Things were not going well in Munich. These were the worst years in its history. In fact, BMW was rapidly approaching the company’s final collapse in the 1950s: while motorbike production reached a new record high in 1952, production figures declined more significantly in the following years than they had increased in the late 1940s.
In an attempt to improve sales, BMW built a prototype of a new small car in 1950, taking over the lines of the pre-war BMW 327 and the 600 cc twin-cylinder engine so popular at the time. But the project was later scrapped for economic reasons.
After launching the Isetta in 1954 in an attempt to ameliorate the company’s severe crisis, BMW soon realised that this bubble car was too small for the new customers, who, as a result of the “German economic miracle” of the late 1950s expected much more from their new car. Therefore, those spartan “super-minis” were already outdated, with customers demanding a longer wheelbase and more comfort.
At the same time, the automotive industry was booming, and production in West Germany increased by a third in 1955 alone. Introducing new models, BMW sought to jump on the bandwagon, the BMW 600, a slightly longer Isetta with its twin engine in the rear, intended to meet the demand for a genuine four-seater. But again, the BMW 600 proved to be a failure, customers not accepting the concept with the door at the front of the car.
In search of a solution, the Development Division initially tried for economic reasons to build a conventional small car using as many parts as possible from the BMW 600. The wheelbase was extended to 1,900 mm by adding additional front and rear sections, and the front seats were moved back to provide convenient access to the car from behind the wheel arches. But it soon became clear that without a further extension of the car’s wheelbase space for the rear seats would be very limited. At the same time, the rapid weight gain resulting from the car’s longer wheelbase was another problem, along with the poor seating arrangement.
The attempt to modify the frame and structure of the BMW 600 and meet modern demands proved to be impossible. BMW then decided to look for a more promising solution by reconfiguring the entire body design and structure.
Chassis and suspension transferred from BMW 600.
Despite this decision, the BMW engineers did not want to completely forgo the proven parts and components of the BMW 600 in the development of their new model. They therefore decided to modify the front axle of the BMW 600 with its longitudinal swing arms to achieve a uniform wheel path and camber and to transfer the concept to the new BMW small car, naturally with appropriate reinforcements to meet the increased demands of the new model.
The engineers also took over the rear wheel suspension, which supported the car’s steering depending on cornering acceleration and counteracted any tendency to oversteer. Other features inherited from the BMW 600 were the fully synchronised four-speed transmission and differential and, of course, the engine originally used in BMW motorbikes and now increased in size from 600 to 700 cc.
The crucial point now was to unite this technology in a vehicle suitable for both the market and the requirements of the future. At the end of 1957, i.e. before the BMW 600 went on sale, the new BMW Board of Management had already asked the Development Division to develop and build a conventional small car in collaboration with an Italian designer.
In July 1958, Wolfgang Denzel, an engineer and BMW importer in Vienna, proudly presented his new Michelotti-designed model in Starnberg, south of Munich. The decision in favour of this concept was made in October 1958, allowing BMW to create both a coupé and a sedan at series production level as an in-house development.
Under the guidance of Wilhelm Hofmeister, who was responsible for the famous Hofmeister crease, BMW’s designers turned this draft into two models, a two-door sedan and a coupé.
The first BMW with a monocoque body.
In addition to its new design, the BMW 700 offered another surprising feature: it was the first BMW with a monocoque body. And the reason for introducing this new technology was clear: “At first you might think that in this way we were abandoning an old principle that goes back many years within the Company. But our calculators quickly showed us that a monocoque could save around 30 kg of weight, lower the entire car by 60-70 mm (2.4-2.8″) and streamline the production process, with the appropriate cost benefits”.
On 9 June 1959, the BMW Board of Management under the leadership of its CEO Dr. Heinrich Richter-Brohm made a grand presentation of the new BMW 700 Coupé, the first model of the new series, to some 100 international motoring journalists in Feldafing near Munich, at the same location where some two years earlier they had first seen the not so fortunate BMW 600.
The designers and engineers did a great job in lightening the car, which reduced the weight to less than 600 kg or 1,323 lbs despite the car’s overall length of 3,540 mm, thus providing the qualities required for good acceleration and performance.
Compared to the BMW 600, the wheelbase was 25 percent longer, but the weight increase was only 14.5 percent. And despite its low height of just 1,270 mm, the Coupé and doors measuring 93 cm wide had an unusually comfortable entry for a car in this class.
Contoured to fit the human body, the front seats with ventilated upholstery were adjustable even while driving and came with backrests that moved to four different angles. The backrest in the rear, in turn, folded down when necessary, as in the BMW 600, allowing the driver and passengers to carry bulky objects.
Same space and dynamic performance as the BMW 326.
The front luggage compartment with its conveniently flat floor was able to accommodate two standard-sized suitcases, along with some smaller bags. The fuel tank was under the boot, perfectly protected by the spare wheel standing in front, offering a capacity of 30 litres plus three litres reserve, enough for approximately 500 kilometres, as, according to the fuel consumption standards applicable at the time, the BMW 700 had a fairly contained consumption of around six litres per 100 kilometres.
Developing a maximum power output of 30 hp at 5,000 rpm, the Coupé’s two-cylinder engine reached a top speed of 125 km.
The BMW 700 was the direct competitor to the VW Beetle, which was initially cheaper, and appealed primarily to the driver who wanted to stand out from the crowd. In fact, as a result of high demand, customers had to wait several months for delivery of their car. With BMW selling more than 35,000 units in 1960, the BMW 700 accounted for approximately 58 percent of the Company’s total revenue.
Born for motor racing: the BMW 700 Coupé.
The sporting qualities of the BMW 700 Coupé were evident from the very beginning, shortly after the start of production in July 1959: the first coupés were seen on the track before the end of the year, for example in the Sahara-Lappland. In 1960, the fast BMW Coupé brought home gold medals and titles, and Hans Stuck once again won the German Mountain Climbing Championship at the wheel of a BMW 700 at the age of 60.
This created great demand among many customers for an even more powerful engine, which led BMW to produce the BMW 700 Sport, which with its two-cylinder boxer engine now developed 40 hp at 5,700 rpm.
This sports package was supplemented by an optional sports gearbox and an even stiffer suspension with firmer dampers and an anti-roll torsion bar. The engine, in turn, was sufficient to accelerate to 100 km/h in just under 20 seconds and a top speed of 135 km/h (135 mph).
This “sport” version of the BMW 700 quickly became a legend in the early 1960s, particularly in motor racing, and was praised by motoring fans. And indeed, at the time, the car featured some exciting duels against competitors from Steyr-Puch and Abarth.
BMW quickly added further versions to the range, making the BMW 700 even more successful: following the BMW 700, the company introduced the BMW 700 De Luxe in February 1961, with the same technical equipment but with an even higher level of equipment. The most exclusive model in the BMW 700 range launched at the same time was the BMW 700 Convertible, bodied by the Baur Coachbuilding Company of Stuttgart, which reinforced the car’s load-bearing elements and redesigned the rear end. A simple and straightforward roof mechanism made open-air driving a real pleasure, especially as the 700 Convertible came as standard with the most powerful engine, the BMW 700 Sport.
In total, sales of the BMW 700 amounted to 190,000 units in the year 1965, more than fulfilling its expectations, giving BMW new hope and successfully pulling the company out of the crisis.