BMW are generally considered to be one of the greatest automobile manufacturers in the world. Ever. And rightly so, with annual turnover in the billions it’s safe to say it’s a successful enterprise, they know what they’re doing, so it might come as a surprise to learn that not all of their cars quite hit the mark. Renowned for producing quality, iconic cars such as the 2002, the E39 M5 and 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’, to name a few, BMW seemingly can do no wrong, but cast your mind back to the 1950s and let us tell you the story of the 507 – BMW’s not so successful attempt at introducing an open top, two-seater sports car to the American market and a project that nearly destroyed the German automotive giant altogether.
The prettiest car BMW has ever produced (yes, you can quote us on that), the 507 started life as the brainchild of New York based Austrian luxury car importer Max Hoffman. An eminently influential figure in the American automotive post-war boom a whisper in the ear of the top brass at BMW was all it took for him to persuade them to begin work on a seductive European roadster for the US market, something the yanks were crying out for having become somewhat apathetic towards the hoard of domestic cars available at the time. It wasn’t just BMW’s pie that Hoffman had his digits in either – he played a significant role in the development of the Mercedes 300SL and Porsche 356 as well. When he spoke, the industry listened and he envisioned the 507 as the middle ground between the cheaper, British MGs and Triumphs of the time and the more expensive, aforementioned 300SL.
With the seed well and truly planted BMW immediately got to work on the new project. They assigned development of the chassis to their own engineers but hired industrial design legend Albrecht von Goertz (of Toyota 2000GT fame) to pen the overall look of the car – at the insistence of Hoffman we might add. Not only did von Goertz design the 507 but the 503 as well with the two cars being developed side-by-side at BMW.
Following its rather grandiose unveiling at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City in 1955 the 507 went into production the following year but things didn’t quite go to plan for BMW. With a hand-built aluminium body attached to a shortened version of the 503 chassis no two cars were the same and as a result the car was expensive to produce, ultimately leading to the 507’s undoing as significantly inflated production costs were at odds with Hoffman’s original plan of flogging each car for five grand and pocketing the profits. Final costs were double that of initial projections which simply put the car beyond the reach of most buyers and caused BMW to make a loss on every single one of the 252 that were built, give or take a prototype or two.
They did get one thing right though and that was fitting the car with a 3.2-litre V8 (BMW’s first eight-cylinder engine) that produced 150bhp through a ZF four-speed manual gearbox, all to the rear wheels. Perfect, especially for the Americans. We imagine even less would have sold if a six or four-cylinder motor was used instead. There’s no replacement for displacement, as the old adage goes.
All 507s came with a convertible soft top with the exception of 11 very special cars that were built with an optional detachable hard top. If you thought the drop top was a looker… Lord have mercy. Suspension consisted of torsion bars all round, with double wishbones and an anti-roll bar up front and a live axle at the rear. The 507 not only looked like a sports car it drove like one too, especially compared to the boats that the Americans were wallowing around in at the time.
Unfortunately none of this was enough to save the 507 and even a slew of famous owners, including the king of rock and roll himself, couldn’t bring the handsome BMW back from the brink and with the huge financial losses incurred from the whole project the German firm found itself on the jagged edge of bankruptcy. Unsustainable as it was the project was terminated in 1959 and the 507 was dropped from the BMW roster. Thankfully BMW bounced back soon after thanks to a cash injection from German industrialist Herbert Quandt, but that’s another story. The decision to concentrate on adding a host of cheaper cars to their line up also played a large part in BMW’s reversal of fortunes.
To say the 507 is a handsome beast would be the understatement of the century. It’s an incredibly beautiful, well-engineered car but it was simply a case of wrong time, wrong place for this ravishing roadster and the fact that it was such a great car at the time makes its failure even more astonishing. Even though a large number of the original cars still survive prices nowadays are quite frankly ludicrous (we’re talking millions here) but then this is an extremely rare and sought-after piece of automotive history.
The legacy of the 507 lives on, however, through other, more modern BMW roadsters such as the Z3, Z4 and Z8, all of which can trace their lineage back to their big brother, taking inspiration and design cues from the 507. An ultimate driving machine indeed.
As for Elvis Presley’s red, 1957 car, it was re-discovered in a San Francisco barn in 2014 whereby it promptly left the building and headed to Munich to be painstakingly restored by BMW themselves at the hands of restoration expert Klaus Kutscher and his team of specialists who subsequently presented the now pristine car at the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, California in 2016 where it stole the show, mirroring a habit already established by its previous, celebrity owner.