BMW’s designers have gone a bit, well, there’s no way of getting around this, they’ve gone a bit mad. It was even said by one of the bosses that the cars currently being designed look the way they look in order to simply get a reaction. It’s not a design thing any more, it’s a ‘look at me’ thing. The grilles are comically large, the proportions are well off in most cases and they look like cartoonish Hot Wheels toys as a result, not something that you should be confronted with in a dealership. But here we are.
The current big-grilled range is representative of how things have always been though. Quite the opposite in fact. BMWs of old were and still are the wheeled embodiment of design perfection. Okay, they weren’t all winners (looking at you, E36 Compact), but for the most part, these old BMWs stood as shining pillars of desire for the motoring world.
With that in mind, we’ve picked five of our favourites from BMW’s back catalogue. Cars that stir up emotion and excitement when we see them. Cars that makes us want to buy a BMW. Not cars that look like the bejewelled foe of a jungle-based Arnold Schwarzeneggar.
BMW existed as an engine manufacturer for some years prior to getting into the swing of making cars in the 1930s. An engineering powerhouse, the world was keen to see what it would offer the four-wheeled marketplace. Obviously BMW knocked some socks off.
One of the standout cars of the 1930s was the 327, which was initially released as a cabriolet in 1937 and then as a fixed-head coupe in 1938. Both were achingly beautiful. Based on the design of the 328, the 327 featured flowing, sporty lines, a striking two-tone paint design and of course, that now famous twin section grille.
It was also a deeply impressive car on the technical front. It boasted hydraulic brakes, gearbox, clutch and front suspension from the 326. The M78 straight-six engine delivered a top speed of 78mph, which in a car of just 1,100kg was ample. But honestly, it would have been fine if it had a top speed of 5mph, as that would give you more time to look at the glorious lines, the integral ‘pontoon’ fenders and two-tone paint.
The 507 is arguably one of the finest-looking machines to ever roll out of the BMW factory. Yet interestingly, it wasn’t a car BMW ever planned on building. It was actually born out of a suggestion by Max Hoffman, a US-based vehicle importer who told BMW management there was a gap in the market. The Mercedes-Benz SL was at the upper end of the spectrum, while Triumph and MG models sat at the lower end. BMW, Hoffman passionately argued, could sit in the middle and reap the benefits.
BMW agreed, but wasn’t willing to design an entirely new car. Instead, the 507 would be based on the underpinnings of the 501 and 502 saloon. BMW engineer, Fritz Fielder, was put in charge of designing the chassis, while designer Ernst Loof was charged with the task of penning the body. Hoffman, however, was not happy with Loof’s designs, and as such he pushed for the job to be given to Albrecht von Goertz.
The final product was a long, low and powerful machine. It truly was like nothing else of its time, and as such, the team behind it were confident that the projection of 1,000 units per year would easily be satisfied. It wasn’t though, and despite being utterly beguiling, the 507 was a colossal commercial flop. Only 252 were made. Proof that looks aren’t everything.
Mechanicals by BMW and a body by Karmann – combinations don’t come much better than that. The E9 was a grand tourer based on the 2000C/2000CS models, but made longer to better house the M30 inline-six engine.
The body was heavily reworked, featuring piercing quad headlamps, a more pronounced twin kidney grille and sharper lines around the windows and arches. More delicate and more detailed, the E9 was a coupe that captured the imagination and more importantly, the wallet, of many a petrolhead from ‘68 to ‘75.
It wasn’t just a looker, it was also a car for the driver. The M30 engine was available in a number of capacities from 2.5 litre to 3.2. When mated to BMW’s crisp, direct five-speed manual transmission it was every bit the road racer, especially in CSi or the mighty CLS homologation specification, which probably explains why the E9 would go on to evolve into being one of BMW’s most successful race cars.
The E28 BMW was the second-generation of the 5 Series, and was a prime example of BMW getting into its stride. It was a brave, bold car that looked like nothing else in its class. The ‘shark nose’ design was imposing and purposeful, while also still being faithful to the BMW design trend of quad headlights and that twin kidney grille.
Only available as a four-door saloon, BMW targeted the E28 squarely at the executive buyer, unlike Audi and Mercedes-Benz that offered estate versions to entice family buyers, too. BMW was going for the flash, the cash and the buyer who put image above all else. But that’s not to say the striking E28 was all about the show, it had plenty of go, too.
The 518 and 520 were of course the slowest cars, but the 528i was a proper performer. Though it was nothing compared to the mighty M535 with its straight-six engine and manual ‘dogleg’ transmission. However, the range didn’t stop there. The E28 would become a car of legend and legacy, as it was the foundation of the first M5 model – a car that has been lauded ever since.
There are some cars that are just right, and the third-generation BMW 7 Series, or the E38 to give it its proper name, is one of them. This is one of the best-looking and most perfectly proportioned saloon cars ever made. Handsome, low, wide and with a chiselled face, it’s pretty much perfection. The rivals of the time, the W140 Mercedes-Benz S Class and the Audi A8 were good, but they didn’t have a patch on the E38 in the handsome stakes.
More than that though, the E38 was an outstanding performer. 50/50 weight distribution and a range of straight-six, V8 and V12 engines that made light work of shifting the big old Beemer along, while a snappy ZF 5-speed auto (there was a six-speed manual but not for the UK market) ensured the E38 could get the grunt down. In fact, thanks to the power, the outstanding chassis engineering and that perfect weight distribution, the E38 is still regarded as one of the best-handling large saloons ever built.
It would also go on to be a pop culture icon, with starring roles in The Transporter and of course, James Bond. It was and still is an icon, especially in face-lift specification with 18-inch M Parallel alloy wheels and Sport body kit. The E38 was so desirable that when BMW announced the dubious-looking E65 replacement, sales of the E38 went up, as people frantically claimed a new one while they still could.