Back to the future

BMW History: as compact cars pick up speed, engines get sportier

After an unsuccessful attempt to move into the large sedan category, BMW tested the waters in the growing segment of microcars. With rising prosperity, more and more people were demanding a roof over their heads while out on the road. So with its all-new model designation “Motocoupé,” the tiny car launched by BMW was the ideal solution for modest means.

Michael Seitz

** What’s a “bubble car”?
- The BMW Isetta, 1955**

Perfect for the commute to work and with space for a case of beer in front of the passenger seat, the Isetta could even transport the family over the Alps. Its 12 hp were produced by a single-cylinder, four-stroke engine from the motorcycle production line. Mounted directly behind the vehicle-wide back bench seat, it propelled the jaunty microcar forward on two diminutive rear wheels. Entry was made by means of an unconventional-looking, front-opening door, often compared by critics to a refrigerator door. Ironically, the Italian company Iso Rivolta, from which BMW acquired the licensing rights to the Isetta, had indeed manufactured refrigerators until the 1950s. Top speed of the car was around 53 mph – more than enough for most first-car buyers. In addition to its clever concept, demand was stimulated by an attractive starting price tag of 2,580 German marks (just over $600 at the time). BMW sold 10,000 cars in the first six months alone. By the end of production in 1962, that figure had topped 160,000 units. The Isetta was Germany’s best-selling car, and for many it symbolized the period of the country’s economic miracle. A considerable number of the vehicles were shipped abroad, and the plant in Munich also produced a tropical version, a convertible and a pickup for tradesmen. A larger version of the “bubble car” was unveiled at the 1957 Frankfurt Motor Show in the guise of the BMW 600, which featured a side door in addition to the front-opening door.

From 1968 on, large coupes paved the way for BMW’s return to the sporty luxury class. Fitted exclusively with six-cylinder engines delivering up to 200 hp, these were considered the dream cars of the 1970s.

Even at 7.5 feet in length, there was room for the entire family. A rear-mounted luggage rack and a custom sleeper-trailer were ideal extras for that first vacation.

How do you get to know your customers?
- Market research

The enormous success of the BMW Isetta in the mid-1950s had a crucial downside: it was relatively short-lived and limited to the transition period from motorcycle to car. With ever-increasing prosperity, people wanted larger mid-range cars – the sort of vehicles not yet available in the BMW portfolio in the late 1950s. As sales of the BMW Isetta declined and large sedans proved difficult to sell, BMW found itself on the brink of ruin. Even an attempt to make the Isetta noticeably larger in the form of the BMW 600 failed. As a result, the late 1950s saw the BMW Group launch its first professional market research campaign, including customer surveys – an approach that had never before been tried in the German automotive industry. As a direct consequence of the findings, plans were put in place to develop the sporty BMW 700 coupe and a sedan derived from it. In the mid-1960s, psychologist Dr. Bernt Spiegel lent his support to BMW market research. His studies on market psychology revealed that the rounded, small cars of the 1950s, with their diminutive engines, were not in keeping with customers’ perception of the brand: they expected something completely different from BMW. In their minds, customers still had an image of the elegant and sporty BMW 328 from the 1930s. With this insight, BMW was able to redefine its profile and switch its focus to sport sedans.

How do you inspire driving pleasure?
- The New Class

In the early 1960s, BMW returned to its successful roots and developed a sporty mid-range vehicle. As the first model in the New Class, the BMW 1500 became an instant bestseller. With its capable 80-hp engine, customers recognized in this sedan the long-lost BMW gene. But the sophisticated chassis and harmonious design also played their part. Motivated by the success of the BMW 1500, the development, marketing and sales departments merged their efforts even more closely - coordinating, for example, their respective processes long before the launch of new products. Now taken for granted, this approach was little known at the time, particularly in the automotive industry, where engineers generally made all the key decisions. Under these circumstances and based on market research, the BMW sales department developed the “niche model” concept. By computing sales figures, demand for sportiness and vehicle price, the department identified a niche market as yet little exploited by the established carmakers: the sporty, high-performance sedan in the mid- to upper-price segment. These vehicles also corresponded with the BMW image still held by many customers. So, in quick succession, the BMW engineers not only added more powerful models to the New Class in the form of the 1800 and 2000, but in 1966 also launched an even sportier, two-door line with the now legendary 02 Series – making them the first BMW models to have been based on market research. Each came with a special high-performance TI or tii variant, boasting performance numbers that were the envy of many sports cars of the day. Now going from strength to strength, the Munich-based company was fast becoming synonymous with sports sedans.

Market research was, at that time, an approach that had never been tried in the German automotive industry. BMW was supported in this new scientific field by psychologist Dr. Bernt Spiegel.

Returning to its successful roots, BMW was soon back on the road to success, thanks to a sophisticated chassis and harmonious design.

Returning to its successful roots, BMW was soon back on the road to success, thanks to a sophisticated chassis and harmonious design.

How do you spot a four-wheeled superhero?

- BMW 3.0 CSL, 1971

From 1968 on, large coupes paved the way for BMW’s return to the sport luxury class. Fitted exclusively with six-cylinder engines delivering up to 200 hp, these were considered the dream cars of the 1970s. And the most admired celebrity of the period was the BMW 3.0 CSL - although, since it was intended as a starting point for touring car racing, it was built only in limited numbers. In total, just 1,265 of these high-performance coupes were produced. A particular favorite was the final series, nicknamed the Batmobile by sports car fans because of its prominent aerodynamic features. The rear spoiler was so enormous, it arrived in the car’s trunk on delivery and was not authorized for road use. With its revolutionary lightweight design, the 3.0 CSL was the perfect racecar of its day, and established the great touring car tradition at BMW. At the same time, the racing variant of the BMW 3.0 CSL – which proved nearly invincible over almost a decade – ranks as the first product to emerge from BMW Motorsport GmbH, the subsidiary company founded in 1972 that later gave rise to the highly successful BMW M GmbH.

The 1971 BMW 3.0 CSL laid the foundations for an unrivaled track career that garnered a total of six European Championship titles.