The Little BMW That Could

The car that gave hope to BMW that independent, consistent success would materialise after a difficult post-war period.

All images by the author.

As the 1950s drew to a close, BMW was in deep trouble. Only the tiny Isetta bubble car, built under license from Iso was a modest money maker. An enormous chasm gaped between the Isetta and the large, expensive 2600 and 3200 models, modernised versions of the 501/ 502 and by that time past their best.

The exclusive 503 and 507 were impressive vehicles to be sure, and especially in the 507’s case, beautiful, but neither had been a commercial success. In an effort to at least partially fill in the gap, the 600, in essence a longer, four seater Isetta was introduced in 1957.

It did not achieve the sales numbers that Munich envisioned; by this time Volkswagen had a solid grip on the domestic low price field and this provided proof that buyers now preferred a real car to something that was evidently still rooted in the bubble-car realm. After only 35,000 cars sold, the 600 was discontinued in 1959.

The state of Bavaria supported BMW with subsidies and loans but the company was in such dire straits by the turn of the decade that it came at risk of being forced into a merger (which would really amount to a takeover) with rival Mercedes-Benz.

Wolfgang Denzel, an Austrian entrepreneur who manufactured sports cars based on Porsche 356 mechanicals (he was the distributor for Porsche in Austria as well), was also a shareholder in BMW AG. Not only was he worried about the future of his investment, he was in need of a successor to his ageing Denzel Sport.

He therefore came up with the idea of a small coupé based on a stretched BMW 600 floorpan. Giovanni Michelotti was enlisted for styling duties. In January 1958 Denzel initiated talks with Munich, which resulted in a prototype of the 700 Coupé being presented to BMW in July of that year. Michelotti’s proposal received a positive reception and Munich immediately requested him to design a more practical two-door saloon version of the car in order to replace the 600.

At the 1959 Frankfurt Motor Show the 700 was presented in coupé and saloon form and the public’s reaction was very enthusiastic. The modest and light (less than 700kg) rear-engined two-cylinder 700 may have had only 32 horsepower, but was a surprisingly sprightly drive by the standards of the day.

Soon, a convertible and more powerful sport versions with 46 horsepower would follow. The 700, BMW’s first monocoque bodied car, was an immediate commercial success and almost 190,000 were sold until its discontinuation in 1965. Disaster had been averted, cash kept flowing and with the follow-up success of the Neue Klasse 1500 in 1962, BMW would prove to be on course for a brighter future.

The 700 performed well in competition too: it won its class both in the Nürburgring 6 hours and the 1961 German Touring Car Championship. BMW even developed the 700RS, an extra powerful racing version with an aerodynamic aluminium body reminiscent of the Porsche 550 Spyder. The 700RS weighed just over 400kg but had up to 80 horsepower at its disposal; it would dominate hillclimb racing, a popular form of motorsport, throughout the early sixties.

Thus the 700 also provided the genesis of a new start in competition for BMW – arguably in its racing alphabet the letters R and S really should have come before M.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The first brochure for the 700 sedan – printed on cheap, almost newspaper-like material and only partly in colour – reflects the fragile financial situation that still was in effect in Munich at the car’s introduction. Over the years the paper has become brittle and yellowed; what will it look like in another 60 years? I guess the next custodian in line after me will find out.

The slogan on the cover “Das ist mein Wagen” (“That is my car”) alludes to the German small car buyer who by now was ready to move on from the cheap but cramped, slow and unsafe bubble cars; the Wirtschaftswunder being in full swing. As the several possible two-tone colour schemes demonstrate, some frivolity was by now permissible as well.

The other two brochures for the 700 Coupé and 700 Sport are from 1962. Paper quality had improved noticeably in two years. The regular Coupé offered 40 horsepower, the Sport 6 more, plus a rear anti-roll bar and a ribbed oil pan to more efficiently cool
the oil.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As with the cars themselves, brochures of sometimes undeservedly lesser-known models; the unsung heroes, are generally condemned to forever reside in the affordable price regions. The BMW 700 is a prime example; they are not always that easy to locate but if you do it should not cost you the earth.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

17 thoughts on “The Little BMW That Could”

  1. Thanks Brrruno, the 600 and 700, would have been on my great looking BMW list (Re Monday’s report), not sure why the 600 it’s something about the canopy. Both occupy a car field that doesn’t seem to exist now, unless you are prepared to accept the slight contrivances of the Fiat 500 and Panda; the cheeky, fun, rather innocent car. I can imagine driving a 700 through the Yorkshire Dales with my partner and the dog, revving it to death, trying to guess how long it would take us to get up the next hill, laughing our heads off and not giving a stuff about all the school buses, Range Rovers and tractors that are stuck behind us.
    There was a time when Triumph were allegedly compared to BMW, I can see this working both ways as there is a lot of Triumph Herald in the 700; Michelotti I presume.

    1. Indeed: in the 1960s Triumph had a roster of roadsters and some sporting saloons. The last of their large saloons is as good as the corresponding BMW from the same era. Then disaster struck in the form of the UK´s hopeless industrial policy and labour-management strife. Triumph´s former site is now a shopping centre and a carpark full of BMWs.

  2. Thanks for sharing brrrruno. ‘My uncle’s first car was a BMW 700. It was before I was born, so I have no recollection of it. Yes, BMW runs through my family, most members have driven one and those who haven’t have one on their wish list.

    My uncle kept on driving his 700 when a warning light was on. Needless to say that at a given moment this produced less than ideal results. I’m not sure but somehow I think this little family tale has led me to stay on top of things when it comes to car maintenance.

  3. Thanks, Bruno, for bringing us the 700, a vital car for BMW as it kept the company afloat long enough for the ‘Neue Klasse’ 1500 to be developed and launched. Although it didn’t make my ‘Heroes’ list, it does get an honourable mention in the full review coming shortly to the ‘Longer Read’ section on DTW.

  4. I can also contribute a few memories from my youth about the 600 and 700.

    The 600 was my parents’ first car, bought second-hand in the early 60s. The engine had to be removed at least once a month, it used about the same amount of engine gaskets as petrol. My parents soon became quite skilled at it. On Saturdays, after breakfast, the engine had to be removed, and before dinner it was back in working order. Since my mother didn’t want to pursue a career as a mechanic’s assistant, the 600 was replaced by a VW 1200 after two years.

    My grandfather had one of the first 700s as a coupe. We children were often taken on outings. That was a big thing back then.
    The 700 was then replaced by a 2000 CS – that was an even bigger deal.

    The 700 is a very rare thing. I can only remember one vehicle that I have seen in the wild in recent years.

    A nice little car. But has Michelotti ever delivered bad work?

    1. Michelotti is the link that makes the fates of BMW and Triumph the more ironically contrasting. When you think about where Triumph was in 1960 and compare it to the Bavarian firm, you´d not have thought the sinking Bavarian would rise to conquer the world and that by 1981 Triumph would be selling rebadged Hondas and then closed.
      Then, more irony, BMW takes over the firm that wrongly survived and supplanted Triumph and finds it´s a disaster with walnut veneer. Rover was trying to make itself into Triumph (by competing as Britain´s BMW) and BMW stops that plan and makes Rover into a parody of Jaguar and then gives up.

  5. One of the teachers at my former school progressed from a plywood Lloyd to a BMW 700 LS, the one with longer wheelbase and better engine accessibility through a longer tail.
    A 700 was pretty fast with its forty-something PS in comparison to a much larger Beetle with 30 or 34 PS. Problem was the motorcycle-derived engine which gave its fair share of trouble already on two wheels but in a car was used at performance levels that were impossible on a bike.

  6. Michelotti was a prolific designer and didn’t produce many bad designs, to my eyes.

    Classic & Sportscar compiled a list of some of his memorable designs – I never knew he had designed buses, although it makes sense, given his Leyland connections. I would say that the Leyland National bus is a design classic.

    https://www.classicandsportscar.com/gallery/24-memorable-michelotti-classics

    It’s a shame they missed out some of the work he did for Japanese companies, such as the Prince Skyline Sport and Hino Contessa.

    https://www.goodwood.com/grr/road/news/2020/11/eight-jdm-classics-that-never-came-to-the-uk–axons-automotive-anorak/

    As with many (all?) designers, there is a common theme to some of his work.

    Finally, some short BMW 700 TV adverts.

    1. Designers do have their preferences and biases. The best ones don´t make these apparent in terms of style. Good ones seem to have tics though this is common in the arts too such as musicians returning to note sequences or painters reworking motifs. In car design there are solutions which are part of the contemporary design vocabulary and the question is more about how they are integrated to the novel work and how long to use them for. Gandini´s wheel arch is one he ought to have abandoned quickly. Michelotti had a thing with the trailing edge of the roof and also the rear wheel arch (the way it ties to the bumper).

    2. Charles, the Leyland National was a damn fine looking but noisy bus. In Skipton and Settle Michelotti’s design influence hung on longer, as our popular but now defunct local bus operator Penine Motors ran Nationals until the early naughties and then kept a couple in their reserve fleet until they finally went out of business in I think 2015. They may have been the last operator to use the National. Meanwhile we “Enjoyed” or perhaps endured the notorious “Pacer” train until last year. These used Leyland National body panels, roof pods, glazing etc on a twin axle wagon chasis. Ride quality was… interesting although I always had a soft spot for them. They had a very smart fibreglass nose that was bespoke to the train as they are wider than buses. As it was so well integrated into the sides of the train I assumed that Michelotti had been lured out of retirement for one last commission. However I see that he died in 1980 a good few years before the Pacer lurched out of the railway works. Eventually these trains were relegated to secondary routes in the North particularly Leeds-Skipton-Morecambe. When the end was nigh Transport Minister Chris “Failing” Grayling as he was dubbed by the Yorkshire Post, hatched a scheme where community groups who needed mew village halls/ scout huts etc could enter a raffle for Pacer train bodies. I don’t know if there were any takers.

    3. Hello Richard, I think I went on a Pacer from Leeds (?) station in the mid ‘80s. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it seemed to have very rapid acceleration and to go at high speed – perhaps an illusion, due to the noise, of which there was quite a bit. I recall thinking it was odd, but fun; it definitely didn’t seem like a train, as there were obvious gear changes.

  7. Bruno – I enjoyed the article and the hitherto unfamiliar publicity material.

    Delightful though it is, I have a tinge of resentment against the Facharbeiter-Porsche for the part it innocently played in Borgward’s Untergang.

    Coincidentally I was given some perplexing numbers last weekend in relation to something else I’m working on.

    GERMAN MOTOR PRODUCTION 1960: (%)
    Volkswagen 33.0%
    Opel 16.7%
    Borgward Group 9.0%
    Ford 8.5%
    Auto Union 6.4%
    Glas 3.5%
    BMW 3.4%
    Others 11.9%

    Perplexing as there’s no sign of Mercedes-Benz or NSU. Borgward had their best-ever year in 1959 with 104,410 units. 1960 was already troubled for them, so let’s say 90,000. Extrapolate amongst yourselves.

    BMW had a lot of catching up to do, and would soon have much to thank Dr. Johannes Semler for.

    1. I always find these ‘moving graphs’ fun to watch; this one’s about car production. There are animated ‘maps of the world’ versions which I find equally mesmerizing.

  8. I would love to put my 2 cents into about the 700 BMW. Growing up in Germany and starting my automobile apprenticeship in 1962 , what a time for the small super cars. My brother , DKW specialist , worked for a BMW – DKW dealer. Here are some of the stories, fresh rebuild motor in the issetta going to the Nürburgring , how many times his best friend destroyed the rubber axle couplings on his 700 Coupé doing a cavalierstart. And than than ones with the racing motors. My brother said with the right gearing, the car would do over 200 km/h.
    My time , during lunch we would stay by the street and watch cars. One of the former mechanic had a 700 Coupé with a competition exhaust. You have to understand, we as apprentice- between 14- 17 years old, lived for the smell and sound of does cars.
    My biggest surprise was at the BMW museum in München , I assumed it was the 1500 saved BMW. A young woman from the museum corrected me very politely , it was the 700 . What a surprise to me.
    Long live the 700.

    1. Franz: Welcome to DTW and thank you for your recollections. The 700 was an important car and I am pleased that it has gained some small recognition amid these pages. I hope you continue to enjoy the site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.