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.

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April 6, 2010

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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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.

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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.

He spent countless hours hunting down parts, and when some original parts proved impossible to find, he simply had them made, such as the plated knobs that replaced the original ivory dashboard switch knobs. The worn original steering wheel was covered by a lace-on skin, and the deteriorated factory upholstery—which Perez describes as a “velour” material—was supplanted by leather, though all stitching was done in proper factory style.

Victor Rivera (Cypress, California) did the body and paint, Little John’s Interiors (Costa Mesa) fitted the upholstery and Michael Finch did most of the assembly work. Together, they produced something very close to a show car restoration; indeed, it has taken home eight trophies from the nine shows it has entered since being put back on the road two years ago. What’s more, this 501 gives its owner great pleasure on the special occasions when it is driven. Perez is as impressed by the car as the original road test writers were, and he enjoys making it—and himself—available for family limo-and-chauffeur duties.

Perez’s next goal is to get the 501 accepted for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. That’s a tall order even when the car’s inherent interest value and general condition are considered. He knows some elements of the restoration will have to be refined before the BMW will be invited to appear on the golf course at Monterey; details done to the owner’s satisfaction may not meet with the approval of concours judges.

Extroverted, yet practical

If this 501 was fortunate to end up in the hands of a sympathetic owner, the rest of its kind are lucky to have been built at all. In 1948, when the 501/502 saga began, BMW’s Munich factories had been given over to the making of cooking pots and agricultural tools, things Germans needed for bare survival. That a new car of any kind was thought feasible seems, in hindsight, overly optimistic. Operating capital was scarce, as was usable factory space: Much of BMW’s prewar auto manufacturing capacity lay out of reach in the Soviet-occupied zone. It’s worth noting that the Russians in Eisenach eventually did what the Munich people first thought of doing, which was to put prewar designs back in production.

That was made easier, of course, by the fact that the Russians had the plans and the tooling as well as the factory. Lacking any of those things, BMW’s Munich management decided to swing for the fences and build a new car, a proper four-door sedan suitable for industrialists, celebrities and high-level government officials. That such individuals were then in rather short supply was either overlooked (unlikely) or expected to change. In either case, BMW decided to gamble on Germany’s speedy recovery.

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BMW made maximum use of available resources. Even without the engineering drawings or tooling, the company was able to adapt some prewar components—as well as what remained of its aircraft engine facility—to the new car, including a six-cylinder powerplant last seen in the 1939 326. Displacing 1,911cc and developing 65 horsepower, this was not the complex and powerful unit that went on to a second life in England as the Bristol engine, but a simpler design better suited to the situation.

The suspension was also derived in large part from existing designs but used torsion bars rather than coils as the springing medium. Along with a four-speed manual ZF gearbox mounted remotely from the engine and controlled by a lever on the steering column, these parts were installed on a simple, rugged chassis made up of longitudinal box-sections tied together by large transverse tubes.

The steel semi-unit body—which bolted to the chassis even though most automakers had already adopted unit construction—was designed in-house under the direction of Wilhelm Meyerhuber. The first three prototype bodies were supplied by Reutter, but the manufacture of series production 501 sheet metal was initially entrusted to the Baur firm in Stuttgart. Baur continued to supply finished shells through 1955, when BMW started making these parts in-house, and it would also build a series of coupe and cabriolet bodies for the 501 and 502.

By specifying light alloy for bumpers, trim, window frames and more, BMW kept the 501’s curb weight to roughly 3,000 pounds. Though reasonably compact (measuring exactly the same 186 inches stem to stern as the contemporary Mercedes-Benz 220), the 501 looked massive thanks to its voluptuously curved shape. Well decorated with bright trim and lights set into plated housings, it earned the nickname “Baroque Angel” in Germany. Had he painted cars instead of women, Peter Paul Rubens would have delighted in the 501’s form. Odd from some angles, striking from most, it was, and remains, distinctive.

Extroverted as it was, the 501’s design was also practical. The four doors—with the rear pair hinged at the back—allowed easy access to the roomy cabin, and the humped rear deck lid covered a generous cargo space. Glass area was unusually large for a car of the early 1950s, as well, affording almost unobstructed views from the driver and passenger seats.

Oddly enough, the interior displayed the most obviously low-rent aspects of the 501. Simple, painted-metal dashboards weren’t all that unusual in the early 1950s, but this one was remarkably plain for a high-class machine. The seats were covered in cloth, while the front floorboards were topped by rubber floormats. Rear-seat passengers rested their feet on what one British magazine unappetizingly called “hair-cloth” carpet. No power assists were provided unless the optional Becker radio was fitted, in which case its antenna was raised and lowered electrically.

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Eventually, an expensive export

When the prototype 501s made their debut at the 1951 Frankfurt Motor Show, reactions were apparently positive, but they were not accompanied by a flood of orders. Still, production got underway in 1952, and the company sold enough 501s to subject the design to continued development. In 1954, the “plain” 501 was superseded by the 501A, with its engine massaged to produce 72 hp, and the identical but even more Spartan 501B.

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.

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
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