BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke, or Bavarian Motor Works) was formed in 1917 in Munich, Germany. Rising from the ashes of aircraft manufacturer Rapp Motorenweke, BMW has produced motorcycles, Formula 1 race cars and bicycles as well as luxury cars for nearly a century.
The first BMW motorcycles were produced after the end of World War I, and the earliest car manufactured by the German company is the 3/15 sedan, which commenced production in 1927.
BMW is a name that is always associated with quality, yet some models have stood out over the years for their distinctive, revolutionary, and/or outstanding qualities. This article will focus on 30 of the best BMW models from the company’s lengthy history, in chronological order.
Not overly memorable otherwise, this small saloon car based on the Austin Seven is notable mainly for introducing two innovations into the BMW line: the straight six-cylinder engine, and the kidney-shaped grille. The platform for this modest family sedan was used for later cars including the four-cylinder 309, the 315, and the 319, among many others.
One of the most memorable roadsters of its era, the 507 was manufactured between 1956 and 1959. Still remembered today for its stylish appearance and power on the road, the 507 sported a 3.2-liter OHV V-8 engine. Only 252 of the 507 were built; originally intended for export to the United States, the expense proved prohibitive and the line was shelved in 1959.
1956—BMW Isetta 300
Surely one of the most unique chapters in BMW history is this three-wheeled microcar. Inspired by the Class IV license regulations which were passed in Germany at the time, the Isetta had two seats, opened from the front, and featured a one-cylinder engine capable of a dazzling 13 horsepower. Today the Isetta is highly sought-after by microcar collectors.
1960—BMW 700 RS
The 700 was a small, squarish rear-engine car which helped the company recover from the financial crisis partly created by the expense of the 507. But the RS was a racing car model based on the original. It had a lightweight tubular frame chassis, aerodynamic body features, and a double camshaft engine rated at 69 horsepower.
The 1500 was one of the first of BMW’s Neue Klasse (New Class) line, a series of affordable, economical coupes and sedans. This model was notable for its boxy, sturdy styling, which would resurface later in many other models. The 1500 was capable of 80 horsepower.
1969—BMW 2002 tii
One of the most notable of the affordable Neue Klasse line was the 2002 tii. Released in 1969, this model proved to be the precursor to the current styles of sport sedan. The tii featured a 2.0-liter inline-4 engine with 130 horsepower and is widely considered to be an early bridge between the sport car and the luxury sedan.
1972—BMW Turbo concept
The Turbo concept sports car was designed as part of the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. Its styling innovations would have a direct influence on the M1 line. The Turbo design included forward-looking gullwing doors, BMW’s first turbocharged engine, an inline 4-cylinder, and lateral sensors. Only two of these innovative cars were made.
This model was known as the Batmobile. It was the first of the Art cars, a line with colorful graphics sometimes designed by famous artists such as Roy Lichtenstein. This lighter car was made with thin steel and aluminum alloy parts, and was called the Batmobile because of its full aerodynamic package including spoiler and wings. This model was never sold in the United States.
1975—BMW E21 3 series
This was known as the first of BMW’s compact executive car line. They were made from 1975 to 1981, and usually came in the form of a two-door compact sedan. Introduced to the US market in 1977, the E21 sold well for a few years, partly because its 4-cylinder and straight-6 engines were economical yet speedy.
Originally slated to be built by Lamborghini, BMW produced their first mid-engine sports car from 1978 to 1981. It had a six-cylinder, 3.5-liter engine with twin cams and mechanical fuel injection with 273 horsepower, and was capable of achieving 162 mph. This two-door coupe kicked off the M series and has become a sought-after model for sports car collectors. Only 453 M1s were manufactured.
1983—BMW E24 M6
The M6 featured the stylish ‘shark nose’ look, and was a popular two-door luxury car which served as the flagship model for BMW sports cars in the 1980s. Featuring a fuel-injected M88 engine with limited-slip differential and rated at 282 horsepower, this model had muscle as well as class.
1984—BMW M635 CSi E24
A sought-after collector’s item today, the M635 CSi E24 was made from 1984 to 1989. This was basically an E24 model sports car with a super-powerful M88 engine, powered by 282 horsepower. This speedy model was brightened up with luxury touches such as Nappa leather power seats, a black rubber spoiler, and rear air conditioning unit.
Boasting the same powerful six-cylinder engine as the M1, the M5 was a sports-sedan rendering of the earlier 5-Series executive car. The M5 has been manufactured from 1986 to the present, and it has always proven popular with those who want a family car which is as swift as a sports car.
1987—BMW E30 M3
The M3 has become a legend in sport sedan circles, and the E30 was the first of the bunch. This model is known for its smooth and sensitive handling, as well as its many wins as a sports car (it’s the only sports car with more wins than the Porsche 911). Capable of 217 hp, the M3 was outfitted with a 2.3-liter S14 engine. It was voted one of the top 6 sports cars of the ‘80s by Sports Car international.
The Z1 was another two-seat roadster model which paid homage to the famous 507. This sporty two-seater featured internally-sliding doors which retracted into the door sills, removable body panels, a plastic body, and other unusual innovations. It was made from 1989 through 1991. The chassis of the Z1 was specifically designed for the model.
A version of the BMW V12 luxury car, this rare version of the 8 Series Gran Turismo featured a tuned suspension and 5-6-liter engine rated at a bone-rattling 375 horsepower. The 850CSI was the top-of-the-line model of the 8 Series.
1992—BMW Nazca C2 concept
This was a concept car which never made it into production under the BMW name. Designed by well-known engineering company Italdesign of Italy, this sleek sports car featured gullwing doors and rear-wheel drive with a rear-mounted engine. It featured a massive 5.0-liter V12 engine with 380 horsepower. Only three prototypes were made.
1994—BMW E90 3 Series
The E90 is known as the most powerful M3 model ever made. A fifth-generation entry-level family sedan, it featured a powerful, naturally aspirated 4.0-liter V-8 engine. This hatchback car was available originally only as a two-door sedan, although the line later expanded to include other styles.
1994—BMW E38 7 Series
The E38, made from 1994 to 2001, was considered the highest achievement in BMW’s flagship sedan line. This full-sized luxury sedan was loaded with innovative features in the years of its manufacture, including a Steptronic automatic transmission, Inflatable Tubular Structure (ITS) head side airbags, xenon headlights, and much more.
1998—BMW M Coupe
Another highly unusual entry into the M line, the M Coupe was made from 1998 to 2002 and was a shooting-brake model combining features of a wagon and a coupe. Some of the unusual features include flared fenders, a heavy-duty S50 straight-6 engine, and roadster styling with additional torsional rigidity. These models are relatively rare and hard to find, making them a dream for rare car collectors.
1999—BMW E39 M5
This is widely considered one of the finest luxury sports sedans of the 1990s. The E39 was a mid-sized luxury sedan with a more powerful engine than its precursors. Outfitted with an S62 V-8 engine capable of 394 horsepower, a Getrag 6-speed manual gearbox, and a lightweight aluminum-intensive chassis, the E39 M5 was a luxury car that could really move. It proved highly popular in its four years of production.
1999—BMW Z8 Roadster
One of the most popular of the roadster series, the cool 1950s-inspired styling of the Z8 is an homage to BMW’s beloved 1950s roadster, the 507. The Z8 was loaded with special touches and features, including neon exterior lighting and indicators, optional color matching hardtop, and a mighty 4.9-liter V-8 engine rated at 400 horsepower.
2001—BMW E46 M3
The E46 was a luxurious sports sedan of sophisticated design and superior handling. This model was powered by a tuned, 3.2-liter S54 inline 6-cylinder engine with 333 horsepower and close-coupled catalytic converters, capable of going from zero to 60 mph in a few seconds. It was available in coupe and convertible versions only.
2005—BMW Hydrogen 7
This experimental model is a full-sized luxury limousine which runs on hydrogen. The engine is a monstrous 6.0-liter V-12, which is fully capable of running on premium fuel, but can also run entirely on hydrogen. This was a promotional item; 100 of these were built and often loaned out to celebrities and politicians.
2009—BMW X6 M
This unusual entry into the M series was produced from 2009 to 2014. It was the first M-series BMW with an automatic gearbox and all-wheel drive, as well as being an M version of the BMW SUV. It features a sizable 4-4-liter V-8 engine with 547 horsepower and a hefty 501 lb-ft of torque. This model was heavier than the usual M-series entry, particularly in the back end. Over 10,000 of these were made.
2010—BMW 1 Series M Coupe
Usually, the BMW Coupe line is seen as a small family car. The 1-Series is a departure in that it’s more of a high-performance sports car disguised as a family car. Unveiled in December of 2010, the 1 Series M Coupe proved itself popular in both Europe and North America. Sporting a twin-turbo, 3.0-liter straight-6 engine with direct injection, this model could go up to a blinding 335 horsepower. It was known for only being available with a 6-speed manual gearbox.
2011—BMW F20 1-series
This series of affordable 3-door and 5-door hatchbacks is not currently available in the United States. The F20 is the most economic vehicle made by BMW, but it has gained some popularity in Europe. The engine runs at 215 horsepower and is available with rear-wheel drive, making it an unusual item among hatchbacks.
2011—BMW Vision ConnectedDrive concept
Its lengthy name aside, this concept car was never produced, but nevertheless showed the way to future BMW innovations. One of the most important aspects of this model was its array of advanced driver assistance aids. This concept model also featured doors similar to those of the Z1, with internally-moving doors. It also featured futuristic lights, a high center console, and a 3D display for the driver. This model may never see the light of day, but its innovations will surely turn up in future models.
The i8 is considered by many to be the wave of the future. This BMW is a plug-in hybrid sports car, initially introduced as the BMW Concept Vision Efficient Dynamics. This powerful model is outfitted with a 1-5-liter turbo 3-cylinder engine with additional electric motor. The extra motor drives the engine to 362 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque.
This modern sport coupe features well-balanced steering, luxury appointments, and a lot of power thanks to its turbocharged 3.0-liter engine which is capable of 425 horsepower and a powerful 343 lb-ft of torque. The M2 features a manual six-speed transmission, forged wheels, oversized front and rear fenders, and more.