If you ever wondered why the BMW symbol contains a stylized propeller, there is a reason. The result of the consolidation of two aircraft industry manufacturers in the midst of World War I, what would become one of the world's best-regarded car manufacturers was in business more than a decade before it built its first automobile.
In 1913 Karl Rapp founded Rapp-Motorenwerke in a former Munich bicycle factory. At first Rapp built aeroplane engines of his own design, but the fact was his engineering skills were limited, and the engines he built were none too good. After enduring the complaints of several of his early customers, he switched to building a Austro-Daimler-designed engine under license.
Meanwhile, not far away, Gustav Otto, the son of the man who perfected the internal combustion engine, began building aeroplanes with a company he called Bayerische Flugzeugwerke. Of course, the middle of World War I was an excellent time to get into the aviation business, and the firm prospered. By 1917, three Austrians -- Franz-Josef Popp, Max Friz and Camillo Castiglioni - had taken over Rapp's enterprise and renamed it Bayerische Motoren Werke. Luckily for the trio, Friz was a much better engine designer than Rapp, and the firm's first aircraft engine, the Type IIIa, was highly acclaimed.
A year later a biplane equipped with the inline six-cylinder engine reached an altitude of 16,405 feet (5,000 meters) in just 29 minutes, quite an impressive performance for the day, and in 1919 a BMW-powered plane piloted by Franz Zeno Diemer set a world altitude record of 32,013 feet (9,760 meters.)
Unfortunately for BMW, however, by 1919 the War to End All Wars was over, and the victorious Allies were less than sanguine about letting Germany continue to build weapons of war. The Treaty of Versailles, hammered out that year, prohibited German companies from building aircraft. Otto closed up shop for good, and BMW shifted to the rather mundane task of building railway brakes.
In 1922 BMW got the opportunity to build engines for Victoria, a Nuremberg motorcycle manufacturer and, at the same time, moved into the facility of Otto's abandoned airplane business. Just a year later BMW began building its own brand of motorcycles when Friz introduced the BMW R 32, with a horizontally opposed twin cylinder engine and shaft drive. Seven decades later, the company continues to use that basic design in its highly regarded motorcycles.
As BMW wended its way through the Twenties, a relatively obscure car manufacturer called Eisenach, which had been established in 1896, made a strategic decision of its own. Founded by Heinrich Eberhardt, the Eisenach firm had first shown a vehicle in 1898 and then embarked on a scheme of building Decauvilles under a royalty arrangement. (Decauville, of course, also inspired one Henry Royce to get into the car business.) After Eberhardt's departure the company lurched along through the Teens and into the Twenties until it stumbled upon the idea of building the fabulously successful Austin 7 under license.
Production of the Dixi 3/15, as the thinly disguised Austin was called, began in 1928 and soon thereafter BMW acquired the company. A series of BMW-designed automobiles followed, including the fabled BMW 328, the best two-liter sports car of its era.
World War II then proceeded to knock BMW off the face of the globe. Because it had built aircraft engines and rockets, BMW factories in Eisenach, Durrerhof, Basdorf, and Zuhlsdorf were heavily bombed by the Allies and virtually destroyed, and the Munich factory didn't fare much better. When peace finally came, the Eisenach factory ended up in the Eastern Zone under the control of the Russians, and the Allies restricted BMW from operating at all for three long years.
Finally, the company was allowed to rebuild its Munich plant, which returned to the manufacture of motorcycles, and then came the Isetta, an odd little "bubble car" powered by a motorcycle engine. BMW also produced conventional cars, including the well-regarded 507 sports car, but, with production of just 253 units, the 507 certainly wasn't going to provide the company with much-needed income.
After more floundering through the late Fifties, BMW discovered its niche in 1962 with the introduction of the 1500. The 1500 wasn't a two-seat sports car; it was a four-door sedan, but a sedan with more verve and performance than its competitors by a wide margin. Equipped with a single-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder engine, front disc brakes and independent suspension, the 1500 combined the practicality of five-passenger seating with sports-car feel. In Europe it proved to be the breakthrough car for BMW, the car that established the brand. In America, however, another car would carry that mantle, a car that was a spiritual descendent of the 1500.
The amazing thing about that car, the 2002, was that it almost never happened. In 1966 BMW followed up the 1500 with the very successful 1600-2. Its chassis was extremely sophisticated for the era with independent suspension front and rear, front disc brakes and an 85-horsepower 1.6-liter engine. The two-door body was handsome and actually showed some influence from, of all cars, the Chevrolet Corvair, which has been underrated in both performance and styling over the years.
In any case, the 1600-2 proved to be a huge success in the marketplace and eventually became one of the bestselling BMW models ever. The company added two models to the lineup in 1967 - the 1600-2ti and the 1600 Cabriolet - and the ti with twin carburetors, wider wheels and tires, improved brakes and a front anti-sway bar was a definite hot ticket. Sadly for BMW, though, the 105-horsepower 1600-2ti could not pass the increasingly restrictive U.S. exhaust emission requirements.
It looked as if a high-performance BMW two-door just wouldn't make it to the United States, until BMW's American distributor made a suggestion: drop the 2-liter engine from the 2000 model into the 1600-2 chassis. Before you could say "hot rod" BMW did just that, and the 2002 was born.
For the American market, the combination was an inspiration. The compact two-door body combined with the reliable, torquey 100-horsepower two-liter proved to be an unbeatable package - so unbeatable, in fact, that soon after its introduction in 1968 the 1600-2ti was discontinued.
The car that was the epitome of the 2002 legend was introduced in 1972. Called the 2002tii, the sub-model was tweaked for even better (if sometimes more cantankerous) performance. The "tii" designation stood for "Touring International, injection." "Touring International" meant that the car was fitted for high performance. It had 5x13-inch wheels, beefed-up suspension components and significantly enlarged brakes.
"Injection" meant that the car was fitted with Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection as well as a higher (9.0:1) compression ratio and larger intake valves. All this boosted horsepower up to about 130, which stood it in excellent stead against the sport sedans of its era.
Before it was discontinued at the conclusion of the 1976 model year, the BMW 2002 became the prime example of what a German sport sedan should be. All that have come since are simply copies of the car that almost never was.