Things did not look good. BMW was rapidly approaching the final collapse and demise of the Company in the 1950s. While motorcycle production had reached a new record in 1952, production figures decreased more significantly in the years to come than they had increased in the late ’40s. To set off this dismal end of the motorcycle market, BMW built the prototype of a new small car in 1950, taking up the lines of the pre-war BMW 327 and the 600cc flat-twin engine so popular at the time. But the project was subsequently discarded for economic reasons.
After launching the Isetta in 1954 in an attempt to set off the slump in the motorcycle market, BMW soon realised that this bubble car was too small for the new customers entering the market, who, as a result of the German “economic miracle” soon expected a lot more of their new car in the late ’50s. Quite simply, therefore, such spartan “super-minis” had already passed their climax, with customers demanding a longer wheelbase and more comfort.
On 9 June 1959 BMW’s Board of Management under their Chief Executive Dr Heinrich Richter-Brohm made the big move, presenting the new BMW 700 Coupe, the first model in the new series, to some 100 international motoring journalists. This was in Feldafing near Munich, at the same place where about two years before they had first seen the not-so-fortunate BMW 600. The minute Bönsch revealed the new Coupé, everybody started clapping. The journalists immediately admired the new model with its wheelbase of 2,120 mm (83.5″), front track of 1,270 mm (50.0″) and rear track measuring 1,200 mm (47.2″).
Boasting these dimensions, the BMW 700 had grown out of the small car class still prevailing in the market at the time and allowed a relatively high standard of freedom in providing extra space. The designers and engineers were particularly proud of the car’s consistent lightweight technology reducing dry weight to less than 600 kg or 1,323 lb despite the car’s overall length 3,540 mm or 139.4″, thus providing the qualities required for good acceleration and hill-climbing performance.
Developing maximum output of 30 hp at 5,000 rpm, the two-cylinder power unit was able to accelerate the Coupé to a top speed of 125 km/h or 78 mph. Exactly what this meant in terms of performance became quite clear in a statement again made by Helmut Werner Bönsch, comparing the car’s performance with that of the legendary BMW 327 touring sports car: “The BMW 700 Coupé with its 700cc 30 hp two-cylinder offers the same top speed, the same acceleration and the same safe average speed on the road as its legendary predecessor with its two-litre six-cylinder two-carburettor power unit. And it does so with the same space inside and with superior roadholding of an even higher standard.”
Journalists driving the BMW 700 Coupé were – rightly – thrilled from the start, waxing lyrical about the car’s design and its driving qualities: “Acceleration is certainly impressive for a car of this size, taking you from a standstill to 90 km/h in 20 and to 100 km/h in 30 seconds.” With this kind of performance, some journalists realised from the start that the BMW 700 Coupé was already looking at a sporting career: “You have the feeling that you’re sitting in a car with genuine sporting values, but without the rather harsh ride and limited space so typical of most sports cars.”
Public attractions at the 1959 Frankfurt Motor Show: the BMW 700 Saloon and Coupé
Precisely this is what happened, with the BMW 700 becoming a genuine highlight for the public in Frankfurt. The new Coupé was presented on the BMW stand at the 1959 Frankfurt Show at a price of DM 5,300.– including the car’s heater. Right next to it was the four-seater Saloon based on the same engineering and design concept and destined to enter series production in early 1960. Retailing at a price of DM 4,760.–, the Saloon was almost DM 600.– cheaper than the Coupé with its higher level of equipment. At the same time the Saloon boasted a far more spacious body offering adequate space for four adults. And unlike the Coupé with its fl air almost reminiscent of a sports car, the Saloon stood out in particular through its practical features and benefits.
With its steeper windscreen and rear window as well as the modified roof, the Saloon, on a body otherwise identical, looked much larger than the dynamic Coupé. But weighing just 10 kilos more than the Coupé, the 640-kg (1,411 lb) Saloon was able to offer almost the same good performance, accelerating to 100 km/h in approximately 30 seconds and reaching a top speed of 120 km/h or 75 mph.
The BMW 700 was the direct competitor of the initially cheaper VW Beetle and appealed above all to the motorist wishing to stand out from the crowd. Indeed, as a result of great demand customers had to wait several months for the delivery of their car, with BMW selling more than 35,000 units in 1960, the BMW 700 thus accounting for some 58 per cent of the Company’s overall revenues.
BMW quickly added further versions to the range, making the BMW 700 even more successful: Following the regular BMW 700, the Company introduced the BMW 700 De Luxe in February 1961, featuring the same technical equipment but with an even higher level of appointments. The most exclusive model in the BMW 700 range launched at the same time was the BMW 700 Convertible, the Baur Coachbuilding Company in Stuttgart designing and building this open-air version of the BMW 700, as they had already done so often in the history of BMW.
To provide all the qualities for driving in the open air, Baur reinforced the car’s load-bearing elements and re-designed the rear end. An uncomplicated, straightforward roof mechanism made open air motoring a genuine pleasure, particularly because the 700 Convertible came as standard with the more powerful engine otherwise featured in the BMW 700 Sport.
1962: new generation for greater comfort
The most significant change came in spring 1962 when BMW, while retaining the car’s wheelbase, extended the body by no less than 32 cm or 12.6″ in order to offer a significant increase in motoring comfort. This new model was marketed as the BMW LS and the BMW LS De Luxe. As of autumn 1964 the Coupé also received this longer body, coming off the assembly line in its last year of production as the BMW LS Coupé.
In all, sales of the BMW 700 amounted to 190,000 units by the year 1965. And the car was a great success in many countries the world over, with BMW delivering assembly kits for the BMW 700 to assembly plants in countries otherwise imposing high taxes on completely built-up cars. Hence, the BMW 700 was assembled from kits in Belgium, Italy, Argentina and even – in small numbers – in Israel. At the end of the day the BMW 700 more than fulfi lled its expectations, having given BMW new hope and taking the Company successfully through the crisis in 1959 and on to the fi nal breakthrough to profi table large-scale production.