Baroque Beauty

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Not long after, the 502 was introduced. It had the same chassis, body and suspension but carried BMW’s all-new 2.6-liter V8, rated at 100 hp. Curiously, this was quickly joined in the showrooms by a 95-hp 501 V8 like the one seen here. Another option, the same V8 bored out to 3.2 liters, arrived in 1955; in final 160-hp form, it was the powerplant used in the 3200 S version of 1963.

In 501 V8 form (the “six” vanished after 1958), BMW’s cushy new sedan was sent off into export markets. Converted to right-hand drive and given a floor-mounted shift lever, it was warmly received in Great Britain. Unlike the six-cylinder version, the V8 was a genuine 100-mph touring car, and it impressed testers not only with its overall performance but with exceptional ride quality and refinement. All who tested it remarked on the engine’s silence, even at elevated speeds, and judged the car’s materials and assembly first-rate.

Considering BMW’s minimal U.S. presence back then, it should come as no surprise that only one magazine on this side of the Atlantic got into a Baroque Angel. Motor Trend’s evaluation must have been conducted with some restraint, as its 502 was borrowed from a private owner who reportedly paid some $7,300 for it, a little less than twice what he would have put out for a similar Mercedes-Benz. Motor Trend’s test 502—which was equipped with the same 2.6-liter V8 as the 501— reached 60 mph from rest in 13.7 seconds, topped out at 103 mph and returned 22 mpg overall fuel economy, all of which were better than average at the time.

The Perez 501 confirms what test drivers in the 1950s liked about the big BMW, with the usual reservations based on progress made in automotive design, equipment and manufacture during the last half-century. The seats are comfortable and throne-like but a little too high for tall passengers, whose heads will rub the headliner in any of the four seats. The engine is as quiet as claimed, at least after it has warmed up, and performance is more than acceptable.

Few cars of the day ride as smoothly, though the 501 is prone to wallowing over dips and body lean is prodigious, even at low speeds. When a few almost laughable hazards are set aside—the front passenger’s grab handle, which looks like a plated towel rack, is perfectly sited to be struck by said passenger’s head during a panic stop, and the dash-top ashtray’s chrome lid reflects mightily in the windshield—the overall impression is of solidity and quality.

In the end, however, the 501 and 502 simply grew too old to merit further development. They must have been very expensive to manufacture, given the amount of hand assembly required, and they never achieved the sales goals the company surely set for them. Hopes of high-profile roles with the West German government never materialized, either, as Mercedes-Benz remained the choice for Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his people. BMW’s production figures state that just 8,941 501s and 12,851 502s—a total of 21,792 Baroque Angels—were produced by the time the line stopped for good in 1963.

Despite the car’s retrospective charm, BMW didn’t really hit an automotive home run until the 1500 put it on a winning streak that began in 1962 and continues to this day. (The Cleveland Indians have never enjoyed such a turnaround.) Still, few BMWs, new or old, can match the 501/502 for style and elegance. It’s a pity so few are seen today, a lament that goes double for the Baur coupes and cabriolets. Despite their lackluster performance in the marketplace, they embody the attributes BMW owners have come to expect while representing a special and wonderful period in German automotive design.

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