BMW's Bergmeister

When it comes to building a race-winning hillclimber, a little genius goes a long way

May 31, 2012
BMW's Bergmeister 1
Then-owner Elliott Butler with the 700 RS at Hilton Head in 2012
BMW's Bergmeister 2
The 700 RS engine bay with its distinctive twin-fan M106.
BMW's Bergmeister 3
The 700 RS interior is as Spartan as they come.

What was that racket?!?

The half-mad banging and crashing sounded like a string of cherry bombs exploding in a garbage can. The gentry strolling the fields of the Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance stopped, looked at each other and rushed toward the noise. Was it a bank robbery? A gang war? Whatever, it was worth seeing.

I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve heard a BMW opposed twin motorcycle engine run with open exhausts. The sheer blam-bang! bam! of it is enough to stop Joan Rivers. It made me wonder why anyone in the earliest days of un-muffled two-cylinder horseless carriages would buy such a hellhound, much less climb aboard and make it move. By comparison, horse exhaust is elegant.

Of course, what was making this blam-bang! bam! was no horseless carriage. To the contrary, it was just 51 years old. And aside from the skull-numbing noise, it had reason to draw a crowd. In 1961, this BMW 700 RS Bergspyder was financially, corporately and philosophically radical. In those fraught times, BMW was on the ropes and had been for 16 desperate years since World War II.

Viewed another way, BMW was free to try whatever it wanted—it had nothing left to lose. With the 700 RS hillclimb car, the company was all in, betting the future on a courageous, imaginative racing gamble it would never have taken in safer times. This brave, brilliant little Bergspyder must capture the German public’s imagination…and sell some cars!

And if not for the RS, BMW’s first purpose-built racer since the war, today you might have no BMWs to buy and drive. You don’t believe that, I know. We’re spoiled gooey by the plethora of modern BMWs; in retrospect, it’s hard for us to imagine how close Munich came to slamming its doors. The Marshall Plan had helped Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen recover, but Bayerische Motoren Werke was going nowhere. It had produced a string of overmatched medium-sized sedans that were far too expensive for the home market, and it followed its Baroque Angels with the beautiful but dazzlingly irrelevant 507 super sports car and high-end 503 coupe, neither of which sold in substantial numbers. All that was keeping BMW afloat was a tiny, egg-shaped golf cart—the BMW-Isetta microcar.

Something had to change.

Also from Issue 108

  • Budget 135i Coupe and E92 M3 race cars
  • 25 Hours of Thunderhill 2011
  • BMW Technology helps Bryan Clay jump farther
  • Pressure sensitive: Non-U.S. M550d sedan
  • Buyer's Guide to the E36 325is, aka M3 Lite
  • MKO of Germany's wild V8-powered 2002
  • Baur 323i TC1 Cabriolet by Koko Manouelian
  • Before electric i cars, BMW built hydrogen 7
  • Monterey, Pebble Beach, Legends of Autobahn
  • BMW Wins Sebring! Jonathan Summerton
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