BMW had a long and tumultuous start to becoming the brand renowned today for producing drivers vehicles in whatever class they choose. The company started off making airplane engines and supplied the German war machines through both world wars. The second one was the source of much consternation and became an epic family saga involving high-level Nazis before BMW finally emerged from the swamp under the control of the Quandt family, who still maintain independent control of BMW today.
Post-war, BMW moved into the motorcycle and car industries and found more success with the two-wheeled vehicles initially. It wasn't until the 1960s BMW gained its full mojo with four wheels. And that's where we'll start.
The BMW 2002
The BMW 2002 was part design brilliance, part dumb luck, and became the recipe that would bring BMW the 3 Series and kick-start their success on the world stage. BMW needed to up its game from the 1950s, and in 1962 debuted their Neue Klasse (New Class) sedan cars. The New Class 1500 entered production, and then in 1966 BMW decided to make a shorter and lighter two door version using the 1.5-liter M10 engine which produced 85hp. It was the recipe for an exciting, sporty, and affordable little family car.
The dumb luck came in the form of American emissions regulations and the American importer Max Hoffman. Hoffman was convinced the car needed a quicker engine to sell well and, at the same time, the 1600ti couldn't be imported as it wouldn't meet the regulation standards.
Alex von Falkenhausen was the man that designed the M10 engine, and his personal vehicle was a BMW 1602. Being an engineer and engine designer, he had played with his M10 and built it as a 2-liter version. Unbeknownst to Falkenhausen, BMW’s director of product planning, Helmut Werner Bönsch, had the same notion and fitted a 2-liter M10 in his 1602. Both were delighted with the result. The 2002 was born as a concept, and they created a proposal between them to take to the BMW Board to put the 2-liter version of the 1602 into production.
It just needed one more piece of fortune to become an icon. That fortune came in the form of Road and Track journalist David E. Davis Jr. and his review that took a massive swipe the muscle car scene and a cynical view of American corporations, and their customers, while identifying the key elements of the 2002 as a drivers car and family machine. Seriously, do yourself a favor and read it.
I don't want this section to go on too long, but I'm going to leave you with a savage quote from the Car and Driver review from 1968: "Down at the club, Piggy Tremalion and Bucko Penoyer and all their twit friends buy shrieking little 2-seaters with rag tops and skinny wire wheels, unaware that somewhere, someday, some guy in a BMW 2002 is going to blow them off so bad that they'll henceforth leave every stoplight in second gear and never drive on a winding road again as long as they live."
BMW E46 M3
Yes, both the E30 the E36 M3 came first and made all kinds of history as they took on all-comers in touring car racing. The road cars was equally as imposing, planted, agile, lightweight, and grippy relative to their full race-spec counterparts. However, the thing that dates the first 2 generations of M3 is the power from the 4-cylinder engine E30 engine and the chassis from the E36. The overall effect is a dramatic leap forward in the all-round ability of the M3 from the early generations.
The turn of the century M3's 3.2-liter straight-6 engine made 333 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque matched with its 3,415 lb curb weight. That adds up to a car that's still quick under today's standards and, assuming all the rubber bits are being maintained properly, and it's still a car that will keep up with modern sports saloons and often cause a bigger grin from the driver.
The blend of track focussed performance and the modest luxury of the 3 Series as a concept means that In any discussion about the best road car made yet, the E46 M3 is a viable contender. And it's a drop-dead gorgeous timeless look to boot .
BMW Z3 M COUPE
BMWs Z3 was... Good. It didn't set the world alight and, given what it cost, it didn't challenge the MX-5's throne as the driver's roadster even though it addressed the age-old MX-5 issue of power. However, with a jump to the M version, the Z3 got a lot more interesting, and most interesting of all was the oddball 'clown-shoe' version.
It's powered by the E46 M3's 8000-rpm straight-six, which is still one of the greatest 6-cylinders put in a road car. It didn't outperform the E46 M3, but that's not the point. It's a damn shooting brake. If you wanted something as good as an E46 M3, you bought an E46 M3. If you wanted a small coupe with a hatchback, you got the Z3 M Coupe. Its benefit over the straight up roadster M car is the extra rigidity from the roof. And, it's a damn shooting brake.
In this case, BMW nailed it as cult classic, not best seller. But, alas, people caught on to its oddball beauty and it's rather a rare car. I don't want to get angry by checking the current going prices, but last time I looked it was a Z3 M Coupe or an air-cooled Porsche 911.
BMW got its mojo with cars on in the 1960s, but there was a clue as to what was coming in the 1950s while BMW was still a very provincial company. Max Hoffman, the European car importer later partly responsible for the 2002, also had a hand in the existence of the 507. He noted a gap in the market between the Porsche 356 Speedster and the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL for a vehicle that could also slide in as an upmarket MG. Hoffman was an influential chap, and BMW listened.
Using the aluminum 3.2-liter overhead-valve V-8 engine from the 502 and 503 cars, upgraded with twin carburetors to deliver a fluid 148 horsepower, with a four-speed synchromesh gearbox and large Alfin drum brakes, BMW delivered Hoffman his sports car. An exceptionally beautiful sports car at that. BMW overdid it though, and the price tag was, and then only 252 were actually made.
The bodywork designed by Count Albrecht von Goertz, the protégé of esteemed designer Raymond Loewy, is to this day considered on of BMW's finest. So fine that while performing his military service in Bad Nauheim, Germany, it caught Elvis Presley's eye, like Priscilla, and he picked one up then brought it home, unlike Priscilla, when his service ended.
BMW could have been tipped over the edge financially had the 507 not sold, but with the respect gained for building such a stunning car and Presley's endorsement, it was the first big step of BMW making its reputation for building fast luxury vehicles.
BMW E39 M5
If you want to start a fight with an E46 BMW M3 owner, all you need to do is say, "Yeah, mate. But it's not an E39 M5 is it? That was BMW's greatest M car."
A more realistic opinion, though, would be that the E39 BMW is the benchmark all sports sedans should be measured by since. A powerful naturally aspirated 4.9-liter V8 engine, a slick six-speed manual, both incredible and surprising agility, and all built into a practical and downright sexy package.
It has become a legend amongst car enthusiasts, and so often older cars become overhyped (Looking at you, Toyota AE 86) but the E39 M5 holds up to if, like all Beemers of this vintage, it has had all the rubber bits replaced when needed and a short-shifter kit added. Today, the E39 M5 is really something really quite fast and pure in a world of electrickery overload.
The Z8 Roadster has held its value for 18 years now. The Z8 is, essentially, a modern take on the 507 and designed by Henrik Fisker that rolls along on an aluminium space frame that houses a 400 horsepower 4.9-liter V8, and had a base price of $129,000 with only 5,700 being built between 2000 and 2003.
If you're lucky, you could find one for the same price now, 18 years later but you're probably going to pay more.
The drivetrain is basically out of an M5 of the time and that weighed more and could still outrun a Corvette. The straight-line performance and ability of the car was praised by the press as being the kind of effortless wonder you want from a roadster with the price-tag of a nice house at the time and just the right amount of retro styling to let you remind you that you're sitting in a strong echo of the past.
Car and driver pointed out that with the top up it could be a little noisy, but seriously, nobody paying that money for that rare of a car was ever going to drive it in the rain or on a cold day. BMW may as well have left the roof off completely.
1-Series M Coupe
When people complain the E46 M3 was the last of BMW's true drivers cars, they are forgetting about the 1M. The 3 Series has grown over the decades as people demand more room and cupholders and can't be called a compact now, but the newer 1 Series cars are, give or take some millimeters, the same size as the turn of the century 3 Series and the 1M is everything the E46 M3 was. But, with more of it.
The 1M is as rare as rocking horse poo now and wasn't cheap then, but if you want that modern E46 experience, people also seem to forget the current M2 is a compact and bonkers experience. But the 1M set the precedent for bringing the love back with a compact rear-wheel-drive chassis and a 3.0-liter twin-turbo straight-6 making 335 horsepower. The short length and wide track mixed with the taught chassis gave the 1M and all the agility of a cat that just watched you step in the poop it just left on the carpet.
BMW also only sold it in manual spec and made sure that manual was in the butter zone along with the brakes and throttle input. The short manufacturing run was puzzling, but it seems like it was a test for the M2. I would suggest going for that rather than paying the inflated price for a 1M, but appreciate what that car did and remind the snobs still wandering around and wearing their E46 blinders.
The whatabouters are going to go straight for BMW's first and, depending on how you view the i8, possibly only supercar. But, as wonderful as they are, they do suffer the rose-tinted glasses effect and Stirling Moss pointed out its handling problems in the 1981 issue of Popular Mechanics. If you really want to disagree, you can take it up with him.
Speaking of the i8, it's fantastic but doesn't quite cut the mustard against everything above. BMW may have been a bit too soon out of the gate there and the next iteration could easily be the one to truly blow minds.
There's also the 7 Series, particularly in E38 guise, that brought sporty handling to the luxo-barge in fine style. The fact BMW slammed down the fact they could do full-on luxury and make it fun and engaging to drive on top should be on the list.