Back to the future

High-flying engine, beautiful cars

The BMW Group’s deep-rooted will to shape, anticipate and preempt the future defined the first 100 years of the company – and will play a pivotal role in fashioning the next 100. Under the title Back to the future, BMW Magazine Digital will be showcasing a selection of representative events through which the company has repeatedly helped shape the future with pioneering decisions and products.

Michael Seitz

How do you fly even higher?
- BMW IIIa engine, 1917

The six-cylinder airplane engine designed by engineer Max Friz flew higher than any other known engine of the day. Long before BMW became famous for building motorcycles and cars, it was renowned as the leading manufacturer of aircraft engines. The rise of the young company was promoted by a growing enthusiasm for air travel and great demand by the military. Engine design based on the principle of oversizing and overcompression enabled great heights to be achieved without loss of power from lowered oxygen levels.

For BMW – a fledgling company and new to the motorcycle market – the BMW R 32 of 1923 proved a triumph, ultimately paving the way for BMW’s successful launch as a vehicle manufacturer.

A six-cylinder unit to get things rolling: with a displacement of 19.1 liters, 185 hp continuous output and a special high-altitude carburetor, this engine was capable of flying at great heights without loss of power.

How do you design the finest motorcycle of the day?
- BMW R 32, 1923

Few paved roads, plenty of dust and mud tracks – motorcycles of the 1920s were required to operate in extremely testing conditions. Created by BMW’s chief designer Max Friz, the BMW R 32 handled the conditions superbly, changing the world of motorcycling and laying the foundations for BMW Motorrad’s global reputation today. With its low center of gravity and flat-twin boxer engine, the design ensured extremely stable road-holding. With the cylinders mounted at 90 degrees to the direction of travel, direct power transmission to the rear wheel (via a shaft drive) ensured smooth running and earned the R 32 a reputation for unparalleled reliability. Given the poor road conditions, the chassis – with its tubular steel frame and short front fork – inspired the confidence of riders. Engine output of 8.5 hp and a top speed of 60 mph were considered more than adequate, and customers were happy to pay a little extra for the bike’s robust, elegant design and consistently high degree of reliability. With a price tag of 2,200 marks, the BMW R 32 was in the upper price range, yet by the end of 1924 BMW had successfully shipped 1,500 units. For a young company operating in a new market, that was quite an achievement, and it ultimately established the basis for BMW’s successful start as a vehicle manufacturer.

Assembly of the first BMW R 32 motorcycles at the parent plant in Munich was based on a work-share principle. Many of the highly skilled workers were brought in for their experience in airplane engine assembly.

In the autumn of 1923, BMW unveiled its first production motorcycle at the Berlin Motor Show. This machine combined such modern design features as a twin-cylinder boxer engine, shaft drive and tubular steel frame, and it quickly earned a reputation for being extremely robust.

In the autumn of 1923, BMW unveiled its first production motorcycle at the Berlin Motor Show. This machine combined such modern design features as a twin-cylinder boxer engine, shaft drive and tubular steel frame, and it quickly earned a reputation for being extremely robust.

Why do six cylinders suit BMW so well?
- The engine of the BMW 303, 1933

In the early 1930s, a strategically significant plan was developed at BMW’s headquarters in Munich to move the company upwards into the ever-growing midrange car segment. To do this, however, the company would need to create an autonomous design and, more importantly, a distinctive engine. The results would prove to be a significant landmark for the young automotive brand. Two engineers, Karl Rech and Rudolf Schleicher, designed a six-cylinder inline engine, the first ever to be used in a BMW automobile. This modern 1.2-liter engine took its cue from the design principles of the proven four-cylinder units and displayed the first indications of a modular system – which also reflected the progressive approach of the engineers. It developed 30 hp at 3,500 rpm and remains one of the smallest six-cylinder engines by volume ever to power a car. This engine established a long tradition at BMW and found great popularity among BMW 303 customers for its silky-smooth operation – a feature hitherto unknown to drivers of this class of vehicle. In addition to its exceptional engine, the new BMW four-wheeler also appealed to buyers for its harmonious chassis tuning and sporty design, which for the first time featured the characteristic BMW kidney-shaped radiator grille. Publicity brochures of the day described the 303 as a “lightweight car” that stood out in terms of efficiency and sportiness. An early test of the new sedan’s reliability was the “2000 Kilometers Across Germany” – a highly regarded endurance race of the day.

How do you win practically every race?
- BMW 328, 1936

A new dimension of speed, low weight and efficiency – no other car embodied these classic BMW attributes better than the BMW 328 Roadster of 1936. Weighing just 1,700 lbs., this lightweight sports car put the touring car competition in a spin right up to 1940. Before long, the BMW 328 was the only entrant in its weight category; no other vehicle stood a chance! With an aerodynamically honed streamlined coupe body made of aluminum and a six-cylinder engine boosted to 136 hp, the BMW 328 notched up its greatest victory at the 1940 Mille Miglia. Despite its outstanding success and handsome features, only 464 examples were ever built. With slight technical modifications, the BMW 328 continued to win many races even after the war – its sporting genes were simply too good to hold back.

The BMW 328 became BMW’s first racing icon. Its technical superiority, countless victories and elegant silhouette would shape BMW’s image into the 1950s.