Bayerische Motoren Werke (in English, Bavarian Motor
Works) was created in 1916 through the merger of an
aircraft maker and a manufacturer of aircraft engines.
The new company would concentrate on building aircraft
engines designed by Max Friz, a talented engineer who had
joined one of the companies not long before the merger.
BMW's first notable success in this sector was the 6-cylinder BMW IIIa engine, which in 1918 powered a biplane to 5000 meters altitude (16,405 feet) in just 29 minutes. It was an impressive performance for those days, one that led to strong demand for BMW engines. In 1919, a BMW-powered biplane set a world altitude record of 9,760 meters.
After the war, the Versailles Treaty prohibited German firms from producing aircraft and aircraft engines, so BMW looked for other engine-making opportunities. In 1922 the company signed a contract to produce a small engine for the Victoria motorcycle, which was made in Nuremberg. During this period, BMW also produced a big truck engine - with an overhead camshaft, a very advanced feature at the time.
With BMW already in the motorcycle-engine business, Max Friz wanted BMW in the motorcycle business too. So he designed a prototype using the BMW Boxer engine (horizontally opposed twin-cylinder), rear-wheel drive via a driveshaft, and double-tube frame. Management approved production; the BMW R 32 motorcycle (as it was called) went into production in 1923. Its pioneering basic technology survives to this day - and has been updated in the new R1100 series, introduced in 1993 and now including four models.
Again and again, the idea of getting into the car business had been discussed at BMW. In late 1928, BMW did so by acquiring the Eisenach Vehicle Factory, in the city of Eisenach, some 200 miles north of Munich. Eisenach had been making cars since 1899; when BMW took over, it was producing a single model, a license version of England's little Austin Seven. This modest car would become the first BMW automobile, known as the 3/15 or "Dixi".
BMW moved quickly to put its own stamp on the cars from Eisenach. In 1932, a new, larger model called the BMW 3/20 was introduced. Then, only a year later, BMW's first model that could be called a sports sedan made its debut, a 6-cylinder model called the 303.
The decade of the Thirties, clouded as it was by the Great Depression and Europe's political turmoil, would nevertheless be the time when BMW established its reputation as a maker of high-quality, sporting motor vehicles: compact, sporty sedans like the 326, the elegant 327 coupe and convertible, and the sensational 328 roadster. Aerodynamic racing versions of the 328 were still winning famous races - such as Italy's Mille Miglia in 1939 - when production for war brought this illustrious BMW era to a close.
When World War II ended in 1945, little was left of BMW but the name. The Eisenach plant, where all BMW cars had been produced, was now in the Eastern zone, which would become East Germany.
BMW rebuilt its bombed-out Munich plant, and began production of motorcycles again. Then came tiny hybrid cars, powered by motorcycle engines: BMW's was called Isetta. And in less than a decade after the war's end, a stately new luxury sedan with the BMW logo and a powerful V-8 engine was cruising the new West German high-speed Autobahn network.
BMW's contemporary period begins with the 1500 of 1962, whose responsive overhead-camshaft 4-cylinder engine, front disc brakes and 4-wheel independent suspension seem remarkably contemporary even today. In the European context the 1500 was a middle-class family sedan; but Germans were (and still are) allowed to drive at unlimited speed, so BMW made it a performance car as well. The 1500 began BMW's modern sports-sedan tradition - a tradition that, more than any other, means "BMW" to enthusiastic drivers the world over.
The BMW 1500 spawned a smaller 2-door version and one model, the 2002, introduced many Americans to BMW's sports-sedan concept. Then came a new 6-cylinder generation - cars like the Bavaria sedan and 3.0 CS coupe. In 1975, the first 3 Series was launched. And with each succeeding generation of design and engineering, BMW's reputation has been strengthened.
Today's BMW is a global company, with 14 subsidiaries in Germany alone and foreign subsidiaries in 20 countries. BMW is not one of the world's largest vehicle makers; yet it's large enough for efficient, high-quality production while maintaining a position as a premium, exclusive make.
BMW's two motorcycle lines and four automobile series are a product offering rich in heritage, design and technology, with reputation and prestige that are respected the world over. As it has been throughout its history, BMW's philosophy is to build driving machines that respond faithfully and enjoyably to their driver's (or rider's) commands while also providing the safety, practicality, style, quality, reliability and durability that help make long-term ownership a rewarding experience.
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