to increase exponentially: a second-series model built in 1958 was sold at auction in 2014 for USD 2.4 million.

Today just 220 examples of the BMW 507 remain registered for road use. Those fortunate owners can expect the value of their investment to increase exponentially: a second-series model built in 1958 was sold at auction in 2014 for USD 2.4 million.

04/25/2016