Rapp Motorenwerke, an airplane engine manufacturer, merged with Gustav Flugmaschinefabrik, an airplane builder, to form Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH in 1917. Franz-Josef Popp, director of the merged company, secured military contracts, and along with engineer Max Friz, maneuvered BMW through the tough economic climate after WWI. Brake systems for rail cars, marine and industrial engines, and even office furniture took the place of airplane engines, as the Treaty of Versailles had imposed limitations on military aircraft production.
1928 saw BMW buy a car factory at Eisenach, and with it a license to build a small car. The BMW Dixi 3/15 was a 15-hp open roof car with a top speed of around 50 mph. The 303 saloon was introduced in 1933, bringing with it a couple hallmarks of BMW design: the inline six cylinder engine and twin kidney-shaped grilles.
The aftermath of WWII was harsh. BMW factories in Eisenbach-Durrerhof, Basdorf, and Zulhsdorf were destroyed in air raids and later claimed by Russia, while the Munich plant was dismantled by the U.S. BMW was able to stay in business through motorcycle production. But in 1951, the company returned to building cars, starting with the 501.
None of the first post-war cars sold particularly well in war-ravaged Germany. BMW's saving grace came in 1955, when the company bought a license and began producing the Isetta microcar. It sold over 160,000 units in the 1950s, helping to keep the company afloat.
1959 saw the introduction of the BMW 700, the first vehicle with unibody construction. 1500-, 1600-, and 2000-series sedans would bring BMW back to solid financial footing by the mid '70s.
In 1972, BMW presented the first of the new 5 Series cars: the 520 and 520i.The 3 Series followed in 1975, and it would go on to be the best selling line of cars in the company's history. The 7 Series arrived in 1977, and the company would keep the three-tiered sport sedan approach well into the '90s.
The 1994 purchase of the Rover Group proved a mixed bag for BMW. Rover was unable to reach any sort of sales success, while Austin, Morris, Riley, Triumph, and Woseley remained dormant. Mini, MG, and Land Rover did significantly better. By 2003, BMW took ownership of Rolls-Royce, after a five-year sharing agreement with Volkswagen.
Other notable feats from BMW in the '90s: the Z3 was featured in 1995s "Golden Eye", the Le Mans winning McLaren F1 GTR was powered by a 6.1-liter BMW V12, and the company entered the SUV market with the X5 in 1999.
Controversy was stirred in 2001 when head of design, Chris Bangle, debuted the a new 7 series sedan. BMW loyalists went up in arms about the design philosophy. The car has, however, gone on to become the best selling 7 series of all time. He resigned in 2009 to start his own design consultancy firm.
The one millionth BMW was produced in 2006. BMW has been rapidly expanding world production facilities. Plants in Russia, China, Austria, Egypt, and India have recently been opened. Long-term company thinking is a vision of zero-emissions driving, supported by concepts like the BMW Hydrogen 7 and products like the ActiveHybrid X6.... View more