Out of the Box

Forgotten records and a radical roadster

A hydrogen-powered car that sets speed records, engines for tractors and a purist convertible: could they have something to do with the history of BMW? In its “Out of the box” series, BMW Magazine digital presents some surprises from the BMW Archive and lesser-known stories from the company’s past that were too soon forgotten by the shifting zeitgeist.

Michael Seitz

Field research

The early 20th century saw the advent of motorisation in all walks of life. Following its success with aero engines, BMW began looking for new sales outlets for its sophisticated engines. With the mechanisation of agriculture, many vehicle and engine manufacturers glimpsed the opportunity for new business opportunities in the aftermath of the First World War. In 1917 the fledgling Bayerische Motorenwerke acquired a licence to build a motorised plough from tractor manufacturer Karwa. Since the company had no production facility in Munich, the original intention was to have the tractors built under licence at the Hannoversche Waggonfabrik. Plans were drawn up to design a BMW engine for the tractor, but the entire project was abandoned soon afterwards.

Planned engine development for the tractor, 1917

Much misunderstood

In the early 1970s, Europe’s roads were dominated by the notchback saloon. Passengers and luggage travelled in separate compartments – though obviously in somewhat sportier style in a BMW. Weekend excursions with sports equipment or shopping trips for bulky items at the furniture store were still relatively unknown. That is why many customers simply did not get the concept of a compact car with a large tailgate, folding seats and level loading bay. Nor was there much enthusiasm at the time for its rather alien appearance. Unsurprisingly, then, the first BMW Touring to feature a tailgate remained a little-known one-off. Not until the mid-1980s did BMW have a second attempt at the genre in the form of the 3 Series Touring – and this time scored an absolute bulls’ eye with its lifestyle estate.

Compact car, 1970s

Forgotten records

Many experts consider hydrogen to be the fuel of the future. Most of them envisage the conversion of hydrogen into electrical energy, which is then stored in batteries until required. The actual drive is provided by an electric motor. By contrast, BMW spent many years optimising internal combustion engines for use with hydrogen. The high points of this development were the speed records set by the futuristic H₂R in 2004, which exceeded 300 km/h. The BMW Group achieved these following a comprehensive research programme into hydrogen technology – from filling and storage at minus 253° Celsius to combustion. Among other reasons, BMW abandoned the combustion principle for hydrogen on account of the high fuel losses during storage and conversion, and the records were consigned to the annals of technical history. Nevertheless, a great deal of expertise and several valuable patents survived the period and could well make a reappearance in future developments.

H₂R, 2004

Developed to maturity, but never realised

Following the economic upturn in the early 1950s, many people in Europe began looking for cheap mobility options. Suddenly the continent saw a boom in affordable scooters from Italy as well as micro-cars. The response of the BMW engineers was to develop a BMW motor scooter. With its large wheels and the absence of a step-through platform, the first prototype motor scooter from the year 1951 still looked very much like a motorcycle. The design clearly had to be adapted and refined. As motorcycle sales were booming at the time, and the company was also launching the BMW 501 luxury saloon, further development of the motor scooter was put on the back burner. It wasn’t until 1954 that the BMW Motorroller R10 was ready for production. This coincided with a slow-down in sales of two-wheelers, however, as small cars offering protection from the elements became ever more popular.

R 10, 1954

Stripped for speed

In the 1990s, the automotive industry was once again gripped by a desire for fresh air: convertibles enjoyed a tumultuous comeback. During this period the BMW Group used the Just 4/2 to test potential customer interest in a fun car with roadster styling. Not long after its unveiling at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1995, however, the radical racing machine – which lacked any protection from wind and weather – was quickly consigned to the archives: just a short time later the company launched its more practical BMW Z3 Roadster, which became an overnight success.

Just 4/2, 1995