WORLD WAR II was, for the first few years, rather productive for BMW. The famous car maker was even more famous for aircraft engines, and powered some of Nazi-era Germany’s most famous planes: The iconic three-engined Junkers Ju-52; the formidable Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighter; and the Luftwaffe’s do-everything warplane, the Junkers Ju-88.
Of course, being on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the greatest conflict in human history ultimately worked out poorly for the Munich-based industrial giant, which was the target of countless Allied bombing raids. With its factories bombed into rubble and much of its workforce gone, the end of the war seemed like it might be the end for BMW as well.
As the company’s management took stock of their circumstances, things looked bleak, but not impossible. Only two factories were partially usable – the Munich-Milbertshofen works, and the factory in Eisenach – but only the Munich factory was available. Eisenach, which was in a little better shape, unfortunately lay in the east, inside the Soviet occupation zone, in what would eventually become East Germany (the odd use to which this factory was put is worth an entire story in itself).
BMW entered the postwar era in the most humble way possible, stamping out pots and pans for a slowly recovering German market hungry for basic consumer goods. As the factory was gradually restored, the company was able to upgrade to bicycle manufacturing, and finally, by 1948, was sufficiently recovered to consider building cars again.
It took a little more than two years to cobble together BMW’s first post-war production car. Deciding – presciently, as it turned out – that regaining BMW’s place as a luxury manufacturer was the best plan, Alfred Böning’s production team created a gem. Borrowing the frame and gearshift from the never-produced BMW 332, the body from the stately BMW 326, and modifying the 326’s unstoppable 2.0-liter inline 6-cylinder to produce 65 horsepower, the designers added a full-synchronization four-speed gearbox and declared the job finished.
The result, a stylish sedan dubbed the BMW 501, would make its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1951. Interest was so great, or so the story goes, that an executive from BMW rivals Auto Union (the forerunner to today’s Audi) wrote to BMW shortly after the show that, “my esteemed wife would love to go for a drive sometime in the beautiful BMW she has been admiring at the show.”
The ‘Baroque Angel’
The flowing form of the 501, featuring BMW’s signature kidney grill, headlights integrated smoothly into the front wings, and clamshell doors, earned the car the nickname the “Baroque Angel” by the German press.
Its shape, however, was the only baroque thing about the car, which had features that would not become standard in other vehicles for years to come. With room for six, thanks to a full-bench front seat, the 501 also had extra safety features such as a fuel tank mounted in a protected spot under the rear seat, and a shortened steering column to reduce the chance of injury to the driver in a collision. Other small features included an illuminated trunk, a steering wheel lock, and in a hint of BMW’s future penchant for adding the occasional strange design feature, a transmission that was not bolted to the engine – it was powered by a PTO shaft – in order to add a little extra cabin space (people familiar with the car have said the complicated shift mechanism this required is a little ‘hesitant,’ however).
Despite its steep price – about 15,000 deutschmarks, more than the average worker earned in a year at the time – the 501 was a commercial success, with the boost it gave BMW giving the company the opportunity to expand its production and ideas.
If there was a legitimate criticism of the 501, it was that the somewhat overdesigned body made the car heavier than expected. At 1.3 tons, the 501 was a bit slow behind its 6-cylinder, so BMW set out to develop a V8. To save weight, the entire engine, both block and heads, was made entirely of aluminum, a rarity that gave the 501 – in its 8-cylinder guise now known as the 502 – considerably more spring in its step.
Introduced at the Geneva Auto Show in 1954, the first 2.6-liter V8 502 generated an impressive 100 hp at 4,800 rpm, and sported a trim upgrade to match its improved performance. A year later, BMW expanded the line by offering a slightly detuned V8 (95 hp) as an option for the 501, and introduced a 3.2-liter, 120-hp version that pushed the 502 along at a blistering 170 kph. The new car, dubbed the 502 3.2 Super, saw an even further upgrade in the following year, pushing its top speed to 180 kph and giving it bragging rights – which it would not give up for several years – as the fastest German sedan in production.