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1982 BMW Alpina

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    The history of BMW: A round-up of the roundel

    Back when the best Britain had to offer was the Austin Allegro, it was German metal that ruled the roads. BMW and Mercedes were the standard bearers of the motoring world and now we look back on the classic BMWs with weepy nostalgia – they truly are some of the all-time greats.

    BMW became a car manufacturer in 1929 when a motorcycle manufacturer, aircraft engine assembly plant and, unbelievably, a company that produced old Austin Sevens under licence merged to form the Bayerische Motoren Werke. But it wasn’t until three years after World War II, when BMW could leave aircraft engines, the forced labour and concentration camp workers and a production ban by the allies behind it that things started to really take off.

    One of BMW’s first post-war cars is still regarded as its finest hour, even though the 507 was a relative sales flop thanks to its high production costs. The two-seater sportscar is a major collector’s piece today, and a modern auction star. But like the Z8 and M1 that followed decades later it serves as a stark reminder that BMW has struggled to make a commercial success from out-and-out sportscars – no matter how good they were. That’s good news for the collectors, though, as the cars´ rarity has sent their values through the roof.

    Fast saloons and small cars have always been its calling card, even though few people remember that BMW was responsible for the wheezing Isetta bubble car that comfortably preceded the old Mini, let alone BMW’s recent revival of the English brand. Even the Isetta could not carry the company and BMW came within a whisker of merging with Daimler-Benz in the late 50s. It was a wake-up call and BMW changed tack in the 1960s. Then it all came good.

    In 1961 it launched the new 1500, which evolved into the 1600 and 1800 and featured the legendary Hofmeister Kink design round the rear window line that has become a characteristic of BMW saloons ever since. BMW was a commercial success by the mid-1960s and it also embarked on an ambitious motorsport programme that included the legendary 635 CSL that sprouted wing after wing and eventually became known as the Batmobile.

    BMW went on to dominate endurance racing at the Nurburgring, Spa and other iconic venues with the 6 Series and the roadgoing 635 coupe. When it came time to replace them, the homologation rules created a thing of wonder for fans because BMW had to make a certain number of roadgoing cars to take one on the track. That was the birth of BMW’s M division, and arguably its greatest ever offering – the E30 M3.

    The hardcore version of the first 3 Series is still adored today and its price, especially in ‘Sport Evo’ guise, has rocketed beyond reason. It is, when all said and done, a four-pot with slightly more than 230bhp, but it has become an icon. As did its replacement, the E46. It was the definitive super saloon and sparked an arms race that continues to this day with Mercedes-Benz and, latterly, Audi, for bragging rights.

    BMW was always famous for its larger cars, the 7 Series was the last word in luxury for a long time and the E39 5 Series is often described as the most elegant executive car of all time. The Roundel has produced more than its fair share of classic cars, that much is sure, and there will be more to come.