BMW started out as engine builder, hence the name Bayerische Motorenwerke. Automobile production didn’t start until the acquisition of the Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach, which built the Dixi, a licensed version of the Austin Seven. The pre-war focus was on sports cars, culminating in the Mille Miglia-winning BMW 328. Production numbers were low.
The early post-war years were a struggle for BMW. The Eisenach factory was now in Soviet hands and continued to produce pre-war models until the switch to the Wartburg car. BMW only built the luxury 501/502, and the Isetta micro car. Some much needed money was earned with the 700, which still used a rear-mounted motorcycle engine, but now in a larger sedan body.
Success as car maker (1961-1983)
Success finally came with the introduction of the Neue Klasse, a four-door salon that distinguished itself from competitors by its sporty image. Together with the two-door derivative 02, and the larger Große Klasse E3 with six-cylinder engines, it set the base for BMW’s 3/5/7 (in American terms compact/intermediate/full-size) trinity of models. The new moniker was first introduced with the E12 5-series of 1972, then followed by the E21 3-series and the E23 7-series.
Stylistically the first 3, 5, and 7 series aren’t the most pleasing in my opinion. While the Sharknose forward-slanted nose has become iconic, the descending boot lid and the somewhat bulbous lines haven’t stood the test of time well. The predecessors are the more beautiful cars, and I consider the E9 coupé (predecessor to the E24 6-series) one of the most beautiful BMWs of all time. Another issue is the lack of rust proofing that has eaten most of the cars from this age.
The Golden Age (1983-2002)
In my opinion, BMW’s golden age starts with the introduction of the E30 3-series, a car that is probably liked more than its predecessor. Instead of the single body style of the E21, it was eventually offered in four (two-door, four-door, wagon, convertible), as is the case to this day. The sheet metal design is tighter, making the car look sportier. The second hit was the E32 7-series, which made Mercedes-Benz’s W126 competitor look old-fashioned by comparison – and then BMW delivered a second blow, with the introduction of a 12-cylinder engine in the 750. The trio was made complete with the E34 5-series, another hit that looked significantly better than its E28 predecessor.
Halfway through the Golden Age, the E36 3-series was introduced, with radical aerodynamic design and new 24-valve six-cylinder engines. Design-wise it is a bit of an in-betweener, with the other introductions of the ’90s being more rounded and closer in appearance to their predecessors. Nevertheless, the E36 was a hit and remains popular for its powerful engines and sporty characteristics. The E36 also introduced a distinctive coupé body style (lower and longer than the sedan), and the budget compact, which was a sales success.
The E38 7-series followed in 1994, merging design features of the E32 with those of the E36, creating a car that looked much lighter than Mercedes-Benz’s W140 S-class. The E38 gained movie fame in The Transporter and as Bond car. Likewise, the E39 5-series continued the design of the E34, while pioneering the use of aluminium for the suspension. The E39 facelift introduced the now-common halos around the headlights, and the E39 is considered to be one of BMW’s best cars of all time.
The Golden Age was completed by the E46 3-series. More rounded in appearance than the E36, it led to another 3/5/7 trio with a common design language, just like it was achieved with the E30/E32/E34. A remarkable failure was the E46 compact. For unknown reasons, BMW decided to significantly change both the front and the rear, and the resulting car was not received well.
The Bangle era (2002-2008)
The introduction of the E65 7-series in late 2001 brought not only iDrive as control system for the on-board systems (used to this day), but also a radical new design language introduced by new designer Chris Bangle. Much has been written about this, and yes, many design features are now widely accepted and indeed copied by other manufacturers – but it remains a fact that, to this day, the E65 is not well liked. The second Bangle design, the E60, was a bit less controversial – but it also represents a dead-end in BMW design.
The E87 1-series added a new range below the 3-series (and replacing the compact), but retaining rear-wheel drive. Then in 2005, the very successful E46 was replaced by the E90 3-series. I’m not sure whether it was always planned this way, or an answer to the reactions to the E65 and E60, but the E90 was styled much less controversially – to the point that Top Gear called it “just a car” and awarded it the ugliest car of 2005 award. The 335i (and 135i) marked the return of turbocharged petrol engines and hence were the harbingers of things to come. This era also marks the introduction of direct injection and related issued with carbon buildup.
The downsizing era (2008-now)
New regulations meant that fuel economy became ever more important to car manufacturers. As fuel consumption measurements focus on partial load scenarios, a good solution to get good results in these tests is by using turbocharged engines – they produce lots of peak power in regard to their size, and do offer fuel consumption benefits under partial load compared to naturally aspirated engined of the same peak power (though not under full load).
So, what’s the big fuzz about downsizing and turbocharging? Well, gone are the days of affordable six-cylinder engines. These days, you need to buy at least a 340/540 to get an inline six – below that it’s four-bangers or even three-cylinder engines. Plus there’s the sound dampening effect of turbochargers and particulate filters and thus synthetic noise to retain some sort of sound, at least in the interior. Downsizing also brought us electric power steering, which offers less steering feeling than traditional hydraulic power steering. So while the F-series (F01 7, F10 5, F30 3) made good steps design wise (although they are becoming quite large), they lack in the driving department.
Recent developments are the demise of the rear-wheel drive 1 and 2 series (both are now on the FWD platform shared with Mini), and ever larger kidneys. It will remain to be seen where the future will lead us, but to me, modern BMW offers little of the appeal that it had in the Golden Age, as became painfully obvious when test-driving the current G20 330i some time ago.