BMW marked its centenary this month with the unveiling of the Vision Next 100 – a shape-shifting look at where the German automaker thinks the next century will take it. But behind that futuristic showpiece is a rich history of automotive ingenuity. Join us as we take a look at some of the cars that shaped BMW over its 100 year history.
328 Roadster (1936 - 1940)
Bayerische Motoren Werke was established in 1916 as an aircraft engine manufacturer. Motorcycles followed in 1923 and the first cars were produced around 1928, beginning with the Austin 7-based Dixi. In the 1930s the company went racing, with the BMW 328 Roadster, which became one of the most successful race cars of the era after being introduced at the Nürburgring. Up against vastly more powerful supercharged cars, the lightweight Roadster needed just 80 kW (107 hp) from its 2.0-liter inline six to notch up a win in the 1940 Mille Miglia.
507 Roadster (1956 - 1959)
The 507 might not get the same amount of attention as the Mercedes SL of the same era, but it's almost on a par when it comes to cool factor. With a 3.2-liter alloy V8 powering an drop-dead gorgeous body, the Roadster was owned by famous socialites ranging from Elvis Presley to Bernie Ecclestone.
As well as looking stunning in its time, the 507 inspired BMW's modern roadster designs, including the Z3, Z4 and Z8.
E21 3 Series (1975 - 1983)
Whenever a new midsize luxury car is launched, the world's motoring press asks: "is this the car to knock the BMW 3 Series off its perch?" That's because the E21, and subsequent E30, established the 3 Series as a sweet-handling, dependable rear-drive sedan for middle market managers who also wanted to attack backroads on the weekend.
Set the task of replacing the Neue Klasse line of cars, the E21 3 Series' MacPherson Strut front and trailing arm rear suspension were an evolution of the setup featured on its predecessor, while power initially came from a 2.0-liter inline four producing 110 hp (82 kW) in the US models.
E24 6 Series (1976 - 1989)
No list of BMW's past greats would be complete without the E24 6 Series, a car widely regarded as one of the best-looking coupes ever made.
Designed as a replacement for the CS and CSL Coupes that had been around the 1960s, power came from inline-six engines ranging from 2.8 to 3.5 liters in displacement. But the most famous, and attractive 6 Series was the M635 CSi, which could hit 255 km/h (158 mph) thanks to its 3.5-liter, 210 kW (288 hp) engine.
E26 M1 (1978 - 1981)
Among a history built on the back of successful mass-market cars imbued with sports-car handling, BMW's only true supercar was something of a failure.
The M1 came about through motorsport. With its aging CSL racers struggling to compete with the lightning-quick Porsche 935, BMW decided it needed a mid-engined chassis to house its 3.5-liter inline six engine. Rather than allowing the small project to take up space at its Munich factory, the company turned to Lamborghini for help with the E26. Shortly after taking control of the project, however, Lamborghini's already precarious financial situation got worse, forcing BMW to take back control of the M1 project in 1978.
After officially launching the M1 at the 1978 Paris Motor Show, BMW discovered the car it had designed to tackle Group Five motorsport wasn't eligible to compete until 400 had been built. Production delays meant the M1 wasn't homologated to race until 1981, by which stage the Group Five class had moved on.
Around 400 M1s were built, making it something of a unicorn in the used car world. But those lucky enough to drive one in the 1970s and '80s were impressed by its handling setup, which was reportedly far more forgiving than other supercars from the same era.
E53 X5 (1999 - 2007)
While modern luxury car manufacturers are producing SUVs in every shape, size and configuration imaginable now, the X5 was the first premium German four-wheel drive to capture the public's imagination (and wallets) in a meaningful way.
The X5 was designed first and foremost as a road car, unlike most four-wheel drives before it. That meant the engines and electronic system came from the 5 Series, while BMW raided the Land Rover parts bin for the car's off-road engine management system and hill-descent control functions.
Not that many people worried about taking their "Sports Activity Vehicles" off-road, with most X5s spending their time ferrying kids from private school to soccer practice, music rehearsals and birthday parties. Now into its third generation, 54,997 X5s were sold in 2015.
E52 Z8 Roadster (2000 - 2002)
It takes something special to separate James Bond from Aston Martin, but BMW managed to do just that in The World Is Not Enough, where Pierce Brosnan had his Z8 Roadster cut in half by a helicopter-mounted circular saw.
Powered by the 394 hp (294 kW) naturally aspirated, 4.9-liter V8 from the M5, the Z8 was seriously fast, clocking the 100 km/h (62 mph) sprint in 4.2 seconds on its way to a limited top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph). Despite clocking 0.92 G on Road and Track's skidpad, the Z8's handling was compared to that of a truck by Jeremy Clarkson, and the car's boulevard-cruiser looks didn't quite match up with its rock-hard ride.
But the Z8's gorgeous 507-inspired interior and exterior design, massive V8 engine and manual gearbox make it a distinctly different beast to the Aston Martin DB7 and Ferrari 360 Spider it competed with at launch. What's more, only 5,703 units were built, turning the Z8 into a modern auction house-hero - one sold for US$192,500, or 50 percent more than the car's original price last year.
i8 (2014 onwards)
As emissions regulations get stricter, the world's car manufacturers have been scrambling to take fuel saving tech and transfer it onto sports cars. For a brand like BMW, which hangs its hat on its cars being the "Ultimate Driving Machine," proving electrification doesn't mean death to driving fun is especially important.
That's where the i8 comes in. Having teased us with the Vision Efficient Dynamics Concept, BMW launched its 'i' sub-brand with two cars: the i3 and i8. While both showcase high-tech carbon fiber production methods and hybrid powertrains, it's the i8 that got our attention thanks to its styling, which is almost identical to the aero-heavy concept we first saw in 2009.
The E21 3 Series signalled a step change in BMW's philosophy, one that inspired the brand's cars up until 2016. But the i8, and its i3 sibling, signal a new turn in the story of Bayerische Motoren Werke, one that will potentially influence the next 50 years of cars with the blue and white roundel on the bonnet.
Vision Next 100
The Vision Next 100 made its world debut at the BMW Group Centenary Event in the Munich Olympic Hall on March 7 to mark 100 years since the company first appeared on the commercial register.
According to its designers, the car anticipates a time when autonomous cars are no longer a young technology, city streets are more congested, we're even shorter of time and connectivity isn't just limited to an in-dash display.
Visit the gallery for a drive down memory lane with BMW.