Baroque Beauty

A recent restoration has returned this 501 V8 to as-new condition, providing a rare window onto an oddly unsuccessful chapter in BMW’s history.

April 6, 2010

Also from Issue 91

  • E84 X1 xDrive20d road test
  • Buyer’s Guide: E46, E90 3 Series
  • F10 550i GT road test
  • Rolls-Royce Ghost first drive
  • Nowack R56 MINI Cooper RS
  • George Lioudis’ E36 328i
  • Shanon Essex’ E9 2800 CS
  • Marc Ghafouri’s orange 2002
  • F01 750Li & E92 335i xDrive road test
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Strange as it may seem to those whose acquaintance with BMWs extends back no further than, say, the 1500- and 1800-series cars of the 1960s and early 1970s, the company once seemed likely to become the automotive equivalent of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. The Indians, to the dismay of their fans and the derision of their detractors, have managed only a pair of World Series championships in 94 years of trying (in 1920 and 1948, if you’re keeping score). One wonders what has driven them to keep taking the field over all those dry seasons.

BMW’s somewhat similar but fortunately shorter bid for perennial loserhood began, appropriately enough, at the end of World War II, when virtually all of Germany’s industry lay in ruins. Though quite a few of that nation’s successful prewar automobile manufacturers (and a few new players) rose from the ashes, many would soon be assimilated into larger concerns or simply fail altogether. For some years, BMW seemed almost as certain to vanish as did Lloyd, NSU, Borgward and others.

Strike One for BMW, to continue the baseball metaphor, was the luxurious, costly 501.

It’s not that these big BMW sedans were bad cars—not at all. In fact, given the conditions of their creation and production, they were far better than they had a right to be. But it would be almost impossible to name a car more out-of-step with the economic realities of its time and place. It didn’t matter if the 501 was the dream car of millions of German drivers and the envy of some rivals. It was, in a word, unaffordable, and building cars no one can buy is a prime step down the road to oblivion, not the way to win the Big Game.

An inexplicable appeal

Nonetheless, BMW has to be given points for sheer tenacity. Once the 501 was approved, it had an 11-year production run. It was marketed under a bewildering variety of model numbers, 15 in all, but in essence remained more or less the same machine in 1963 as it had been in 1952. The 501 was the basic car, offered at first with a somewhat anemic six-cylinder engine.

Later, a more powerful six and two V8s would become available, as well as a supplemental model, the 502 introduced in 1954. The 502 was essentially what would be called an “options package” for the 501 in Detroit-ese, differing primarily in its fancier interior furnishings, some of which were available for the 501, as well, and in being strictly V8-powered.

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