Baroque Beauty

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That V8 powerplant put BMW into a rare category. Such engines were common enough among U.S. cars in the mid-1950s, but the only other European sedan so equipped was the Simca “Vedette,” a slower and much less expensive machine. It hardly needs to be said that the French car was less refined, too, since its engine was a derivative of the 1932 Ford “flathead” unit, scaled down for use in the British and French markets.

What the 501 was not—as became apparent after some time spent with our feature car, David Perez’ 1956 501 V8—was one of those rare machines now considered “ahead of its time.” In most respects, it was resoundingly contemporary, and a cynic (that would be me) might well regard it as the world’s best 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. Considering that BMW accomplished this without General Motors’ financial and manufacturing resources—and indeed improved on the basic concept—was an impressive feat, to say the least.

Perez has owned this example since 1978, but even now he can’t quite describe the appeal it held for him. A contractor in Southern California and self-described “one-car guy,” he discovered the 501 when it belonged to an employee who had put a photo of the BMW on his office wall, where Perez found it hard to ignore. The employee had plans to restore it but ultimately decided to sell rather than rehabilitate, at which point Perez simply (and perhaps impulsively) bought it.

Nothing is known of the Perez car’s early life, though it appears to have been privately imported to the U.S. The instruments are marked in German (“öldruck” for oil pressure, “wasser” for water temperature, etc.) and calibrated in metric units. In Germany, it would have sold for DM 17,850 in 1956, or about $4,260, slightly less than the cheapest Cadillac at a time when that marque represented “the standard of the world.”

Before Perez took ownership, the car was partially dismantled and its 2.6-liter V8 engine removed. After the title transfer, it was moved to Perez’s garage, where, as he says, “I took a long time to get serious about it.”

The process nearly ended before it really began. Engine reassembly was entrusted to a shop in which Perez had confidence. Sadly, the chosen mechanic had fallen on hard financial times and was visited by creditors who removed numerous items from his shop. Among the bits and pieces taken were new parts acquired for the BMW powerplant. Discouraged, Perez put the 501’s completion on the back burner for several more years.

In time, the process resumed. After a lot of thought, Perez entrusted elements of the work to various shops, learned a few lessons—“I could tell you some horror stories,” he says, though it’s clear he doesn’t want to—and eventually assembled the right mix of people to get his 501 finished to the desired level of quality.

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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