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 all 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, as well as 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 motorization in all walks of life. Following its success with aeronautic engines, BMW began looking for new sales outlets for its sophisticated products. With the mechanization of agriculture, many vehicle and engine manufacturers glimpsed the potential for new business opportunities in the aftermath of the World War I. In 1917, the fledgling Bayerische Motorenwerke acquired a license to build a motorized plow from tractor manufacturer Karwa. Since the company had no production facility in Munich, the original intention was to have the tractors built under license 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 sedan. Passengers and luggage traveled 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 understand 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 make a second attempt at the genre in the form of the 3 Series Touring – but this time, scoring an absolute bull’s-eye with its “lifestyle estate.” (Both “Touring” and “estate” cars are referred to as “Sports Wagons” in the U.S.)

Compact car, 1970s

Forgotten records

Many experts consider hydrogen to be the fuel of the future. They see converting it into electrical energy, which is then stored in batteries until required; the actual drive is then provided by an electric motor. By contrast, BMW spent many years optimizing internal combustion engines for use with hydrogen. The high point of this development was the speed records set by the futuristic H2R in 2004, which exceeded 185 mph. The BMW Group achieved this following a comprehensive research program into hydrogen technology – from filling and storage at 423° below zero, 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 realized

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 scooter. With its large wheels and the absence of a step-through platform, the first prototype from 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 sedan, further development of the scooter was put on the back burner. It wasn’t until 1954 that the BMW Motorroller R10 was ready for production. This, however, coincided with a slowdown in sales of two-wheelers, as small cars offering protection from the elements became ever more popular.

R10, 1954

Stripped for speed

In the 1990s, the automotive industry was once again gripped by a desire for fresh air, and 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