Curbside Classic: 1964 BMW 1800 “New Class” – The Tesla Model S Of Its Time

curbside BMW 1800 shot by William Oliver

For some time now I’ve been grappling with the question as to what is the best historical parallel to Tesla. Tesla is a completely new company, highly unique in being an all-EV car company and pioneering a radical new electronic architecture and assisted-driving features. Its sales and brand image are exploding, seriously challenging the existing premium brands including BMW. Its market capitalization has now surpassed both BMW and Mercedes.

This is historically unprecedented; to the best of my knowledge no car company has ever had such rapid growth in the post-war era, whether due to completely new technology or without it.  The best I can come up with is BMW; specifically the New Class (“Neue Klasse”) cars that arrived in 1962. The 1500/1800/2000 sedans spawned all the modern BMWs since, and as such is analog to the Tesla Model S. And the smaller, cheaper and vastly better-selling BMW 1602/2002/3 Series that followed it is of course analog to the Tesla Model 3. BMW it is.

When I first saw these shots of this superb survivor BMW 1800 posted at the Cohort by William Oliver, I knew I had to use them. My first though was to replace the ones in my article of an 1800, because they’re better. But then I started to re-read that CC, which I first wrote in March of 2010 at the other site, and I realized how out of date and incorrect it now was.

Incorrect? Out of date? How could an article on a car built over 50 years ago become that?

Here’s how I opened that article:

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 of 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 2010, it was inconceivable to imagine a new start up car company exploding on the scene and becoming a success on the scale of BMW, or even less.

If someone had told me back in 2010 that in 2018 Tesla would be threatening to beat BMW in sales, I would have thought they were…Elon Musk. In the fourth quarter of 2010, Tesla celebrated delivering its 1,500th Roadster ever built. Tesla looked like it was going to be an EV Lotus or such.

In the third quarter of 2018, Tesla delivered almost 70,000 cars in the US alone; that compares to 71,685 by BMW. Given the momentum, it’s almost inevitable that Tesla will beat BMW in the fourth quarter, with just three models compared to BMW’s…eighteen. Who could have predicted that?

And who would have predicted that the Model S would outsell the BMW 7 Series, the Mercedes S Class and the Audi A8 in Europe, for two years running now (2017 and 2018)?

If we want to push the analogy a bit further, we could say that BMW’s superb 507 Roadster was the analog to the Tesla Roadster, but the parallels are pretty tenuous at best, as the 507 was actually one of the cars in BMW’s late 50s portfolio that almost sunk it. But it’s an excuse to relish it one more time.

Here’s the other two cars in BMW portfolio in 1959, when it was about to be liquidated by Deutsche Bank. Has a carmaker ever tried to cover such two extreme opposite ends of the market? It was a failing strategy.

But we can make a surprisingly good analogy between Herbert Quandt and Elon Musk. Quandt was a 30% owner of BMW stock in the 1950s, and almost saw that go down the tubes with a threatened liquidation. But when he was shown initial drawings of the proposed New Class, he was able to see its possibilities and invested considerable personal assets to finance its development, and thus increasing his holdings to 50%. Quandt saved and made BMW, and his family became one of the richest in the world.

Similarly, Musk invested in Tesla after its initial founding, increased his investment when he led several more rounds of private investments, and went on to take control of the company.  he also almost saw Tesla go down the tubes. He continued to invest repeatedly (and still does), and he is now worth some $25 billion or more, despite never having taken a paycheck.

This new car, the 1500 sedan of 1962, created the whole modern BMW legacy, the proto-Bimmer. It’s the first, if not the ultimate driving machine.

Yes, BMW designer William Hofmeister took considerable inspiration from the 1960 Corvair. The 1500 was a bit taller and boxier, actually, but then Germans were more concerned about maximizing space utilization than a low roof line. But it did earn admiring looks from the fraulein.

Hofmeister’s design language was an enduring one, and it lasted for decades before Chris Bangle flamed it away. A BMW was instantly recognizable, and not just because of the twin kidneys on the grille.

The New Class featured an all-new OHC four, an engine that became a legend and was built until 1988, and was even used in F1 racing. It certainly wasn’t as revolutionary as the Tesla’s electric drive train, but it was instrumental in creating a very dynamic brand for the New Class, from day one.

The performance of the 1800 (0-60 in 13 sec; under 11 sec for the TI version) have to be seen in the context of the times, when these stats were equal or better than the typical American V8/automatic sedan.

And of course that’s just straight line acceleration; the BMW, with its four-wheel independent suspension, front disc brakes, light steering and slick-shifting transmission created an unparalleled combination of practical, sporty and even luxury: The formula for all BMWs to come. The Ultimate driving machine. And one that quickly found success on the racing circuits, further burnishing the brand.

The 2012 Tesla Model S was styled by Franz von Holzhausen, who is American-born despite the German name. Similarly, he has established a very strong and enduring design language for Tesla.

Just like BMWs for decades, Teslas are instantly recognizable, even by those who would have a hard telling most modern cars apart. This is a powerful aspect of both brands, and for any brand. Tesla currently has it nailed more than anyone else.

Not much need to restate the Model S’ stellar specs: 0-60 in as little as 2.4 seconds (P100 Ludicrous), range up to 335 miles (EPA) and superb efficiency (102 empg EPA combined).

One might object given the huge price disparity between these two cars. The 1964 BMW 1800’s $3,298 equals $27,000 in 2018 dollars, whereas the current Model S rangers from $78k (75D) to $135k (P100D). But in reality, these two cars very much had a similar demographic in terms of their respective buyers: upwardly mobile youngish professionals.

The price of the BMW 1800 was the same as a Buick Wildcat in 1964; in other words, not for everyone. The incomes of higher earning professionals have substantially outstripped inflation; a straight-across comparison does not hold up. The same kinds of buyers bought BMWs in 1964 as bought the Model S in recent years. And needless to say, those buyers were very heavily concentrated in California, in both cases, at least initially.

It’s no coincidence that this 1800 is proudly wearing its original California plates. California was by far the biggest and most receptive market for imports; typically well over 50% of all US exports of cars like this and other German imports went straight to California. It’s not a coincidence that Tesla was conceived and is headquartered in Palo Alto, California, and the cars are built across the Bay in Fremont. Saves a lot of shipping to its biggest market, anyway.

This survivor appears to have spent its life in a coastal area, close enough to the beach to catch some salty air but not close enough to do more damage than nibble away a bit at the edges. The “Limited” badge is a curious later addition. Someone’s having a bit of fun.

This is not exactly its most flattering angle. But its similarities to the 2-door 1602/2002 front end made it iconic.

I’m not going to even to start in on that august subject, because I’ve covered it here and it’s one of the best know success stories in the history of the modern automobile industry. But lets just say that the 02 took the twin-kidney baton from the New Class and ran with it. And its successor, the 3 series became a perpetual hit and BMW’s biggest profit generator. That is, until this year, when the Tesla Model 3 took its place and outsold it solidly.

Not surprising, really. What has BMW done in the last 20-25 years to burnish its reputation? Little or nothing. I have not been able to muster any excitement or enthusiasm over a BMW since…the E39 went away and was replaced by the blobby, Pontiac-look-alike E60. Don’t get me wrong; BMWs since then have undoubtedly been very nice cars. But they’ve taken ever fewer risks, and have been riding on their reputation for way too long. And of course all of this applies to Mercedes too, but let’s stick with BMW for this exercise.

As to their quirky i3, it’s a decent effort but a miss on several counts. Its expensive carbon fiber body is not really very suitable for large scale production. Its battery pack so far has been disappointingly small. It makes for a fine urban scooter, but a pricey one at that. BMW has acknowledged that this is not the key to their EV future. Their Tesla Model 3 fighter will look more like a BMW.

I have felt essentially zero excitement over a BMW (or Mercedes) for decades. Meanwhile, The only car I actually lust for is a Model 3. It is the new Ultimate Driving Machine. The only reason I haven’t pulled the trigger is because it simple doesn’t fit into our lives and driving patterns at this time. But I’ve come dangerously close a few times. Maybe a Model Y. In the meantime, there’s absolutely nothing else on the market that ignites my juices. Which explains why I’m driving a 14 year-old shitbox. For now…

And like the overly-boxy BMW 1800, the Tesla Model S has never appealed to me either, as it’s simply too big and wide. Both were just the prophets of the real thing.

Why do I want one? For the same reason I lusted over a 1602 when I first got a ride in one driven like the devil by a young parish priest in 1966 when I was 15.  And that teenage lust grew with the 2002 in 1968. And peaked with the 2002Tii a few years later. This is what I wanted, but it was out of my reach at the time. It was history in the making, and a big part of me doesn’t want to miss out on history in the making again. That’s something which doesn’t happen very often in one lifetime.

All companies are prone to the cycle of early growth and success followed by a plateau and eventual decline: the spark of creative risk-taking creates something new with qualities/performance/features that had not been seen before. This is how brands are born. Think Daimler, with its groundbreaking 1901 Mercedes (above), the first modern car. Henry Ford and his Model T. Alfred Sloan and his restructuring of GM to appeal to the more sybaritic side of the consumer and with a brand for each level of income. Think Ferrari and Porsche, borne out of the great sports car boom of the immediate post-war era, both of them earning their laurels on the tracks and the resultant long-term success.

But how long can a brand’s success be perpetuated without renewal of the forces that propelled it to success in the first place? This is the question we are pondering. And the question that is being answered to one extent or another in real time. It’s an exciting time to be alive, to watch the most disruptive period in the industry since its earliest years, when hundreds of start-ups were winnowed out. And the 1930s, with its radical transformation of the car due to the streamlining influence. And the immediate post-war era, which created a huge flush of highly creative new ideas, especially in Europe. And Kaiser-Frazer in the US, the last attempt to create a new mainstream car company until Tesla. And of course the imports like BMW.

I used to think that Kaiser-Frazer was the best historical frame of reference for Tesla, since Henry Kaiser, here behind the wheel of the world’s first-ever articulated bus, was another brash Californian who had made a fortune in other industries and was now going to take on Detroit because he had the golden touch. Very much the Elon Musk of his times.

He had radical ideas about building very small and cheap cars for the working man, but had to concede to building a more conventionally-sized one, and priced in Buick territory.

At least the Kaiser was intended to have FWD, but in the end that too had to be tossed overboard. Kaiser juts couldn’t make it work reliably and cost-effective.

In the end, his radical new car with which to take on Detroit ended up being a rather poorly-styled sedan whose looks did not age well. And it sported a 1930s vintage flathead six bought from engine builder Continental, hardly a groundbreaking new car in terms of performance. The decision to not give the Kaiser a definitively new engine with superior performance and with FWD was the biggest mistake that the company made, and ultimately sealed its fate. Kaiser copped out.

Now that was not a mistake Elon Musk would repeat. The Tesla’s batteries, motors, performance, efficiency and completely new electronic architecture that allows constant updates is truly the most completely new car since WW2, if not ever.

Cadillac and Olds changed the game with their new ohv V8s in 1949. And as a direct result cemented Cadillac’s and GM’s dominance in the 1950s, killing off Kaiser-Frazer, Packard, Hudson, Nash (as a brand), and Studebaker. By 1962, its market share peaked at 52%. Everyone had to scramble and build V8s, but playing catch-up is not the same as genuine leadership. That’s what it takes to win.  But GM’s success led to stasis, and by the 1950s, the imported seeds of its eventual undoing were already sprouting.

Today GM is essentially giving up on passenger cars, holding the fort with trucks, more trucks, and large utilities. Imports like have decimated its once stranglehold on the US market. And it was BMW and Mercedes that killed GM’s golden goose, the premium brands in its portfolio. The remaining two, Buick and Cadillac, are essentially irrelevant; Tesla already outsells Cadillac 2:1.

BMW’s ability to build an unsurpassed package of performance, comfort, style and amenities created a revolution. Thanks to a groundswell of enthusiastic press and devoted owners who spread the gospel, BMW would enjoy decades of global growth and a sterling brand image. Would BMW have the guts to make an ad like this today? No way. That’s a Tesla in your rear view mirror today. Move over, BMW.

Never mind, they already have.