Have you ever wondered how BMW became “The Ultimate Driving Machine”, known for high-performance cars that are fun to drive, like the generationally loved and praised M3? Many Bimmer aficionados know each generation’s chassis code and recognize the e10 2002 Tii, or the 2002 Turbo, as the Grandfather (skipping the e21 generation of course) of the famed e30 M3, marking the start of a legacy inspiring car enthusiasts to this day. Well, The “Neue Klasse” era, or “New Class” if you don’t like to imitate a German accent, is responsible for all of that, and helped establish BMW as a major player in the automotive industry.
Credit: BMW | The slogan “Sheer driving pleasure” used in this ad for the 1800 sedan
The “New Class” era began in 1962 with the BMW 1500 sedan, and introduced a range of compact cars throughout the 60s that helped diversify BMW's business and set the stage for the company's future success. It was a massive undertaking that deviated from an increasingly outdated and unprofitable product line-up and sought to expand BMW’s presence in foreign markets, with sporty cars that were more accessible to a wider range of customers. BMW only made luxury cars catered towards the wealthy, like the 501 sedan and the 507, a car Elvis famously owned, and some micro-cars represented by the Isetta line which were limited in appeal. The company’s vehicles were simply too expensive for even a moderately well-off consumer. A vast majority of people at the time were looking for a vehicle that could cover their daily-use needs and generate excitement with an emphasis on sportiness and a touch of luxury. The 1500 and later, more powerful, versions of the sedan, the 1600, and 1800, drew in customers and gave the brand momentum, but the sedans were still lacking something young buyers longed for. The idea of bringing a coupe variant that embodied these desirable traits, was first proposed to the BMW management board by Max Hoffman.
Enter the 1600-2, an entry-level coupe introduced in 1966 that was aimed at young buyers wanting something stylish and with flava at an affordable price. Hoffman, most known for importing Porsches, and other European sports cars from brands like Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo, knew the U.S. market presented a huge opportunity for an auto manufacturer like BMW, who could fill a void left by domestic manufacturers producing mostly large and heavy cars at the time. American consumers were hungry for smaller, sportier cars, and Hoffman pitched the idea of a coupe variant based on the successful sedan (a niche mainly satisfied by Alfa’s 105 series cars from 1963) to BMW's then Managing Director, Gerhard Wilhelm Böckle and Director of Sales and Marketing, Paul G. Hahnemann. Apparently, BMW’s management was resistant at first, but Hoffman was very convincing and argued that such a model would appeal to driving enthusiasts the market had little to offer them. And so, the 02 series cars came to fruition, with more powerful and popular versions adopting advancements included in each new iteration of the sedan, with models like the 2002, Tii and Turbo, also inspired by discussions with Hoffman.
BMW’s ability to shift focus, on to producing more affordable compact cars, relied on the financing from a long time investor, Herbert Quandt. Quandt's investment in BMW began in the early 1950s, when he and his family acquired a small stake in the company at an earlier time during BMW’s struggles. He saw an opportunity to invest in the company and help turn it around, incrementally increasing his stake in the prevailing years, eventually becoming the majority shareholder of BMW in the 1960s. Quandt had an interest in the automotive industry and its future. An enthusiast like us, he was confident in BMW's engineering expertise and potential for growth. As the majority stakeholder, he was instrumental in the business strategy and actions taken by the company, and saw it necessary to take a new direction and a fresh approach in order to succeed. With Quandt’s leadership and commitment to provide funding, BMW’s strong engineering team, and a reputation for producing high-quality cars, the company could develop new products the market was eager for.
Credit: BMW Group | Herbert Quandt shown on the right
BMW’s North American expansion efforts, and ultimate success there, could be traced back to Bob Lutz in 1971. Yeah, this is the same Bob Lutz that was a top executive at each of the big three American auto manufacturers, and the guy instrumental in the development of the Dodge Viper, the 90s Ram pickup revolution, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Cadillac CTS, Camaro, and on. He was also an executive at BMW and a major contributor to the development of the first gen 3-Series and M3. In the 70s he helped revive BMW’s operations in the United States by improving upon the company’s marketing strategies, product lineup, and dealer network. Lutz was responsible for the overall development and launch of cars meant to satisfy the American market. At the time, the U.S. was a key market for luxury cars, so Lutz created a leasing program that made BMW’s cars more accessible and affordable to customers. Getting BMW steering wheels into more hands helped increase brand awareness and appeal. He also helped improve the company’s distribution and customer support infrastructure by establishing a network of dealerships across the country. His innovative marketing strategies and emphasis on customer satisfaction helped build a strong and loyal customer base for BMW in the United States.
Credit: Bob Lutz Archive
I guess that brings us to today, where the “Neue Klasse” era has emerged again and aims to take the company into a New-Neue direction with an all, uhhh, nnnnnew exclusively EV architecture, set to arrive in 2025. BMW has a recipe that endeavors to position them at the top of electrification efforts the automotive industry as a whole is participating in. There’s hope for BMW, even with them currently trailing the likes of Tesla and other start-up and veteran competitors. They were early on EVs with demonstration programs testing their technology in the Mini E, unveiled at the LA Auto Show in 2008, and BMW ActiveE, based on the 1-Series, both laying the groundwork for the introduction of the innovative i3 and i8. They may have lost their way and a bit of their competitive edge, with management changes and business redirection, but the ingredients of their current efforts have been strategically planned to set them back on top, with Michelin Star and tire melting status.
With all things becoming digital, one part of the recipe is a major focus on Software and integrating IT into the user’s experience of the vehicle. Another is an expected emphasis on high-performance, next-generation drivetrains and batteries, intended to provide much more range than current offerings and keep the brand spirit alive. Lastly, a circular approach to sustainability and production of future models, with plans to use as much recycled materials as possible, as long as the supply of which is there and quality meets expectations. A study of this approach to sustainability was showcased with the BMW i Vision Circular which uses 100% recycled and bio-based raw materials following circular economy principles. With EVs inherently having less differentiation between makes and models because of similar layouts, we hope BMW savvy will shine through and retain the characteristics responsible for creating the strong fanbase they have, and keep toying with, today. BMW can reign in the new era if they are authentic to their heritage, with driver oriented cars that include sensible interior controls, and design that takes inspiration from their past (not like the current direction with their flawed connection to the 328 of the 30s). If they take more inspiration from the styling of the i Vision Circular and Dee concepts in future models, or at least the body colored kidneys of the i Vision Dynamics concept, they’ll be heading down a better path. They keep proving, even with the contested looks, that the cars they produce today are still for the drivers.
- Adrian Zywno (@adrianadam)