Bayerishe Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works or BMW) is one of the most well-regarded automobile manufactures in the world. They have produced arguably some of the best performance cars ever and in 2015 they were the twelfth-largest producer of motor vehicles.
BMW’s cars can be found all across the globe and you would be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t heard of the brand. But what are the best BMWs of all time and what is their story?
In this article we will be rounding up ten of the greatest BMWs ever produced and the history behind them. Carry on reading to find out more!
A Little Bit of History on BMW
Before we dive into the ten best BMWs of all time, let’s take a quick look at the history of BMW and how the company started.
Founded in 1916, BMW was originally known as Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG but this was changed to Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) in 1922. Like many car manufacturers, BMW started out producing other machinery.
The company’s first product was a straight-six aircraft engine called the BMW IIIa. Following the end of the First World War, BMW stayed in business by producing motorcycle engines, farm equipment, household items, and railway brakes.
In 1923 BMW produced the R 32, the company’s first motorcycle. They would later acquire Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach, which, at the time, built Austin Sevens under license under the Dixi marque. BMW’s first car was a rebadged Dixi called the 3/15 and during the 1930s they expanded their range.
The company would continue to produce aircraft engines, motorcycles and of course cars until the start of the Second World War. During the war BMW primarily produced aircraft engines for the German military.
Following the war BMW was banned from producing motor vehicles and aircraft components. To survive, the company manufactured pots, pans and bicycles. They would return to making motorcycles in 1948 and their first post-war car, the BMW 501 luxury saloon, was released in 1952.
Over the coming decades BMW expanded their range of motor vehicles. They introduced their much loved 3, 5 and 7 Series cars during the course of the 1970s and the company’s M division released its first road car, a mid-engine supercar, in 1978. Since then, as they say, the rest is history.
The Ten Greatest BMWs of All Time
BMW E30 M3
How could we not start this list off with the incredible BMW E30 M3. The M3 badge is arguably BMW’s most famous performance badge and the E30 is where it all started.
Based on the E30 3 Series, the M3 was produced from March 1986 to June 1991. The majority of E30 M3s were produced in coupe form, but a limited number of convertible cars were also manufactured.
Compared to the standard 3 Series model, the E30 M3 differed in a number of areas. BMW’s M division retained the same basic body shell, but 12 of the body panels were unique to M3. These new body panels were designed to improve aerodynamics and the flared wheel arches were created to accommodate the wider track and larger wheels/tyres fitted to the car.
To power the M3, BMW installed the S14 four-cylinder engine. This was a high-revving DOHC unit that produced 197 horsepower in countries where a catalytic converter was not required and 192 horsepower in countries where one was required. Power was later upgraded to 212 horsepower for European models, increasing the top speed to 240 km/h (149 mph).
The high-revving engine was mated to a Getrag 265 5-speed manual transmission. European models were kitted out with a dogleg version with close ratios and a 1:1 ratio for fifth gear. North American models featured a more traditional shift pattern and wider gear spacing with an overdriven fifth gear. A clutch-type limited-slip differential was standard equipment.
BMW fitted new brakes to the M3 and completely overhauled and improved the suspension system to improve the cars handling.
The E30 M3 is often regarded as one of the greatest sports cars of the eighties and of all time. In 2007, Automobile Magazine included the E30 M3 in their “5 greatest drivers cars of all time” under their 25 Greatest Cars of All Time.
Following BMW’s restructuring in the 1950s, the company worked hard to produce a car that would sell in great numbers and drive home a profit. What they came up with was the 02 Series, a range of compact executive cars.
The first of these 2 Series cars was the 1600-2 (later renamed 1602), which launched in 1966. Helmut Werner Bönsch, BMW’s director of product planning, and Alex von Falkenhausen, designer of the M10 engine, both installed two-litres engines in their 1600-2s.
Realising they had made the same modification; they prepared a joint proposal to BMW’s board to manufacturer a two-litre version of the car. At the same time, American importer Max Hoffman was asking BMW to create a sporting version of the 02 Series for the North American market.
This would lead to the development of the 2002, one of BMW’s most important and influential cars. The 2002 was sold in two states of tune: the base single-carburetor 2002 producing 101 hp and the dual-carburettor high compression 2002 ti producing 119 hp.
A cabriolet version would follow in 1971 and the 2002 Turbo would launch at the 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show. The Turbo was BMW’s first turbocharged production car and it produced 170 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, and 177 lb ft of torque. Unfortunately, due to the oil crisis of 1973, BMW only produced 1,672 units.
The 2002 went on to become the company’s most successful model and it would be the precursor to the 3-Series.
The BMW M1 is pegged as one of the company’s most iconic flops, but it is also one of BMW’s most important motor vehicles.
During the 1970s, Lamborghini entered into an agreement with BMW to produce a production racing car in sufficient quantity for homologation purposes. However, conflicts arose that prompted BMW to produce the car themselves. The resulting car was known as the BMW M1 and it was sold to the public from 1978 to 1981.
The M1 was hand-built under BMW’s motorsport division, making it the first BMW production car to wear the M-badge. BMW’s M-division would go on to create some of BMW’s most important and influential cars.
Along with being the first production BMW to feature the M badge, the M1 was also the first mass-produced mid-engine BMW motorcar. The second mid-engine BMW would not come until years later and would come in the form of the i8 hybrid sports car.
BMW’s engineers stuffed a 273 horsepower 3.5-litre M88 six-cylinder engine in the M1 that featured separate throttle bodies for each cylinder. The car was capable of a top speed of around 260 km/h (162 mph) and power was sent through a 5-speed manual transmission made by ZF Friedrichshafen that was equipped with a 40% locking limited slip differential.
Despite its serious performance and racing accomplishments, the M1 wasn’t as successful as hoped. Only 453 examples were manufactured, making the M1 one of the rarest BMW models in existence. Additionally, the racing league that the M1 was destined for was cancelled and BMW shifted its focus to Formula One.
BMW 3.0 CSL
The BMW 3.0 CSL (aka the Batmobile) was introduced in May 1972 and it would go down as one of the company’s most loved vehicles. It was produced as a homologation special so that BMW could enter in the European Touring Car Championship.
BMW only produced 1,265 of these cars and the “L” designation in the name meant leicht (light) (“L” meant long on other BMW models). To make the car lighter than the stock E9 model, BMW’s engineers used thinner steel for the body and removed the interior trim and soundproofing. In addition to this, aluminium was used for many of the body panels and the glass side windows were replaced with lighter Perspex ones.
With a bored out 203 horsepower 3,003 cc six-cylinder engine, the CSL was one of the fastest cars money could buy. In 1973 the engine size was increased to 3,153 cc (3.2-litres), which bumped the power up to 203 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 211 lb ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. With all this power and a low bodyweight, the 3.0 CSL was good enough for 0-100 km/h (62 mph) in under seven seconds.
The final homologation model released in July 1973 came with an aerodynamic package that included a large air dam, short fins running along the front fenders, a spoiler above and behind the trailing edge of the roof, and a tall rear wing. Rather than installing the rear wings in the factory, BMW left them in the boot for installation after purchase. This was done because the wings were illegal for use on German roads.
There is no way we couldn’t leave this car off the list. The 328 was produced from 1936 to 1940 and was essentially the car that got the ball rolling for BMW’s sports car range. When it was introduced, the BMW 328 stomped over its competition and one pretty much any race that it was entered into.
While the body design was credited to Peter Szymanowski (would become BMW’s chief of design after World War II), the overall design was actually done by Fritz Fiedler. Following World War II, the technical plans for the car were taken from the bombed BMW factory by English representatives from the Bristol Aeroplane Company and Frazer Nash companies.
Fiedler was persuaded to join the Bristol company and set up Bristol Cars. The first Bristol car, the 400, was heavily based on the BMW plans.
With a 79 horsepower straight-six 2.0-litre engine mated to a 4-speed manual transmission, the 328 could hit 150 km/h (93 mph). While the engine performance was excellent, the 328’s speed in racing was in part thanks to its low bodyweight of 830 kg (1,830 lbs) and excellent chassis and suspension setup.
The BMW 328 is so highly regarded that in 1999 the car was named one of 25 finalists for Car of the Century.
Without a doubt the 507 is one of the greatest-looking cars of all time and arguably the best-looking BMW ever created. The BMW 507 is a roadster that was produced from 1956 to 1959 and it is one of the rarest cars the company has manufactured.
Initially conceived by U.S. automobile importer Max Hoffman, the 507 was essentially a roadster version of the BMW 503. It was designed to fill the gap between the expensive Mercedes-Benz 300SL and the cheap sports cars from the likes of Triumph and MG.
Fritz Fiedler was assigned to design the rolling chassis and he was told to use as many existing components as possible. Early body designs from Ernst Loof were rejected by Hoffman, as he found them unappealing. Albrecht von Goertz was later tasked with the design of both the BMW 503 and the 507.
The body of the 507 sat on a shortened 503 frame and featured a wheelbase of 2,835 millimetres (111.6 in) and a curb weight of 1,330 kg (2,930 lbs). BMW hand crafted each individual 507 out of aluminium, which meant that no two models were the same. Eleven cars were sold with an optional hand-fabricated removable hardtop and due to car-to-car differences, each hardtop only fits the car for which it was made for.
Powering the 507 was BMW’s aluminium alloy OHV 3.2-litre V8 engine with pushrod-operated overhead valves. It featured two Zenith 32NDIX two-barrel carburettors, a chain-driven oil pump, high-lift cams, a different spark advance curve, polished combustion chamber surfaces, and a compression ratio of 7.8:1. This meant that it produced 150 horsepower, enough to get the car from 0-100 km/h (62 mph) in 11.1 seconds and onto a top speed of 196 km/h (122 mph).
While the 507 was intended to revive BMW’s sporting image, the car took the company to the edge of bankruptcy. Its high production cost meant that BMW had to push the sale price much higher, and as such only 252 cars were produced out of a planned 5,000.
BMW M5 E34
The second-generation BMW M5, codenamed E34, is considered by many motoring enthusiasts to be the best M5 ever created. It followed the much loved and very rare E28 M5 and was produced from September 1988 to August 1995.
Like the E28 before it, the E34 M5 was a souped up version of the standard car. BMW’s engineers started out with the painted bodyshell of an E34 5 Series. The shells were then taken to BMW M GmbH in Garching, where they were turned into the M5.
E34 M5 cars originally came with a 3.6-litre straight-six engine that produced 311 horsepower, but this was later upgraded to a 3.8-litre unit that produced 335 horsepower in 1991. Along with the update to the engine, BMW also launched a Touring version of the M5, which was the M Division’s first wagon.
The second generation M5 with the 3.8-litre engine was capable of hitting 100 km/h in just under six seconds and go onto a limited top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph). A total of 12,254 second-generation M5s were produced, with 891 being the Touring model.
BMW E24 635CSi and M6
One of our personal favourite BMWs here at Garage Dreams is the 635CSi. The E24 is the first generation of BMW 6 Series grand tourer coupes and the 635CSi was the highest spec model.
BMW launched the 635CSi in 1985 with a M30B34 engine that produced 182 horsepower and 214 lb ft of torque at 4,000rpm. The engine was upgraded to the M30B35 in 1988, which featured a capacity of 3.4 litres and a power output of 208 horsepower and 225 lb ft of torque. \
The M635CSi was the third BMW car to receive the “M” treatment and it produced 286 horsepower from its straight-six M88/3 engine.
In 1987, North America and Japan received their equivalent of the M635CSi, the M6. The main difference between the two models was the engine. M6 models featured BMW’s S38 powerplant instead of the M88 that came on the European models.
Compared to the M88, the S38 features a catalytic converter and a reduced compression ratio of 9.8:1. It also comes with a shorter camshaft duration, a double row timing chain and a simplified exhaust manifold. These changes meant that the M6 produced 30 less horsepower than the M635CSi.
BMW E31 850CSi
BMW’s 8 Series of cars is often overlooked when it comes to producing a list of their greatest motor vehicles.
Originally, BMW wanted to create an M version of the 8 Series that was launched in 1990. This car was envisioned as a Ferrari competitor and was designed with a 550-horsepower version of the S70 engine. Unfortunately, due to economic reasons, BMW scrapped the M8 project.
While the M8 was never produced, the 850CSi was also tuned by BMW’s motorsport division. The car’s engine was given the designation S70B56 and it featured modifications such as Bosch Motronic 1.7 fuel injection and a capacity increase to 5.6-litres.
This meant that the V12 engine produced a hefty 375 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 406 lb ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. With all that power the 850CSi was good for 0-100 km/h in as little as 5.9 seconds.
Along with improving the engine, BMW also modified the car’s suspension setup with stiffer springs and dampers that reduced the vehicle’s ride height. In Europe, all 850CSi models came with four-wheel steering, upgraded and ventilated brakes with floating front discs, a rear differential oil cooler, engine oil cooler, and sports seats.
BMW E39 M5
To finish off this list we have the incredible BMW E39 M5. Following on from the E34, the E39 M5 was launched at the 1988 Geneva Motor Show. Unlike its predecessors, the E39 was produced on the same assembly line as the regular 5 Series.
It was the first M5 model to use a V8 engine, which resulted in an increase in power output to 395 horsepower. This meant that performance was improved significantly, with a 0-100 km/h (62 mph) time of 4.8 seconds and a limited top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph).
In testing, an unrestricted M5 reached a top speed in excess of 300 km/h (186 mph) and lapped the Nurburgring in 8 minutes and 20 seconds.
While the MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension was retained, BMW reduced the spring height by 23 mm and gave the car thicker front and rear anti-roll bars, polyurethane auxiliary springs, and steel balljoints.
The brakes were also improved with a “floating” two-piece design (except for U.S and Canada models), for reduced risk of cone distortion. Their lower unspring weight improved the ride quality and traction on bumpy surfaces as well.
With the success of the E34 and E39 M5, BMW set the bar for future sports sedans. Like the 34 before it, the E39 M5 is regarded as one of the greatest driving machines ever created.
This is just a taste of many of the great cars that BMW has produced over the years. We couldn’t list them all so let us know what your top ten BMWs are in the comments below.