BMW has built a reputation for innovation, high-quality design, and luxury appeal over the last century. The marque also holds a proud history of success in motorsports, with victories across the globe in motorcycle and car racing. Founded by engine manufacturer Karl Rapp and aircraft maker Gustav Otto, Bayerische Motoren Werke – known worldwide as BMW – is now one of the most renowned luxury brands across both car and motorcycle markets.
But BMW today is far more than just the BMW brand. BMW Group also owns other premium marques Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and MINI, along with John Cooper Works, a motorsports sub-brand of MINI. The company has also extended its own BMW brand to include sub-brands BMW M, BMW I, and BMW Motorrad, and created a series of other non-manufacturing companies including Alphabet, Digital Energy Solutions, BMW Group Financial Services, and Designworks.
Let’s take a look at how it all unfolded for this prestigious car and motorcycle maker.
1916: The airplane engine manufacturer Flugmaschinenfabrik Gustav Otto merges into Bayerische Flugzeug-Werke AG (BFW) on March 7. The company goes on to produce the first aircraft engine with aluminum pistons. The BMW IIIA is designed as a straight-six engine for high altitudes.
1917: The Rapp Motorenwerke company, a manufacturer of airplane engines, becomes Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH (later transitioning to an AG company in 1918). The iconic BMW logo is designed.
1922: BMW AG transfers its company and brand to BFW. The company relocates to Munich’s Oberwiessenfeld airfield, where the headquarters and main plant of the BMW Group remain today.
1923: BMW announces the R 32, its first motorcycle and the first complete vehicle the company would produce (up until now it had only manufactured engines). The design of this original BMW Motorrad model is still used in today’s BMW motorcycles. It features a boxer engine with longitudinally positioned cylinders and shaft drive.
1928: BMW purchases auto maker Fahzeugfabrik Eisenach. The first small car is built the following year under license from the Austin Motor Company. The 3/15 PS is the first vehicle to display the BMW marque.
1932: The first automobile both designed and built by BMW is launched – the 3/20 PS.
1935: BMW introduces two new motorcycles with the world’s first hydraulically-damped telescopic forks. The R 12 and the R17 are presented at the German Motor Show.
1936: BMW launches the most successful sports car of the second half of the decade, the BMW 328.
1940: BMW is requisitioned as an armaments and war materials manufacturer during World War II. Its operations become devoted wholly to aircraft engine production.
1942: Convicts, forced laborers, prisoners of war, and concentration camp prisoners are forced to work at BMW. The BMW group is “painfully aware of the great human suffering caused by this, and deeply regrets the fate of the forced laborers”.
1945: As BMW is classified as an armaments company, the BMW plants are commandeered by the Allies at the end of WWII. BMW plants are dismantled and the company survives manufacturing household appliances.
1948: The first post-war BMW vehicle is produced. The R 24 motorcycle is an improved version of the original R 23 and becomes a huge seller for the company with 9,144 sold the following year.
1952: BMW introduces the 501, a luxury six-seater saloon with a six-cylinder engine. The car is not a commercial success, but it restores the company’s position as a high-end car manufacturer.
1954: BMW presents the type 502, the first model with an aluminum V8 engine for series production.
1959: BMW is plagued by financial concerns during the 1950’s, and Daimler-Benz makes an offer on the company in 1959. This is rejected by shareholders and the workforce, who believe in the BMW 700 being rolled out. This prompts Herbert Quandt to increase his share, which along with temporary assistance from the government, is instrumental in the company’s recovery. The company is also restructured and Quandt is placed in charge.
1961: The BMW 1500 is introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The sporty, four-door sedan fills a gap in the market and it becomes a huge success with orders outstripping production. The company is soon back in the black.
1967: Having reached full capacity with its current operations, BMW is looking to expand. Although the company initially plans to construct new plants, the purchase of struggling auto manufacturer Hans Glas GmbH with facilities in Dingolfing and Landshut becomes the solution.
1969: BMW Motorrad production is moved from Munich to Berlin-Spandau to make room for expanded automobile production.
1970: Eberhard von Kuenheim becomes BMW Group CEO. He holds the top position until 1993.
1971: BMW creates a subsidiary company to provide finance for the dealerships and the company’s transactions called BWM Kredit GmbH. The finance company remains a big part of the business today
1972: BMW opens a plant in Pretoria, South Africa. It is the first production facility outside of Germany.
1973: The new administration building, BMW Tower in north Munich, is officially opened after three years of construction. It is a unique, high-rise suspension building designed with four pillars, which is dubbed “the four-cylinder building”.
1979: BMW enters a venture with Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG to create BMW Steyr Motoren Gesellschaft with a plant in Steyr, Austria. BMW goes on to take on sole responsibility in 1982, changing the name to BMW Motoren GmbH, Steyr. The first diesel power unit is produced here and today it is the diesel technology competence center.
1983: BMW launches their first BMW diesel car, the 524TD.
1985: BMW establishes a think-tank named BMW Technik GmbH to develop concepts for future production. The Z1 Roadster is one of the first major projects for the Technik group.
1986: To centralize research and development activities, BMW opens a Research and Innovation Center in Munich.
1987: A plant is opened in Regensburg to meet the growing demand for the BMW3 series and to reduce the burden on the Munich plant.
1988: BMW teams up with FAG and Hella to develop the first ABS braking system for series-produced motorcycles.
1991: The first electric BMW, the BMW E1, is presented at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
1994: The first plant in the United States opens in Spartanburg, SC, designed specifically for production of the BMW Z3 Roadster. BMW buys the Rover Group from British Aerospace. The deal includes car brands Land Rover, Rover, MG, MINI, and Triumph. It is not a success, however, with BMW selling all brands except for MINI in 2000.
1998: BMW purchases the brand and naming rights for Rolls-Royce, although the company is held by Volkswagen until 2002. BMW gains full rights for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars the next year and builds a plant and new headquarters for Rolls-Royce in Goodwood, United Kingdom.
1999: BMW creates a new market with their next concept vehicle, the X5 crossover. The all-wheel-drive off-roader is revealed at the Detroit Auto Show.
2001: The first new Mini is introduced, making it the first premium car in the small-car market. BMW also becomes the first car manufacturer to develop a fully-variable valve lift system. The VALVETRONIC engine is fitted in the BMW 316ti.
2003: The Phantom is the first model built at the Goodwood Rolls-Royce production plant, which retains the tradition of making each car individually.
2004: The compact 1 series is launched in Europe.
2011: BMW works with Sixt AG to launch a car-sharing service called DriveNow. It is introduced first in Munich, then extended to Hamburg and Berlin in Germany, and San Francisco in the United States. Today it is offered under the brand BMW i.
2013: The first all-electric i3 electric vehicle is introduced.
If you want to learn more, head over to the BMW main corporate website. There’s a wealth of information about the company and their history to be found here – and you can even watch time lapse videos of the production of a BMW, BMW I and MINI. There are also links to a host of dedicated sites to their other brands, classics, motorsports and much more.