The Ultimate Driving Machines: Top 5 BMW Cars From Past & Present

One of the world’s top premier automotive marques is Germany’s Bayerische Motoren Werke or, for those ausländer die kein Deutsch sprechen, BMW. Whether it’s in terms of innovation, style, luxury, or performance, many automotive journalists and enthusiasts alike consider the BMW brand among the finest automobiles in production today.

Even for people who aren’t necessarily into cars or don’t know the slightest thing about them, they tend to associate BMW with poise, refinement, and elegance. It’s a corporate brand identity with over a full century of history and legacy behind it, as well as one of the most imitated.

The Focke-Wulf FW 190 and Messerschmitt Bf 109 were some of the most popular (or unpopular, depending on who's side you were on) fighter planes in World War II.
The Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Würger powered by the BMW 801 aircraft engine.

But before they created ‘ The Ultimate Driving Machine’, the company that started life as Rapp Motorenwerke was an aircraft engine manufacturer that supplied the Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force) during World War I. After the fall of the Central Powers, the Treaty of Versailles forced Rapp Motorenwerke—now christened as BMW—to cease all aircraft engine production. BMW then took to manufacturing farm equipment, small household appliances, and railway brakes in order to prevent corporate shutdown. As the Treaty of Versailles started to wane, BMW reentered the motor vehicle business with their first motorcycle, the 1923 BMW R32, and 9 years later, the BMW 3/15, their very first production car to be designed entirely in-house. World War II saw BMW join the Nazi war effort by once again building military aircraft engines for the Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS. Ultimately, Germany’s second consecutive defeat and the elimination of the Nazi regime left the automaker completely decimated and in shambles. The resulting fallout of both World Wars, penal sanctions imposed and enforced by the Soviet Government and the United Nations, and a rapidly evolving motor vehicle landscape had BMW on the brink of extinction in December of 1959. Just as it seemed apparent that all hope was lost, BMW miraculously received increased financial support from Germany’s largest investment firm, the Quandt Group. This was the turning point that effectively prevented a corporate buyout by rival manufacturer Daimler-Benz, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, and the beginning of BMW’s resurgence as a viable and profitable company. Riding the wave of success brought upon by the 1960 Neue Klasse (New Class) product revamp, BMW would spend the next 4 decades establishing themselves as the one of the world’s leading manufacturers of luxury sport sedans and touring saloons with their iconic 3, 5, and 7-series models. The creation of the revolutionary M1 supercar in 1978 coincided with the founding of their own in-house performance shop, the BMW M Division, which has provided the foundations of all BMW models ever since. Today, BMW reigns as one of the world’s foremost names in luxury sport performance. With their illustrious background in international motorsports, their groundbreaking approaches to engineering and cutting-edge design, and their ever-growing influence over the auto industry, BMW looks to continue their tradition of automotive evolution well into the future for eons of generations to come.

Let us now take a look at 5 landmark models from the chronicles of BMW’s long and storied history.


Even in 1958, anyone with a BMW parked like a knob.
1955-1962 ISETTA

The car that’s credited with making BMW an internationally-renowned presence isn’t the postwar 501 luxury saloon or its V8-powered variant, the 502. It’s is the quirky, egg-shaped Isetta that lived from 1955 to 1962.

TRIVIA: Steve Urkel's 1957 BMW Isetta is currently owned by none other than Steve Urkel himself, actor/writer Jaleel White. He even had it fully restored back in 2013.
A 1957 BMW Isetta featured in the TV show, ‘Family Matters’.

The subcompact Isetta (in essence, a covered motorcycle originally built by Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A. of Italy) gave birth to the microcar craze of the 1960s which then experienced a renaissance in the early 2010s with models including the MINI Hardtop (the MINI marque has been owned by BMW since 2000), Fiat 500, and Daimler-Benz’s smart fortwo. The Isetta was a game-changer for not only BMW, but for the entire industry as a whole. It was the very first car to achieve a fuel consumption rating of 3 L/100 KM or 94 MPG (Imperial), 78 MPG (US). Fast forward to today, over 50 years since the very last Isetta left the factory, manufacturers such as Nissan, Fiat, and Toyota are still trying to figure out how to recapture the success of the BMW Isetta.


The BMW M1 body was penned by famous Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. Giugiaro's designs include the Maserati Ghibli, Lotus Esprit S1, and the DeLorean DMC-12.
1978-1981 M1

Initially conceived as a collaborative joint-effort between BMW and Lamborghini, the M1 was BMW’s first and, arguably, their only exotic supercar (until 2015, but we’ll talk about that later).

BMW's M1 Procar Championship touring series lasted only 2 seasons (1979-80). In reality, it was less a legitimate racing league than it was a self-indulgent advertising campaign.
A pair of 1978 M1 Procar race cars in the BMW Procar Championship series.

Failure to have a production model approved for motorsports homologation, BMW sold the M1 to the public for a limited time between 1978 and 1981. The M1 was the debut effort by the fledgling M Division and is one of the rarest BMW models ever made. It was an experiment in creating a race car for the street; using a mid-engine layout, low-slung and wide body proportions with track-oriented chassis dynamics, and a motorsports-inspired dual overhead cam inline 6-cylinder that was based off of BMW’s M49 racing engine. The M1’s motorsports accolades prompted the BMW M Division to start creating performance versions of current regular production models and in 1979, BMW’s M Division built the E12 535i, the genealogical ancestor of the M5.


It wasn't that European cars like the BMW 3 Series were undeniably superior to American cars during the Malaise Era. It's that American car companies just simply gave up.
1982-1994 E30 3 SERIES

Coming off the heels of the original E21 3 Series 2-door (1975-1983) was the new-for-82, 2nd generation E30 program comprised of coupes, 4-door sedans, convertibles, and estate wagons. The previous iteration was a handsome, yet relatively modest compact car but it’s growing popularity helped change the American public’s perception of small European imports in the wake of the notoriously-unreliable and problematic Italian entries from Fiat and Alfa Romeo. The E30 was also a breakthrough for BMW as it that laid down the groundwork for the 3 Series as we know it today. It combined luxury appointments, state-of-the-art engineering and technology, and an emphasis on driving performance into a range of unique models all tailored to suit the preferences of many different types of prospective buyers. For the first time ever, the 3 Series offered an available diesel engine, optional all-wheel drive, and a choice of special edition performance variants including the Alpina B6 and the original M3. The 3 Series went on to become BMW’s most popular model in their entire lineup and it’s a distinction it still holds today in the current 6th generation, the F30.


Not even BMW themselves have been able to build a better sedan than the E39 M5.
1998-2003 E39 M5

Considered to be the greatest BMW sedan ever made, the E39 M5 was heralded as the gold standard for which all other sport and touring sedans were to be judged.

A low drag coefficient means that you can quickly and more efficiently wrap the car around a telephone pole.
The E39 M5 had a drag coefficient of .29.

The Bavarian beast was powered by the 400 horsepower S62 DOHC V8 engine that featured dual intakes, double-VANOS variable valve timing for both the intake and exhaust camshafts, electronic throttle bodies for each of the individual 8 cylinders, 2-mode driver-selectable throttle response, hollow camshafts, and a semi-dry sump oiling system. Power was sent to the rear wheels VIA a Getrag Type D 6-speed manual gearbox and an aluminum-intensive chassis with MacPherson strut front/4-link rear suspension and optimal 50/50 weight distribution kept the vehicle planted to the ground during high-speed maneuvering. Classy and sophisticated for a dinner date, raw and uncompromising on the street; the E39 was the ideal blend of modern technology and classic BMW style without being sullied by the artificial electronic driver aids and unnecessary accouterments that detract from the purity of driving enjoyment.


The 2014 BMW i8 is one of those rare exceptions where the production version does not differ entirely from the original concept car.
2014-PRESENT i8

As dependency on foreign oil and concerns about the environment continue to shape the direction of the automotive industry, auto manufacturers have taken to hybrid technology as the logical course towards the future. Hybrid technology, once exclusive to subcompact economy cars, is now appearing in anything and everything from mainstream family sedans to full-size pickup trucks and SUVs. Even dedicated performance cars and supercars are applying hybrid technology, just as in the case of Honda’s reimagined NSX; Porsche’s follow-up to the Carrera GT, the 918 Spyder; the British Thoroughbred McLaren P1; and the absolutely insane 217+ MPH Ferrari LaFerrari.

The i8 uses a lightweight chassis, sustainable materials for the interior, and is produced in two factories that operate by wind-turbine (Leipzig, Germany) and hydroelectricity (Moses Lake, Washington).
The i8 represents BMW’s commitment to innovation and sustainable, Earth-friendly manufacturing.

A spiritual successor to the M1 supercar, the i8 is BMW’s first foray into hybrid sports cars and the brand’s first mid-engine vehicle since the M1. It was an effort that paid off greatly for BMW as the i8 ranks as the world’s #1 top-selling plug-in hybrid sports car—and for good reason. The i8 boasts track-worthy performance with real world drivability; a turbocharged 1. 5 litre inline 3-cylinder engine supported by a 7.1 KWH lithium ion battery pack and a pair of electric motors makes for a whopping 357 horsepower and 420 lb. ft. of torque with a combined average travel range of 336 miles. 0-to-60 happens in 4. 4 seconds and top speed is an electronically-limited 155 MPH. That’s quicker than the Mercedes-AMG SLC 43 and its gasoline-only twin-turbo V6. The i8 is the absolute pinnacle of BMW design, innovation, and engineering; a marriage of art, science, and technology and a glimpse into an optimistic future full of unlimited possibilities.

How long do you think it'll be before someone tries to do BMW butterfly doors on a Honda Civic?

The first production car to feature color-selectable interior ambient lighting was the 2005 Ford Mustang, but BMW and Mercedes-Benz will never cop to it.

It might not be as extreme as the McLaren P1 or carry the racing pedigree as the Ford GT, but the BMW i8 specializes in performance that you can use in real world situations. That is, if you're willing to spend $160,000 to get it.