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Not for nothing have BMWs been declared "The Ultimate Driving Machine" in company advertising. Fact is, not many automakers have established a reputation for rear-wheel-drive performance to match-or even approach-that of BMW. By the 1990s, BMW was almost synonymous with upscale driving pleasure, having become a favorite of "yuppies" (young urban professionals) of that era.
Back in the teens, before World War I, BMW was a supplier of aircraft engines. Karl Friedrich Rapp founded Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works) in 1913, at Munich, Germany. By 1918, with war's end drawing closer, the company name changed to BMW AG. During the 1920s, BMW-which evolved from a group of separate firms-assembled British Austin Sevens for the German market.
During the Thirties, BMW produced a series of legendary sports cars. Each wore the blue/white round emblem that would become familiar in the U.S. years later. First was the 3/20 series, made in 1932-34. Next, the Type 303, built on a tubular space frame with a six-cylinder engine and the first "twin-kidney" grille-a style that would later become most familiar to BMW owners.
Best-known of the prewar BMWs was the rakish two-seat Type 328 roadster, which arrived in 1936, wearing a streamlined body with cutaway doors. Powered by an overhead-cam 2-liter engine, a Type 328 quickly won the famed Nurburgring race.
During the early postwar period, automobiles weren't part of the BMW picture. Instead, the company concentrated on motorcycles-often dubbed "gentlemen's" two-wheelers. Not until 1952 did the first automobile enter production: the 501 sedan. That was followed by a 502 model with a 2.6-liter V-8 engine. Later in the Fifties came a stylish 503 coupe and cabriolet, along with the car that gave BMW its foremost early acclaim: the 507 sports car, wearing a body designed by Count Albrecht Graf Goertz. Barely more than 250 were built.
What gave BMW an entry point into mass-market manufacture was the tiny egg-shaped Isetta, which was built under license from its Italian developer. Quite a few Isettas made it to America as part of the craze for small imported cars in the late 1950s and `60s.
After a threatened takeover by Daimler-Benz, BMW elected to move into conventional-sized automobiles, rather than continue with microcars. The compact 1500 arrived in 1962, followed by a succession of similarly-numbered sedans. Model designations indicated the approximate engine displacement (in cubic centimeters). Soon, T.I. (Touring Internationale) versions joined the lineup, adding more of a sporting nature, beginning with the 1800ti.
BMW of North America was formed in 1974. Sales began to soar, helped by BMW's growing reputation for quality as well as performance. A 2000 series led to the first 3 Series model. Then came a bigger 6 Series coupe, along with the midsize 5 Series sedan and the posh 7 Series. BMW even issued an M1 supercar in 1978, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. In 1991, BMW added a large 8 Series coupe with a V-12 engine.
Returning to the sports-car fold, BMW launched the Z3 roadster in 1996, replacing it with a larger Z4 model in 2003. A 6 Series coupe was revived in 2004, along with a convertible-the first U.S. 6 Series coupe since 1990. Meanwhile, BMW had joined the SUV race with its midsize X5, followed in 2004 by a smaller X3. Later came a shapely X6 crossover SUV. Alpina editions of the 7 Series captured affluent buyers starting in 2007.
A handful of hybrids have joined the BMW fold in recent years, mainly based on the larger sedans. In 2008, BMW launched a new 1 Series, a bit smaller than the ever-popular 3 Series but less costly and with similar performance features. Today, BMW's holdings also include Mini and Rolls-Royce.
As more upscale folks bought "Bimmers" during the 1980s and `90s, that nickname wasn't always viewed favorably. Some felt BMW ownership signified an overly-affluent person, too concerned with image. Most of that stigma has disappeared, as both serious enthusiasts and ordinary motorists recognize the undeniable performance/handling talents of what may still be that "Ultimate Driving Machine."