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BMW's Next Big Challenge

The builder of high-line performance cars faces a world of value consciousness and is seeing green. But this company that began by making airplane engines is used to dealing with change.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Hugh Grant, November/December 2009

The ancient roadster strains at the steep grade, its 75-year-old engine wheezing like the little engine that could. Maybe. It takes serious effort to muscle the two-seater around the tight hairpins that lead to the Alpine summit, the narrow tires sloshing and sliding on the sloppy pavement, the heavy rain replaced by snow as we gain altitude. A well-worn windbreaker and the towel I've spread across my lap are my only protection from the elements, and what passes for a windshield wiper simply tosses slush over the glass and into my face.

It might help to put the top up—but only marginally. Back in 1934, when this BMW 315/1 rolled off a Bavarian assembly line, roadsters were meant to be driven al fresco. Were the canvas top in place, it would offer little protection as there are no side windows, or even curtains to keep the gusting gales out.

Logging time in a pre-War roadster stretches the definition of "fun," as we negotiate tight corners, depending on an ancient steering box and tires not much wider than what you'll find on a modern cross-country bicycle. The car holds on, but still my driving partner and I feel a certain relief when we pull into our lunch stop, knowing that for the return trip we will swap rides with some colleagues for a brand new Z4, which is the scion of three-quarters of a century of BMW roadster development.

The new model is the first complete remake of the German marque's compact roadster since 2002, both roomier and more upscale than the previous-generation two-seater. From nose to tail, you know it's a BMW, with the low-slung kidney grille, the sculpted lines of the fenders and doors, the sensually curvaceous roof and the chopped tail. Happily, it features not only side windows, but the new roadster's most distinctive touch, a folding hardtop that, with just the touch of a button, can be opened or closed in the time you'll spend sitting at a stoplight, less than 20 seconds.

This exercise in sheet-metal origami is, when you get down to it, something you'd expect from BMW, for the 2010 Z4 is more than just another branch of the roadster family tree. It is a symbol of the dynamic evolution of both the breed and Bayerische Motoren Werke itself.

High-flying roots

The original incarnation of the line wasn't even an automobile. The familiar, blue-and-white roundel, the circular BMW logo, gives a hint of the company's heritage. Known as the "spinner," it was meant to signify a propeller slicing through a clear sky (the colors borrowed from the Bavarian flag). Rapp-Motorenwerke, which would soon be styled BMW, was formed in 1913 and soon thereafter worked to produce aircraft engines for the Kaiser's failed effort in the First World War.

When the Versailles Treaty demilitarized Germany the company scrambled to create other outlets: first motorcycles, then automobiles. While it turned out some elegant and well-regarded products, BMW's soul remained in the aircraft industry, which it readily reentered during the rapid rearmament of the 1930s that led to the Second World War. Its factories turned out a procession of increasingly powerful and sophisticated aircraft engines, including a pioneering turbojet, the BMW 003, which was used in one of the first Luftwaffe jets.

But the war left Munich—and BMW—in ruins. For the next decade and a half the company struggled for survival, at one point licensing the design of the Italian microcar Iso Isetta and stuffing it with one of its own motorcycle engines. It wasn't much, but the bubble car helped keep BMW afloat until 1959, when the powerful Quandt family would take a controlling stake. Even then, BMW's fate would not be secured until 1966 when it would launch the legendary 2002 sedan.

To some, it may be one of the purest sporting compacts ever produced. Part of BMW's so-called "New Class," the 2002 was visually striking, taut, nimble and blindingly fast for its day. But the 2002 had room to improve. In 1971, the company added the designation "tii," which was BMW-speak for a then-revolutionary fuel injection technology. It was a transformational product for a transitional era.

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