BLAST FROM THE PAST (II) - 1956 BMW 507
The best stupid thing BMW has ever done.
In 2004, LEGO almost went bankrupt. That seems impossible, because LEGO is now the world’s largest toymaker with gross profits of $3,998,999,993 a year (I may have made that up) and its products are scattered, in bits, in millions of children’s rooms across the world. And some adult’s rooms too.
Yet poor management almost sent them off the cliff. And it was such a close-run thing that when I say, off the cliff, I don’t mean they were teetering on the edge. I mean they fell off, and got caught on a weed. By their shoelaces.
What's equally shocking is the fact that one of the foremost German car brands, BMW, almost went the same way in 1959. And imagine the world without a BMW. Who would be there to tailgate?
So you’re expecting me to tell you the BMW 507 came in the nick of time and saved them? Wrong. It’s the car that did it.
WHAT IS IT?
Well, a bit of history’s in order.
Because BMW made aircraft engines during WWII, the Allies pounded them, and the result of this was that when everyone went home in 1945, there wasn’t much left. One of the factories which they could have used was in Eisenach, which the Soviets now had, so they couldn’t.
So BMW first made pots and pans, then they moved onto bicycles, and eventually, there was enough in the till to make motorbikes – which they still do really well. It wasn’t until 1951 that they unveiled their first post-war car, and rather than being a bit frugal about it, they blew it all and made two very beautiful saloons, the 501 and the 502.
The German public hadn’t seen anything beautiful for a very long time, so they loved them. In fact they called them “The Baroque Angels”. Love and Have are two different things, however, and because they cost four times the average annual salary at the time, both the 501 and 502 flopped, taking a lot of BMW money with them.
But then Max Hoffman (importer of all things German in the US, who also encouraged Mercedes to make the Gullwing and Porsche to make the 356) told BMW there was a market in the US for a $5,000 sports car, and they ought to make one immediately.
So they did. But unfortunately, by the time they had finished, it wasn’t a $5,000 sports car anymore. BMW had chosen to fit it with hand-built aluminium bodywork, and while this made it very beautiful, it had also taken costs up to well double that. So Max Hoffman couldn’t sell it.
That meant that only a handful – 252 to be precise – of this gorgeous sports car were made, and with every one BMW lost huge sums of money they didn’t really have.
As history would have it, just as Mercedes was about to feast on its carcass, one of Germany’s wealthiest families stepped in to save BMW, and after that they started making more modest cars, and eventually they went from strength to strength. But had this not been so, the 507 would have been the end of BMW.
Here’s the thing, though. What a note to die on.
IS IT POWERFUL?
BMW’s designer, Albrecht von Goertz (Actually a half-Jew who not only survived Nazi Germany but also did so with a bit to spare – he died aged 92 in 2006) fitted the 507 with the 502’s engine, which was a light overhead valve V8. He then added twin Solex carburettors – which were actually becoming old technology because only two years earlier, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing had become the first direct-fuel-injected production car.
The result of this was, according to BMW, a top speed of 200km/h. In the 1950s, when people in England were motoring hither and thither in Morris Minors, that wasn’t bad. It still isn’t.
IS IT NICE LOOKING?
No. Much more than that.
The initial drawings were rejected by Max Hoffman – proof of how much influence he had over the project – and in the end von Goertz was hired to do the job.
The result was a low, sleek and sharklike roadster, and because the body was made from aluminium, it could be sculpted beautifully (because it was done by hand, no two are identical either). The twin grilles slant inwardly under the overhanging bonnet – and those side louvres. I have a feeling they’re perfectly useless.
In fact, it’s probably the best-looking BMW, past, present, and if the Vision 100 concept is anything to go by, future.
IS IT RELIABLE?
It was built by Germans in the 1950s. Ah – and in the West.
In fact, part of the reason costs blew out was because BMW put so much emphasis on building the 507 properly. So it’s arguably one of the most reliable classic cars you can buy.
There were apparently some early problems with the steel on the engine corroding, but that seems to have been ironed out, and anyway, most of the 200 or so 507s still surviving have been restored.
The only maintenance headache then is if you crash or need a part. If you crash, that means the aluminium will need to be re-sculpted, which might be expensive, and if you need spare parts, you’ll find it’s actually easier to buy a factory and build them yourself.
IS IT COMFORTABLE?
If you get a BMW 507 in black, which was a common colour, chances are it will come with red leather. And red leather is beautiful. As for how it rides, I haven’t actually been in one of the 200, so I can only say that one besotted owner told Sports Car Market magazine it was a “true boulevard cruiser”. That carries a whiff of fuel inefficiency with it.
Anyway, this is irrelevant, because when you’re driving one with the roof down, listening to the V8 growl at the other parts for being too slow, you’re not going to be thinking, “Wish it had air-conditioning.”
Goertz sitting on the bonnet of a 507, as only a designer can do. Note his socks and shoes. We love them.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Well, in 1956, $10,000. Now, you have to fly to a prestigious auction like RM’s and offer about $2.5M USD. Obviously, buy it in 1956.
Actually, buying it in the 1960s is a better idea, because it was ten years on and nobody wanted a 507. Some were even sold for scrap metal, which is a horrific thought.
On the plus side, resale value is amazing.
"What are you looking at?"
DID ELVIS PRESLEY HAVE ONE?
Yes, he did. In fact, I think he had about three, which was a bit greedy considering there was only 252 of them.
Remember, he joined the US Army, and in 1958 he was stationed in Germany, where he bought himself a white BMW 507. This was great, until he brought it back to America and kept coming out to find that ladies had drawn on it with lipstick. Not being a particularly patient man (he once shot a DeTomaso Pantera with a gun for not starting, which didn’t help), he had it painted red. It was then that he discovered the White Witch had been one of his admirers all along.
He ended up replacing the lovely BMW V8 with a crumby Ford engine, and then apparently realizing his folly, he gave it away to actress Ursula Andress. I wonder if she ever noticed.
A removable hard-top was optional, but they had to be made specifically for each car and weren't interchangeable.
SHOULD I HAVE ONE?
Well, if you are going to have a BMW, this is definitely the best.
Because sixty years on, BMW has changed a lot. For one thing, they actually make money, and what’s somewhat related, they don’t make anything nearly as good.
True, you can get the BMW M4 and that is an amazing car. Most of the M range is. And the i8 supercar is an achievement, if only because it manages to look futuristic without looking like a computer mouse. In fact, the i8’s about as close as BMW comes to the 507. Actually, no it’s not, because it’s a hybrid. The 507 was a V8.
But these don’t cancel out the fact that BMW makes some rather stupid cars now, such as the brutish X6 coupe SUV. It’s like a footy player – wealthy but has no class. And the 5-series GT thing makes me feel ill, because it doesn’t know what it is and I don’t know what it is either. Of course, these models are extremely profitable for BMW – the X6 is especially loved by husband and wife accountants who don’t like children.
On the other hand, the 507 was a financial disaster, but it was also a very brilliant car – solidly built, capable, and beautiful. And although BMW was much poorer at the time, I’d say they’re so much the richer for having it as part of their heritage. It’s like having a baronet somewhere in the family tree. He might have gambled away the family fortune at the time, and as a result you never saw any of it, but it makes for a colourful tree all the same.
Anyway, I’m rambling. No, you shouldn’t have the 507. I’ve done some maths, and I’ve worked out that for the price of one BMW 507, you could buy yourself at least 40 BMW 5-Series.
And I know I’ve said they don’t compare, and they don’t, but well, 40 is a lot of BMWs.
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