Curbside Classic: 1964 BMW 1800 Neue Klasse – The Car That Saved And Made BMW

(first posted 1/3/2012)     Risky business. That defines the car business, and never more succinctly so than in the case of this car. Rarely has a desperate last-minute gamble paid off so handsomely as the “Neue Klasse” BMW. The recent attempts to resuscitate Saab only brings that point home. Only in their wildest dreams (or hallucinations) could they have imagined turning their business around so quickly and definitively as this bold gamble of a car did for BMW. But having the guts and money to back the risk taking is only part of the equation. Most of all, it’s a matter of being at the right time with the right product, and having the smarts to recognize it. In 1962, the seemingly impossible wasn’t. Today? Good luck.

In 1959, BMW was about to be liquidated. It was then an unprofitable small maker of a very expensive large V8 sedan (502) and sports car (507), a tiny bubble-car (Isetta), and motorcycles. BMW was the very model of branding muddle, and it was crashing fast. Herbert Quandt’s family owned a 30% stake in BMW, and he was ready to throw in the towel too.

bmw 700_ls-luxus_1

There was one ray of hope, the new 700, which went into production in 1959. Based on the odd Isetta-based four-passenger 600, but with a smart new (and conventional) three-box body designed by the Italian firm Michelotti, the rear-engine 700 sedan and coupe offered something a bit different in the class dominated by the VW Beetle. It was smaller than the VW, and had only a two-cylinder boxer derived from BMW’s motorcycles, but it was sporty and appealing, to some, anyway.

The 700 didn’t sell in any significant numbers (181 k in six years), but it generated enough enthusiasm among BMW’s dealers and shareholders to vote down an effort by Deutsche Bank to sell BMW to Mercedes, essentially a liquidation.

Quandt decided to invest further in BMW. It may have been the 700 as well as the pleading objections of the workforce and dealers. But the critical factor was likely seeing the early drawings for this very car; well, strictly speaking, the smaller engined but otherwise identical 1500 model. So against the recommendation of his bankers and advisers, he increased his stake to 50%, thus financing the new mid-sized sedan to production. That bold gamble made his family one of the richest in the world. And this car created the whole modern BMW legacy, the proto-Bimmer. It’s the first, if not the ultimate driving machine.

That’s not to say that the BMW 1500/1800 was all that radically new in concept. It borrowed heavily from two other sedans that had identified a substantial niche for a family-sized sedan with sporting ambitions. Alfa Romeo had been at it since the mid-fifties with their popular Giulietta. But that wasn’t exactly mainstream family fare in Germany back then. But the Borgward Isabella (above) most certainly was.

Appearing in 1954, the Isabella was a very modern and highly regarded sedan with a lively OHC 1500 cc engine, and slotted in just below Mercedes’ solid but stolid 180. When the higher output (75 hp) TS model appeared in 1955, the formula for the future BMW 1500 crystallized: OHC four, independent suspension all-round, and a harmonious balance of performance, handling, room and affordability.

Unfortunately, the Isabella had early teething problems, and the unforgiving Germans punished Borgward. In 1961, Carl Borgward’s whole empire (including Lloyd) was forced into a highly controversial bankruptcy, because it turns out the firm may not really have been truly insolvent. There have even been rumors that the Quandts might have played a role in that.

Coincidentally, or not, the first BMW 1500 rolled off the lines in 1962, about the same time the last Isabellas were rolling off theirs. Borgward enjoyed a reincarnation in Latin America of sorts, but the new BMW was happily embraced back home. It hit the sweet spot, and just at the right time. Germany’s Wirtschftswunder was in high gear, and a growing number of VW owners were ready, willing and able to move up a step or two. The BMW 1500 was there to accommodate both their driving ambitions and family hauling requirements, given that the two-car family was still a distant concept.

The 1500 featured a family-friendly tall and boxy body, with plenty of room for Oma and the kids in back, and their luggage in the trunk. And of course, it featured the first use (on a BMW sedan) of that famous Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar that actually predates any BMW, having been seen at least as far back as the Kaiser. Neue Klasse styling certainly wasn’t particularly original, being another of so many copies of 1960 Corvair themes, except for that roof line and a few other details.

Suspension was by MacPherson struts in front, and semi-trailing arms in back, a formula BMW used as late as the nineties. And the over-square short-stroke SOHC hemi-head four was designed to accommodate future increases in size and power, although I doubt the engineers envisioned it putting out some 1500 horsepower in its turbocharged F1 evolution. Yes, that engine did use a block based on the production M10 engine, and won the 1983 GP championship.

The 1500 wasn’t exactly brimming with power, with all of 80 hp. Zero to sixty took some 15 seconds. But that was reasonably brisk compared to many cars of the times. And the engine was a masterpiece from the get-go, and revved happily to 6,000 rpm. But within a year, in 1963, the 1800 came along with bigger bore and a longer stroke to generate 90 hp. Its improved torque and all-round performance balance hit the right note, and quickly made the 1800 the most popular of the Neue Generation BMWs. A 1600 variant took over the weak-chested 1500 in ’64, and a more luxurious 2000 followed in 1966.

But the real fun started in 1964 with the 1800TI (touring international). Using a twin-carb setup and hotter cam developed by Alpina, it spun out 110 hp (124 SAE gross). And a racing-oriented 1800TI/SA with Weber side-drafts upped that to 130hp or more. The ad here says that 170 (SAE gross) was available with optional equipment. That’s highly impressive for the times. The whole sporting future of BMWs to come started with this 1800. And what a future that turned out to be.

I have noisy and vivid memories of these cars, riding in them and watching them race when I spent a long summer in Austria in 1969. The Bergrennen (mountain climbs) sent the 1800TI/SAs and their arch-rival Alfas tearing within reach of an outstretched hand through the tiny Alpine villages. No barriers of any kind; I can still feel my hair get blown by their draft, and the sound and smell of their hard-charging fours.

These Bimmers were ruggedly handsome, but not exactly graceful in the Italian idiom (which was largely defining beautiful cars at the time): mighty Germanic and a bit klunky. No wonder BMW had Michelotti style the smaller 1602/2002 a few years later. But they suited the needs of their time perfectly, offering maximum interior space for the least amount of weight and real estate. And they soldiered along until 1972, when their iconic successor, the 5 Series appeared. But the M10 engine stayed in production until 1987. The 2000 (above) was more commonly seen in the US. The US version had four headlights, and the Euro version large flush rectangular ones.

By 1963, the year the 1800 went into production, BMW was already well turned around, and paid its first dividend. And it’s never stopped. But anyone back then daring to imagine BMW someday outselling Mercedes would have been accused of having a psychotic event. Hallucinations, at the minimum.