In the pantheon of influential figures throughout BMW’s first 100 years, Baron Alexander von Falkenhausen stands near the top. In 1934, he joined BMW’s factory motorcycle racing team as well as its engineering department, and he was working on the successor to the legendary 328 sports car when World War II intervened. When hostilities ended, he built his own race cars before rejoining the company in 1954 to improve the performance of the 507, among other projects.
Three years later, von Falkenhausen was BMW’s head of engine design, a position he held through 1975. As such, he designed the M10 four-cylinder that remained in production for an astonishing 26 years and the similarly long-lived M30 “big six.” Both engines were marked by smoothness and reliability, von Falkenhausen’s penchant for overengineering making them good for 300,000 miles—or even more—with proper maintenance.
Overengineering also makes it easy to improve an engine’s performance when you want to go racing, and von Falkenhausen’s engines formed the basis for successful race motors. As the M12, the humble M10 four even won a Formula One world championship in 1983.
BORN IN MUNICH in 1907, von Falkenhausen was riding (and modifying) motorcycles by age 17. He earned a degree from the Technical University of Munich in 1930 and started racing shortly after graduation, perhaps before. At right, he’s shown on his British-built 500cc Calthorpe alongside his future brother-in-law, Count Heinrich von der Mühle-Eckart. Note the knobby tires on both bikes: Von Falkenhausen excelled on dirt, joining BMW’s factory team in January 1934 and winning gold medals with the BMW factory team in the 1934, ’35 and ’37 International Six Days Trial. By May 1934, he was also a BMW engineer, and he designed BMW’s first rear suspension, the “plunger-style” sliding pillars that were tested on BMW’s race bikes and used on production bikes from 1938 to 1956.
LIKE SO MANY MOTORCYCLE RACERS of the prewar era, von Falkenhausen soon went racing on four wheels as well as two, inspired, perhaps, by BMW’s introduction of the sporty 315/1 roadster in 1935. He got one of the factory 315/1s that had raced in the Alpine Rally, and by 1936 he was entering it in rallies and races. In the photo below, he’s running the “Three States Valuation Race” with his equally motor-sport-mad wife Kitty in the passenger seat.
In 1939, von Falkenhausen traded up to a 328, which he described as “the real thing” for its race-ready handling and ample power. He drove it to victory in the under-2.0-liter class in the Paris-Nice rally and finished third in the Hamburg city park races..
WORLD WAR II interrupted von Falkenhausen’s racing career, as it did so many others in Europe. BMW shifted von Falkenhausen to airplane engines, then assigned him to develop the 750cc R 75 sidecar outfit for the German military. (Left) His testing duties included a journey to the Eastern Front in 1942 to evaluate its performance in the field; Ludvigsen reports that von Falkenhausen made it almost to Stalingrad before turning around, his engineer’s head full of ideas on how to protect the suspension and keep debris out of the air intake
Von Falkenhausen raced his AFM 47 Intertyp to the 1,500cc sports car championships in 1947 and ’48, the year the photo below was taken, then built his first single-seater for 1949. He won with his AFM 49 F2 at the Norisring, but more importantly let Hans Stuck have a go in it. Stuck was so impressed that he ordered one of his own, making von Falkenhausen a constructor as well as a racer. How good was the AFM 49? Good enough to let Stuck beat the Ferraris of Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio in the Italian GP at Monza in 1950.
DESPITE THE TECHNICAL EXCELLENCE of his cars, von Falkenhausen’s AFM operation was chronically underfunded. Let down by investors, he ran out of money and closed up shop in 1952. He continued racing and rallying his 328, DNF’ing the Munich-Riem race, racing to an unknown position at Avus and winning his class in the Austrian Alpine Rally before selling it to Joseph Hilton of Hoboken, New Jersey in late 1953 or 1954. (If anyone knows what became of Hilton’s 328, please let us know!)
In addition to #70003, von Falkenhausen also modified 507 #70145 for hillclimb racing, and his old friend Hans Stuck drove it to seven wins in 1959.
BMW DIDN’T BUILD any truly race-worthy cars in the early years of von Falkenhausen’s return, and in the absence of his faithful 328 he and Kitty went rallying instead, using whatever happened to be available. In the photo above, he’s driving a 502 sedan in the 1955 Austrian Alpine Rally with Kitty navigating; the von Falkenhausens finished second in their class. He also raced the 502 to a class win at the Wallberg hillclimb that year.
THE ARRIVAL OF BMW’S 700 COUPE gave von Falkenhausen a sportier car to rally and race. In the photo below, he’s drifting a 700 around a corner on the Crbo pass in Yugoslavia during a hillclimb race in 1960; he’d also drive in the Grand Canary rally that year, winning the sedan class. Von Falkenhausen also became the first driver ever to roadrace a 700 when he entered one in the Pferdsfeld Races in March 1960, and he’d race a 700 to second in class at the Norisring that September. He kept racing the 700 (and its RS derivative) through 1964, winning the Coupe de Salon in 1962 and the sport-prototype class at Neubiberg in 1964. Von Falkenhausen was 57 years old, but he wasn’t done yet!
HE’D BEEN IN CHARGE of BMW’s engine development since 1957, and he designed the M10 engine that was destined to become a mainstay of BMW’s production-car lineup. In typical von Falkenhausen fashion, the M10 was overengineered, which allowed it to serve reliably as the basis for BMW’s Formula 2 engines. The first of these used the innovative but complex cylinder head designed by Ludwig Apfelbeck atop a 2.0-liter M10 block. The engine was installed in a Brabham BT7 F2 chassis, and von Falkenhausen was the first to take it for a drive on BMW’s in-house test track.
The records were short lived, and when he failed in his attempt to defend them against Carlo Abarth at Monza that December, he hung up his helmet for good. He was 59 years old, and he’d stay on as head of BMW’s engine department for another nine years before retiring in 1975 as BMW’s oldest employee.
EVEN IN HIS RETIREMENT, von Falkenhausen remained an enthusiastic supporter of BMW’s racing activities, turning up in his familiar Motorsport jacket to cheer on the F2 and sports car teams led by Paul Rosche, his successor as head of the racing engine department, as well as his son-in-law, BMW factory driver Dieter Quester. He took long drives around Europe with Kitty, went boating in the Adriatic and skied enthusiastically, as well.