Baroque curves: the BMW 501/502

With the BMW 501 and BMW 502, BMW cemented its reputation as a manufacturer of prestigious and sporty sedans – and made history by introducing the first German V8 engine built from lightweight aluminum. Their distinctive form earned the two models the nickname “Baroque Angel.”

Jan Wilms

In a classic tale of rags to riches, the resurgence of the BMW brand traces the years of Germany’s post-war “economic miracle” with vivid accuracy. After all, the era in which the country carved out a new identity was about one thing above all else: hard work, and then some. Any car hoping to carve a niche into this particular moment in time had to embody technical progress. It needed to offer the comfort that would make the years of want a little easier to forget, but at the same time take economical considerations into account. The BMW 501 – the first series-produced BMW since the war – brought these attributes under one roof. Presented at the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA) in 1951, the luxury model represented the opening ripple in what was to become a wave of success. The rear-wheel-drive 501 was powered by a six-cylinder in-line engine and boasted a superior spread of fixtures and fittings. It set the benchmark for all subsequent premium cars with dynamic aspirations – up to and including current BMW 7 Series. At the unveiling of the BMW 501, the signs were already there that the concept behind the new car and its successors would enjoy great success. Indeed, a request was received from the management of rivals Auto Union (forerunner to Audi): “My esteemed wife” would love to go for a drive sometime in “the beautiful BMW she has been admiring at the show.”

Die in sehr kleinen Stückzahlen produzierten Cabrio-Varianten des BMW 501 gehören unter Sammlern heute zu den gesuchtesten Barockengeln.

Convertible variants of the BMW 501 were produced in very small numbers and are now among the most coveted Baroque Angels among collectors.

1948: Difficult times, great deeds

Times were trying in Munich-Milbertshofen back in spring 1948. With the development of a new passenger car beginning to assume tangible form, the only factory available for building it was the heavily damaged Munich plant. However, Alfred Böning’s team of designers and engineers were impressively resourceful. They quickly realized that only a combination of traditional BMW strengths and a groundbreaking vehicle concept would send the desired message from the German automotive industry. The frame and gearshift were taken from the ineffectual BMW 332, while the BMW 326 contributed the body and fabled 2.0-liter straight-six engine, specially modified for the job at hand. Output of 65 hp was channeled to the rear axle via a fully synchronized four-speed gearbox.

**1951: The body was the only Baroque thing about it **

The sumptuous curves of its flanks, classic BMW kidney grille and headlights integrated into the front wings soon earned the BMW 501 its now-familiar nickname – the “Baroque Angel” wasted no time in making an attention-grabbing statement at its presentation at the Frankfurt Show in April 1951. Its fluid form was the result of aerodynamic testing and was made for parsimonious fuel consumption. A look beneath the BMW 501’s swooping metal skin revealed a highly functional proposition below the surface as well, notably including ample space for five or even six passengers (courtesy of a full-width front seat bench), an illuminated trunk and a steering-wheel lock. The car also attained standards of safety which had yet to be enshrined in any law: the fuel tank was positioned under the rear seat, while the steering column was shortened to prevent injury. This extraordinary feat of engineering achieved at Munich’s freshly rebuilt factory took the industry by surprise. Perhaps most pleased were BMW dealers, who had long since detected rising demand for automotive luxury “made in Munich” – even if that luxury required a princely 8678 dollars to acquire.

The BMW 501 being unloaded at the docks in Malmö.

1954: The first German V8 engine and the world’s first volume-produced lightweight V8 power the BMW 502

Three years after its premiere, the Baroque Angel arrived at the Geneva Motor Show in 1954 armed with a brace of technical accomplishments that still pack a punch 60 years later. The new BMW 502 was the first car to be powered by a German-built V8 engine of the type only previously encountered in American road cruisers. It was also the world’s first volume-produced vehicle to feature an aluminum V8. With the 1.4-ton BMW 501 lacking some of the sportiness with which BMW had made its name, a new engine was developed for the BMW 502. The innovative eight-cylinder unit was designed to give the Baroque Angel a rather lighter spring in its step. In fact, it provided a quantum leap, offering customers the twin virtues of silky-smooth refinement and sporting performance, and enabling BMW to forge a new path in engine construction for large sedans and sports cars. One influential car magazine at the time lauded the V8 as the “the finest synthesis yet of the car-building art.” Outwardly, the BMW 502 was nearly the identical twin of the BMW 501, but under the hood, the engine’s 2.6-liter displacement delivered 100 hp at 4,800 rpm, while everything inside the cabin was a bit more luxurious. Exquisite wood veneers and fine materials added visual evidence of its clear positioning above the 501 in the pecking order.

BMW 502 3.2 Super: 140 hp makes it the fastest German touring car

The boost in prestige for BMW was huge. In an effort to spread the excitement across a wider range of customers, the V8 was also offered from 1955 in the lower-specification BMW 501, developing 95 hp. At the same time, the V8 fitted in the BMW 502 was expanded to 3.2 liters and now produced an impressive 120 hp with a top speed of 105 mph. A further update pushed these figures to 140 hp and 111 mph, enough to earn the BMW 502 3.2 Super bragging rights over a number of years as the most powerful of all German touring cars. Looking back, the historical significance of the Baroque Angels is enormous. With their outstanding levels of comfort, they enshrined a new brand of premium feel. Their V8 units paved the way for the type of large-capacity engine with which every manufacturer – emulating BMW – outfitted their prestigious models so as to pair dynamic potency with refinement. The innovative use of lightweight aluminum, moreover, became a standard ingredient in modern passenger car construction, one that has allowed manufacturers to consistently improve efficiency over the decades since.