Behind the Wheel of BMW’s History

MUNICH – Within these walls, Bayerische Motoren Werke was born. I walk through the enormous gates into BMW Group Classic, where the company now stores and restores its history. There are cars from the 1970s to the 1990s lined up neatly in the driveway. And then someone says, “Are you ready to drive?”

Oh, yes. Yes, yes, I am.

BMW has invited me here to take some of its collection for a spin, and not even the rain that starts off slow and then builds to an all-day downpour can wipe the smile from my face. It’s great to see cars in museums, and even better to hear them run, but there’s nothing like the singular thrill of getting into an older vehicle and actually taking the wheel.

The facility on Munich’s Moosacher Strasse is a three-minute drive from BMW’s headquarters, as well as its BMW Welt presentation centre and its museum, but it’s also a century away. This was BMW’s oldest factory, built in 1918 to make aircraft engines, the company’s only product at the time. When the First World War ended and German companies were forbidden to produce airplanes, it was sold to Knorr-Bremse in 1922, which used the facility to make train engines and brakes.

Knorr-Bremse is still here, but BMW recently bought back a portion of the factory for its Group Classic. It’s a multipurpose facility: it restores and repairs vehicles for customers and for the BMW Museum; it stores museum vehicles not currently on display, as well as for collectors; it maintains vehicle archives; it sells parts for older vehicles; and while it doesn’t maintain a showroom, if you want a classic BMW, the company can find and buy one for you, restore it, and then sell you the completed car. While we got a tour of the collection inside, and special groups can make appointments for that, Group Classic isn’t open to the public – the nearby BMW Museum is for that.

 1981 BMW M535i

And, of course, the public doesn’t get to slide into a 1981 M535i, start up the engine, and follow a route to the town of Freising, about a half-hour away. By today’s standards the car is plain and plasticky inside, but this flagship of the 5 Series that had been introduced in 1972 carries a 3.5L engine making 218 horsepower, with a top speed of 222 km/h. It was quick off the line and sharp through the curves on a route to Freising’s Schloss Hohenkammer chateau for a photo op, and the five-speed gearbox – everything had a stick shift in this group – notched smoothly and precisely into each cog. The M535i was created in collaboration with BMW Motorsport and featured a sport-tuned chassis and Recaro seats. Some 1,650 were made at a price of 43,595 Deutsche Marks, or about $32,400 in today’s Canadian cash.

1973 BMW 3.0 CSL

At the stop, I switched to a 1973 3.0 CSL, popularly known as the “Batmobile” for its wings and fins. This lightweight, race-ready version of the CS series first appeared in 1971 with a carbureted engine, making 180 hp. The 1972 version got a 200 hp fuel-injected powerplant, while my chariot, the final year for the model, received a 3.2L six-cylinder making 206 hp.

Thanks to ergonomics, my drive almost didn’t happen. The seatbelt is fixed in a position for longer-legged drivers, and when it was fastened, I could just reach the pedals – as well as fight with my severe claustrophobia. But oh, it was worth the deep breaths. It was raw, it was noisy, it was a bear to haul around at low speeds because there’s no power steering, and it was just glorious to shift it through its four-speed transmission and hear it blatt. No doubt to keep us in line, the route meandered along lower-speed roads and numerous small towns, but there was still the occasional opportunity to give it a snort and feel it pull. There were 167 of these made in 1973, at a price of 37,580 DM at the time. Today’s estimated value of the car I was driving is about US$330,000. Lemme go buy a lottery ticket…

1991 BMW Z1 and 1991 BMW 850i

After trying and failing to wrestle the plastic-bodied 1991 Z1 roadster from another writer – its downward-retracting doors are worth the price of admission – I got into a 1991 850i and popped up its retractable headlights for the rainy trip back. Introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1989 and produced until 1999, my 300-horse, V12-powered car cost the Canadian equivalent of some $100,400 when it was new.

Critics at the time complained about this enormous coupe’s weight and relatively slow steering, and while its six-speed manual was the first on a production car, its long throws feel like you’re pulling the shifter from the dash to the back seat. But it was quite the luxury machine for the day. A quarter-century ago, the 850i had an industry-first drive-by-wire throttle, heated seats with memory, driver-adjustable suspension, power tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, active rear steering, dual-zone automatic climate control, and self-sealing frameless doors where the window popped open slightly when they were opened, and then snapped shut when they were closed – commonplace today, but a big deal back then. Between the smooth ride and the gorgeous styling, I wanted to point the coupe toward Canada and drive it home.

The auto goodness continued back at the facility, where we got a tour of the collection. It changes regularly, depending on the museum rotation and what’s being stored. On one wall is a giant photograph of the room, taken when engine locomotives were made here.

And A Lot of Other Things

Older models line one wall, starting with a 1921 fire wagon with a pump built by BMW. The company made its first motorcycle in 1923. There is a Dixi, its first car, which was actually an Austin 7 built under license, and a 1932 3/20, the first car built in-house. There are the massive roadsters and limousines from the 1930s, and the luxury models from after the Second World War, which dragged the company down when few had the means to afford them. Enter the car that saved BMW, the egg-shaped Isetta, and the variants that followed, the four-seater 600 and the more conventional, rear-engine 700, all of them in the collection.

The collection contains a bit of everything, including a Rolls-Royce, a McLaren F1 casually parked against the wall, concept show cars on a mezzanine overhead, and a stunt bike from Mission Impossible, bolted on a go-kart chassis which was operated by a hidden driver, while a front-mounted camera looked back to film the actor on the motorcycle. The M1, the 2002, motorcycles driven with leather belts and braked with wooden blocks: they’re all here, and all in perfect condition.

BMW Group Classic also looks after the archives, which can be a difficult process. When the Allies entered Munich they took most of the company’s documents, especially those for its jets and fuel injection, and many are still in England and the United States. The curators don’t want the actual paper returned, but they’re hoping to start the long, slow process of visiting the offices where they’re held, and scanning them for the collection. The company receives about 10,000 requests for information each year, mostly from owners looking for information on their vehicles or from writers requesting historical information.

And lest you think only pampered auto writers get to slip behind the wheel of these cars, many of them are available to rent, whether you prefer to drive it yourself, or sit in the back and let someone take you where you want to go. If you’re ever in Munich, try to get your hands on one: there’s nothing like a blast from the past.

Das historic