By on March 9, 2010

Risky business. That defines the car business, and never more succinctly so than in the case of this car. Rarely has a desperate last-minute gamble paid of so handsomely as the “Neue Klasse” BMWs. Today’s new owners of Saab can only dream (hallucinate) about turning their business around so quickly and definitively as this BMW did. But  having the guts and money to back the risk taking is only part of the equation. Most of all, it’s a matter of being at the right time with the right product, and having the smarts to recognize it. In 1962, the seemingly impossible wasn’t. Today? Good luck.

In 1959, BMW was about to be liquidated. It was then an unprofitable small maker of a very expensive large sedan and sports car (507), a tiny bubble-car (Isetta), and motorcycles. BMW was the very model of branding muddle, and it was crashing. Herbert Quandt’s family owned a 30% stake in BMW, and he was ready to throw in the towel too. But something got him to change his mind at the last minute. It may have been the pleading objections of the workforce. More likely, it was seeing the early drawings for this very car; well, strictly speaking, the smaller engined but otherwise identical 1500 model. So against the recommendation of his bankers and advisers, he increased his stake to 50%, thus financing the new mid-sized sedan to production. That bold gamble made his family one of the richest in the world. And this car created the whole modern BMW legacy, the proto-Bimmer. It’s the first, if not the ultimate driving machine.

That’s not to say that the BMW 1500/1800 was all that radically new in concept. It borrowed heavily from two other sedans that had identified a substantial niche for a family-sized sedan with sporting ambitions. Alfa Romeo had been at it since the mid-fifties with their popular Giulietta. But that wasn’t exactly mainstream family fare in Germany back then. But the Borgward Isabella was.

Appearing in 1954, the Isabella was a very modern and highly regarded sedan with a 1500 cc engine, and slotted in just below Mercedes’ solid but stolid 180. When the higher output (75 hp) TS model appeared in 1955, the formula for the future BMW 1500 was realized: OHC four, independent suspension all-round, and a harmonious balance of performance, handling, room and affordability. Unfortunately, the Isabella had early teething problems, and the unforgiving Germans punished Borgward. In 1961, Carl Borgward’s whole empire was forced into a highly controversial bankruptcy, because it turns out the firm really wasn’t insolvent. Some have even speculated that the Quandts might even have played a role in that.

Coincidentally, or not, the first BMW 1500 rolled off the lines in 1962, about the same time the last Isabellas were rolling off theirs. Borgward enjoyed a reincarnation in Latin America of sorts, but the new BMW was happily embraced back home. It hit the sweet spot, and just at the right time. Germany’s Wirtschftswunder was in high gear, and a growing number of VW owners were ready, willing and able to move up a step or two. The BMW 1500 was there to accommodate both their driving ambitions and family hauling requirements, given that the two-car family was still a distant concept.

The 1500 featured a family-friendly tallish and boxy body, with plenty of room for Oma and the kids in back, and their luggage in the trunk. And of course, it featured the first use (on a BMW) of that famous Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar. Its styling certainly wasn’t particularly original, being a blatant copy of 1960 Corvair themes, except for that roof line and a few other details.

Suspension was by MacPherson struts in front, and semi-trailing arms in back, a formula BMW used as late as the nineties. And the over-square short-stroke SOHC hemi-head four was designed to accommodate future increases in size and power, although I doubt the engineers envisioned it putting out some 1500 horsepower in its turbocharged F1 evolution. Yes, that engine did use a block based on the production M10 engine, and won the 1983 GP championship.

The 1500 wasn’t exactly brimming with power, with all of 80 hp. Zero to sixty took some 15 seconds. But that was reasonably brisk compared to many cars of the times. And the engine was a masterpiece from the get-go, and revved happily to 6,000 rpm. But within a year, in 1963, the 1800 came along with bigger bore and a longer stroke to generate 90 hp. But its improved torque and all-round performance balance hit the right note, and quickly made the 1800 the most popular of the Neue Generation BMWs. A 1600 variant took over the weak-chested 1500 in’64, and a more luxurious 2000 followed in 1966.

But the real fun started in 1964 with the 1800TI (touring international). Using a twin-carb setup and hotter cam developed by Alpina, it spun out 110 hp. And a racing-oriented 1800TI/SA with Weber side-drafts upped that to 130hp. The whole sporting future of BMWs to come started with this 1800. And what a future that turned out to be.

I have fond memories of these cars, riding in them and watching them race when I spent a long summer in Austria in 1969. The Bergrennen (mountain climbs) sent the 1800TI/SAs and their arch-rival Alfas tearing within reach of an outstretched hand through the tiny Alpine villages. No barriers of any kind; I can still feel my hair get blown by their draft, and the sound and smell of their hard-charging fours.

These Bimmers were ruggedly handsome, but exactly graceful in the Italian idiom (which was largely defining beautiful cars at the time): mighty Germanic and a bit klunky. No wonder BMW had Michelotti style the smaller 1602/2002 a few years later. But they suited the needs of their time perfectly, offering maximum interior space for the least amount of weight and real estate. And they soldiered along until 1972, when their iconic successor, the 5 Series appeared. But the M10 engine stayed in production until 1987.

By 1963, the year the 1800 went into production, BMW was already well turned around, and paid its first dividend. And it’s never stopped. But anyone back then daring to imagine BMW someday outselling Mercedes would have been accused of having a psychotic event. Saabsters: those hallucinations are good!

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28 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1964 BMW 1800...”


  • avatar
    jkross22

    Paul,

    Thanks for writing this article. Very interesting history on BMW the company that I wasn’t aware of. Like most, I thought BMW’s first commercial hit was the 2002, but it’s interesting to learn more of the history behind the history. Good stuff.

    If Alfa does indeed return to the US in a large way, I’d hope you’d write a brief history on them as well and their first commercial success.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      Awesome! I have never seen one of the Neue Klass sedans in North America (not so many left in Europe now, either), but the genetics are very clear not just to the 1602/1802/2002 models, but also to the early 3- and 5-series cars.

      And, yes, I agree that this was the car that saved BMW. The 2002 came later and helped make a name for the marque in North America.

      Now, can you find us a 2002 touring? Were those ever sold in the US?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      The touring wasn’t sold in the US. I know some have been brought over, though, but it’s not the kind of thing one typically finds on the street.

      • 0 avatar
        Flamingo

        Please confirm or refute my memory that back in the early 70′s I owned a BMW 1800 tii, an inline four cylinder that had four Weber carburetors. I bought it used and it was, shall I say “problematic”. Those four Webers were impossible to synchronize and the 6 volt electrical system meant that I was habitually pushing it to get it started. Am I remembering this correctly? Maybe some military person brought it back from overseas…?

  • avatar
    charliej5

    I enjoyed seeing this article, as I lusted after this car as a young man. I also appreciated the reference to the Borgward Isabella. My fist car was an Isabella. It was a 1959 model, bought in 1964. Cheap from the used car dealer as there was no reverse. A plastic bushing in the shift linkage from the Borgward dealer and it had reverse. The car was fun to drive and good handling for the time. It had swing axle rear suspension. Good for hanging the tail out in every corner. I drove that car to college and through my Navy years. I have a lot of good memories of it. I wish that I still had it, but I sold and bought a mini. Also lots of fun, with 38 romping stomping horsepower. People today that think you need 500 horsepower to have fun need to drive an early mini or old Borgward to find out how much fun light weight and narrow tires can be.

  • avatar
    relton

    The BMW museum in Munich has a lot of information abut these cars, and the corporate maneuvering that caused them to come to fruition.

    The museum in Amerang, east of Munich, has a large display of Borgwards, and a long film about Carl Borgward and his empire. Unfortunately it was entirely in German, so I really didn’t understand much of it. He was, however, quite the entrepreneur. When I was a kid, there was a car dealer who specialized in goof-ball cars like SAABs adn Citroens, and he sold Borgwards. I still have the sales brochures.

    Bob

  • avatar
    blowfish

    The 1800 sedans and 1602/2002 were the tent pole to get Bimmer on the map again.
    That 59 Labour issues almost wiped Bimmer off the auto map.
    There was a bloke Dieter Quest came to Macau GP in 72. Ofcourse he did took the checkered flag home with the 2000 cc class.

    Macau may have been kind of a God forsaken place, but interms of racing history, Merc made their mark with the 300 sel 6.3

  • avatar
    texlovera

    I was never terribly familiar with BMW’s history. Thanks for posting this.

    Also, that Borgward Isabella looked really nice. Would love to see one up close!

  • avatar

    My understanding was that the Hofmeister Kink was essentially cribbed from the Bertone-styled 3200 CS coupe, which was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    God, that 507 is gorgeous. I never realized that BMW had ever made anything like that.

    • 0 avatar
      SwingAxle

      I thought so, too! Here’s a little history I found on it. Who would have thought that svelt body encases a V8!

      http://www.antiquecar.com/gc_bmw_507.php

      P.S. Thanks for writing the article, Paul. Now can you please find a stunning little 507 in Oregon to write about?

  • avatar
    hurls

    Great article… I once had a 2002 in that Alpine White. Miss that car, wish it hadn’t rusted itself into pieces (or that BMW still sold the “body shell” replacement part…)

    Pedantic point: the strut/trailing arm suspension mix continued well into the 90s — the 3 Series compact and (I believe) original Z3 kept that set-up even when the E36 switched to the multilink in the back…

    As nostalgic as I may be for those old cars, it sure as hell was a lot easier to find yourself going backwards around a corner with those trailing arms ;)

  • avatar
    dswilly

    Great story. I may be mistaken, but I think Mercedes had a substantial stake in BMW and was ready to kill it when Quandt was able to get control. I’m lucky enough to have a 2002 in my garage, a kick in the pants to drive.

  • avatar
    threeer

    It was 1975, and we had just moved off post in Karlsruhe (my father was deployed to Korea on an unaccompanied tour). Our landlords (who wound up being some of our best long-term friends) owned a white 1800. I was all of 5, but I fell in love with that little car…and that love for BMW carried through until I was able to buy my own 2002 (a 1976 Baikal Blue that I sold my then-two year old Sentra SE-R for). That car will forever live in my heart as THE car for me. I owned a 1985 318i (euro-spec) and then a 1993 325is, but they never held the same sway that 2002 did. And it all started from those long rides around Karlsruhe and Knielingen…once Bangle took over the design, my heart wept for BMW.

  • avatar
    twotone

    I had a great 2002 tii and almost bought a 2002 Turbo in Europe (not sold in the US). My favorite, however, was my 1975 3.0 CSi (imported from Germany) — the most beautiful BMW coupe body ever!

    Twotone

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    I can’t speak for the earlier Neue Klass cars but there were always a few 2000s where I grew up. My parents had a dark blue 1970 model for several years and at the same time one of the teachers in my elementary school had an automatic model in the same color. Later on somebody in my high school had a red 2000 so there were at least 3-4 cars in the area, amidst a sea of 2002s and 320is.
    I’m surprised at how different the 1800 is from the 2000, I thought it was mostly engine changes but in addition to the headlights (US 2000s had 4 round, and euro had big rectangular lights) the taillights and dashboard are different. I have fond memories of that car since BMWs were rare and cool at the time and we used to drive up to Lime Rock on Memorial Day to watch the IMSA races and support the local dealer’s 1600 race cars.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    “These Bimmers weren’t exactly beautiful:”
    Back in the 60′s I thought they were the most beautiful saloons around.Only snag was the 6 volt electrical system. I read somewhere that some of the (un-employed)engineers resposible for the Borgward Isabella were hired by BMW to engineer this car.
    The turbo-charged F1 engines were built around old cylinder blocks returned to the factory for reconditioning.BMW selected the nicest ones for the racing dept.Brand new blocks were to “green” (unseasoned) to go racing with.
    In the early 60′s a Hungarian refugee won the British Saloon Car Championship with a seconhand Isabella he had tuned himself at home – he gas-flowed the cylinder head in his kitchen…

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    “Its styling certainly wasn’t particularly original, being a blatant copy of 1960 Corvair themes, except for that roof line and a few other details.”
    There were a lot of blatant copies of the Corvair around at the time , but this was an Italian expression of the Corvair style , and not so blatant at all.
    There cannot be many American cars that have had as much influence as the Corvair. Such a pity that GM were influenced by VW when deciding where to put the engine.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    It wasn’t Mercedes that owned any of BMW, and it wasn’t the Quandt family that threw the spanner into the works for Borgward. Rumor has it that it was Mercedes which had Borgward killed off.

    The Frua design which the Italians had been working on for a remake of the Borgward Isabella (which had been I think #4 in sales in Germany as late as 1958) became the Glas 1500 a few years later, and ironically, the Glas family (company also built tiny Goggomobil cars) overextended themselves and could not afford modern factory techniques – so sold out to BMW in about 1966.

    In fact the actual Glas 1500 cars “became” BMW 1600 cars in South Africa for years, and the Glas factory became the source for BMW 5-series cars.

    I think these 1500/1800 cars sort of morphed into a larger car, the 2500/2800/Bavaria or at least inspired the designers who built the cars starting in the late 1960′s through early 1970′s, and so I’m not sure if the 1500/1800 cars were actually “down-sized” to the 2002 and the 2500/2800/Bavaria sedans carried on BMW’s upward momentum to eventually compete with Mercedes model-for-model.

  • avatar
    Luis A.

    Great compendium of the Neue Klasse story. It’s great to hear everyone’s ‘brushes’ with a NK sedan and its successor the -02 series.

    This is very timely as I’m about to buy an 1800 in Berlin and drive it to Techno Classica to then ship it home from Zeebrugge. I’ll be chronicling the adventure at my blog: http://www.1966BMW1800.wordpress.com

  • avatar
    bmoredlj

    Great story, great history, great car. When you place an ancient-looking 502 next to a 1500, it’s amazing there was nothing in between them. I consider the 1500/1800/2000/1602/2002 the best-looking BMWs ever. The X5, X6, and 5GT are hollow novelties by comparison. The Neue-Classe was something BMW had to get right at just the right time, or it was Game Over…and they did it. BMW still makes amazing driving machines, but I wonder if they’ve grown a bit too comfortable for their own good.

  • avatar

    y’know, bashing Saab’s future may be the popular thing to do, but crazier things have happened. The brand has a massive amount of potential, and they are no longer encumbered by 20 years of criminal neglect and mismanagement. I mean I know you’d like to see Saab sink because it’s make a great article, but maybe a “wait and see” tactic is the best bet?

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Paul, Can you confirm? Years ago, I read that Quandt was nearly blind at the time he approved the car that saved BMW (this car?) … apparently he ran his hands over the contours of the body and pronounced it good.

    BTW, I have a hard time seeing the ‘vair design themes, but I do see the BMW DNA (Roundel, Twin-Kindney Grille, forward-raked prow, and the most petite Hoffmeister Kink that I ever done seen.)

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Robert, I haven’t heard about Quandt being nearly blind, but I’m wondering if you are by not seeing the Corvair’s influence on the BMW :)
      Seriously, the ’60 Corvair revolutionized European styling, and a large number of new cars in the sixties were deeply influenced, if not blatantly copying it. Go back to the top of this article and click on the link to the Isabella; it is highly representative of European styling themes of the times (pre-Corvair).
      The Corvair introduced two or three main elements, the biggest one being the very pronounced belt line, and a slab-sided body below it. And this theme is most pronounced at the front, with that belt line and undercut face. The BMW adopted these very strongly, and the pronounced beltline became a theme for all BMWs until the most recent models. Go look and see; they all have their roots in the Corvair.
       

      • 0 avatar
        2ronnies1cup

        Corvair might mot have invented the classic ’3-box’ profile, but it sure as hell made it popular.

        And why not – Corvair was a great design, visually. Breath of fresh air.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Great BMW lore. I have a pair of 88 528es for daily drivers. I bought my first one in 96 and drove it 12 yrs. Never once failed to get me home. I do all the maintenance in my driveway.

  • avatar
    TAP

    I once knew a guy in Oklahoma with an 1800 who would brag about his 100mph blasts across that state. Last call was the sad tale of blowing his engine far from home.

    Also remember a neighbor’s Isetta. He was 6’6″ and loved getting in and out of THE door just to wow the rest of us. Fun guy!

    The Saab brand has a massive amount of potential??

  • avatar
    timlocke

    In 1965 I worked pumping gas at a station in Portslade in the UK. The BMWs of the time were unloaded at the port there and the delivery drivers used to stop at the station for gas. Many different ones. 1500,1600,1800 and IIRC convertibles of all three.


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