• The Evolution of BMW’s Logo

The theme remained the same throughout the decades as did the question - is it a propeller?

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BMW is one of Germany’s best-well-known automakers and one of the world’s most valuable brands with a value of $25.6 billion as of 2017. Bavaria’s finest creator of luxury vehicles sold last year in excess of 2.1 million units, over 310,000 of these finding their customers in the U.S. In spite of the company’s sizeable footprint and large array of models on sale, as well as its history that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, many still aren’t sure of the history behind BMW’s ubiquitous logo. Along with the kidney grilles, the circular badge that features a black outline and a central area divided into four sections, two white and two blue, is part of any Bimmer’s identity. But what does it represent? Is it a nod to BMW’s aeronautical origins or does it simply have to do with the flag of the region of Bavaria?

The question we posed above is simple, about as simple as they get in the auto industry. Or so you’d think. In fact, many hardcore BMW fans still debate to this day on the backstory of this seemingly basic-looking badge that has remained largely unchanged since 1917. While many stories have been written about how BMW settled for the logo you see to this day on its cars, the debate continues, so we thought we’d give it a stab ourselves at putting the dispute to rest. Read on to find out what really hides behind the emblem.

The First BMW Logo - 1917

The Evolution of BMW's Logo
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The history of BMW is a rather long and convoluted one. While the Bavarian Motor Works came to be in 1917, one year before the end of WW1, its roots date back to 1913 when the Rapp Motorenwerke, an aircraft engine manufacturer, was established by Karl Rapp.

Based in Bavaria near the Otto Flugmaschinenfabrik (later known as the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke or the Bavarian Airplane Works) for whom it built engines, the Rapp Motorenwerke kept a low profile in the early years.

That’s because the airplane engines built by Rapp were trailing those built at the time by Daimler or NAG in Germany. The original designs were solid but lacked power and, when the German Navy placed orders for the Rapp III engine, Karl Rapp ordered a tune-up of the engine, with output going up from 150 to 175 horsepower. However, the strengthening necessary to keep up with the extra power made the engine overweight while still prone to heavy vibration. The situation couldn’t be rectified by a modified version of the Rapp III engine and the German Navy soon canceled all orders. Rapp and the company seemed destined to go bankrupt in spite of its potential.

That potential was first noticed by Franz Josef Popp, an Austrian marine engineer. He was tasked by the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops to oversee the building process of aeronautical engines at the AEG and the Austro-Daimler plants during the early days of WW1.

In his work he came into contact with the Rapp works during his trips to Germany when he was trying to find a suitable German company that would build - under license - engines at the Austro-Daimler plant in Wiener Neustadt. Such a deal never came through but Popp’s new connection with the Rapp works helped Austro-Daimler in a different way: the company was developing at the time a 12-cylinder airplane engine but soon realized it didn’t have the means to manufacture enough units as required by the Navy. Popp thus convinced Austro-Daimler that the Rapp Works would be a suitable location for the new 12-cylinder engines to be made as the technology and the manpower was already there.

After much lobbying by Popp, the contract was signed in 1916 and he was sent to Munich to oversee the production of the engines.

What he soon realized, though, was that the Rapp Works’ management was never going to meet the targets set by the Navy due to poor decision-making. As Austro-Daimler’s representative, he took action to save the deal he’d championed and became more and more involved with the actual building process to the point that he was appointed Factory Manager.

From this position, Popp ushered Max Friz into the company. Friz, an ex-Daimler engineer became chief engineer on a new project: a "high altitude" aero engine that was based on the unsuccessful Rapp III design. With a high (at the time) compression ratio of 6.4:1, the BMW IIIa engine cranked out 185 horsepower, already 10 more than the modified Rapp III that almost put the company out of business.

But power wasn’t what made the engine a hit: it was Friz’s introduction of a simple throttle butterfly into the twin-barrel carburetor that enabled the unit to still produce its max quoted output even when the airplane was flying at high altitudes. With an improved BMW IV fitted to a DFW plane, test pilot Franz-Zeno Diemer set a new world altitude record in 1919 of 32,000 feet.

As you noticed from the nomenclature used on the first airplane engine built under Popp's supervision, BMW was already a thing by December of 1917 when the IIIa engine first flew.

In fact, Popp first registered the name ’Bayerische Motoren Werke’ in July of 1917 and, on October 1st of that same year, he was appointed managing director of the Rapp Works which promptly changed its name to BMW. The name change was acknowledged on October 5, when the trademark was registered with the Imperial Trade Mark Roll. That’s when a first draft of the logo was trademarked as well.

The shape remained identical to that of Rapp’s old logo: it was still a roundel and the inner circle featured a black ring around it. However, the horse (similar to the knight in the game of chess) in the middle was gone and, in its place, there were four quarters painted in blue and white. The colors were placed in inverse order and were to be read clockwise from top to left.

This wasn’t a random decision by Popp, who designed the logo as an ode to the company’s location in the heart of Bavaria. According to BMW, he knew that "the local trademark law at the time forbade the use of state coats of arms or other symbols of sovereignty on commercial logos" and he rearranged the colors in the inner quadrants so that authorities would accept it.

This already tells you that Popp didn’t take inspiration from an airplane’s propellers when designing his company’s logo but, truth be told, the roots of the design were never explained in the early years. According to Fred Jakobs, Archive Director of BMW Group Classic, "in those first few years, BMW just wasn’t present in the public consciousness." That’s because BMW didn’t actually start manufacturing civilian motorized contraptions until 1923 when the BMW R32 was introduced as the first motorcycle made by the Bavarian company.

Right after the end of WW1, BMW was forced through the Versailles Treaty to stop making airplane engines.

By then, BMW had already morphed into a joint-stock company with Viennese financier Camillo Castiglioni and the Nuremberg industrialist Fritz Neumeyer each holding 33% of the shares. They were able to ensure that the company had a future in the troublesome post-War days as Popp, now Chairman of the Board of Management, struck a deal with Knorr Bremse AG that allowed BMW to manufacture Knorr brakes under license for the Bavarian Railway. BMW also produced farm equipment and, in 1920, introduced the M2B15 flat-twin industrial engine. This unit would also power Bayerische Flugzeugwerke’s 1920 Helios motorcycle. This was maybe possible because Camillo Castiglioni also owned shares in Bayerische Flugzeugwerke.

Two years later, Castiglioni moved to acquire the rights for the name ’BMW’ and renamed Bayerische Flugzeugwerke as BMW. He was helped by Popp who transferred the company’s personnel, patents, and machinery to the disused headquarters of Bayerische Flugzeugwerke in Munich. This effectively marked the de facto relaunch of BMW as an engine builder in numerous areas.

The R32 motorcycle of 1923 was the first vehicle to proudly sport the BMW logo but, by then, the logo had already been minutely changed.

The original logo seen also on the 1917 appointment certificate that officialized Popp’s chairmanship of the Rapp Works, renamed as BMW, featured the Bavarian colors in the four quarters in the middle and a rather narrow black ring surrounding it. The edge of the inner circle, as well as that of the outer circle, were marked by a golden outline. Gold was also used on the letters B, M, and W placed in the top half with a sensible distance between one another and using a serif font.

Most Important Cars to Wear the First-Gen BMW Logo

At first, BMW didn’t make cars. In fact, the first car was introduced 11 years after the badge was officially introduced. This car, known as the ’Dixi’, is also the only one to carry the original badge.

The Dixi was "basically a British Austin Seven built under license," as noted on the info board near a red Dixi that sits proudly in BMW's museum.

The car was actually built by Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach who was having a hard time selling the bigger 6/24 and 9/40 models on offer at the time. The Dixi’s full name was ’Dixi 3/15 DA-1’ (the first number referred to the taxable horsepower rating and the second to the actual power output of the vehicle). The 3/15 first appeared with a BMW logo on its radiator grille in 1928, right after Popp purchased Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach for about 1 million German marks from parent company Gothaer Waggonfabrik in October. The first 3/15 models displaying a BMW badge were known as BMW Dixi cars but the ’Dixi’ nameplate was dropped by 1929.

Between late 1928 and 1932, 18,976 BMW 3/15s were built, the first version being the 3/15 DA-2. DA stood for Deutsche Ausfuehrung (German Version). Subsequently, the DA-3 Wartburg, BMW’s first sports car, and the DA-4 were introduced before the licensing agreement with Austin ran out at the end of 1932 (Austin was receiving a percentage of the price of each 3/15 sold).

The 3/15 was available as a coupe, roadster, tourer, delivery van, and sedan but most cars produced were tourers (just 150 DA-3 Wartburgs were ever made).

The company upgraded the original Austin design by incorporating four-wheel brakes.

The ’sporty’ DA-3 Wartburg featured a drop-center front axle that lowered the center of gravity and it was also more powerful thanks to an increased compression ratio that squeezed an extra three horsepower out of the four-cylinder, four-stroke, side-valve engine for a grand total of 18 horsepower. Independent front suspension wasn’t available on the DA-3, however, but it made its way into production on the DA-4.

The Second-Gen BMW Logo - 1933

The Evolution of BMW's Logo
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In the early years, BMW seemed to use different badges on cars, motorcycles, and other products - some coming with logos with gold lettering and others (especially bikes) with silver lettering. There was also indecision when it came to fonts: both sans-serif and serif fonts were used indiscriminately and tiny changes were made as time went by. Having said that, a revision was made to the original design in 1933, the year when the logo was submitted to the German Register of Trade Marks. The revision saw the outer ring grow thicker as did the letters, which were closer together, while the outlines of both the inner circle and the outer ring were widened in diameter. The first car to roll out of the BMW factory with the new logo was the BMW 3/20, the first model designed 100% in-house by BMW after the end of the Dixi’s production run.

Most Important Cars to Wear the Second-Gen BMW Logo

1938 BMW 327 Sport Cabriolet Exterior
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The second-generation logo of the company, as mentioned, was minutely tweaked over the years but, by all intents and purposes, the general design remained unchanged until 1953.

Over these two decades, some particularly special cars were built by the Munich-based automaker, chief among which is the 328 sports car, its more luxurious and road-oriented brother the 327 grand tourer,and the 326, BMW’s first four-door sedan.

All of those were, however, predated by the 303, BMW’s first car to be powered by a six-cylinder engine - a future staple in the company’s engine department - and, equally relevant, the first to sport the kidney grilles. Introduced at the 1933 Berlin Auto Show, the 303 baffled crowds with a pair of nearly rectangular grilles placed vertically on either side of a chromed bar spawned by the BMW badge that stood in the middle at the top of the front fascia. The grilles were wide occupying the entirety of the fascia - an unforeseen nod to the enormous kidney grilles on modern Bimmers.

As with the history of the logo, the history of the grilles isn’t as straightforward as that with some actually stating that they first appeared on coachbuilt BMW 3/15s assembled by the Ihle coachbuilding company in Bruchsal, Germany. One such Ihle-built 3/15 with twin grilles is the Ihle Sport Typ 600 but, confusingly, Ihle only unveiled it in 1934, five years after the 3/15 chassis used for the build was manufactured. While we may never find out what BMW was first of the kidney-grilled ones, at least we know the truth on the topic of the logo. But, before we delve into that a bit more than we already have done, let’s talk about the other famous BMWs of the ’30s.

First up, the 326, the first three-box car made by BMW.

Manufactured between 1936 and 1941, and engineered by Fritz Fiedler, the man behind other famous Bimmers like the 328 and the ’Neue Klasse’ lineup of models that saved BMW from capsizing after a tough spell in the late ’50s. The 326 was equipped with a torsion bar rear suspension, an innovative technical detail at the time, and hydraulic suspension. With a sleek bodywork penned by Peter Schimanowski, it proved to the world that BMW was able to move with the times and put out aerodynamically efficient cars. While the 326 itself was available as a four-door sedan, as well as a two-door and four-door cabriolet, it also spawned an array of models including the 321 compact tourer, the 327 grand tourer and the 335 full-size sedan that was produced for a brief period around the time WW2 started.

With almost 16,000 units made until 1941 when BMW switched to war-time construction, the 326 was deemed a success, this being proved further after the war’s end when, under Russian supervision, the EMW 340 was built at the Eisenach plant. The 340 was, in effect, a restyled 326 with a different grille and more modern fenders. Furthermore, in the U.K., plans of the 326 were used to build the first Bristol models and the drivetrain remained largely unchanged well into the ’50s, the Bristol 403 still featuring an updated version of the 326’s 2.0-liter engine up until 1955.

1938 BMW 327 Sport Cabriolet Exterior
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The 327 was produced by BMW for about five years before WW2 started.

It was available as both a coupe and a cabriolet, both with elegant styling, swooping fenders with covered rear wheels, and the trustworthy M78 or M328 inline-sixes under the hood. After the War’s end, the Russians kept making 327s up until 1951 at the Eisenach plant. These models are now known as EMWs (Eisenach Motoren Werke) as BMW itself had nothing to do with the manufacturing process of these cars although the tooling was 100% of BMW origin. The 327 is important as it proved that BMW could expand into the luxury sports car segment although it must be said that, over time, it has been overshadowed by the 328.

This 80-horsepower race car for the road, another model created by the duo of Peter Szymanowski (bodywork design) and Fritz Fiedler (on the engineering side), was the first truly successful BMW to go racing. Introduced in 1936 with a slightly beefed-up version of the M328 2.0-liter inline-six, the 328 came with an aluminum body suspended on a box-style chassis. The whole thing weighed just 1,830 pounds (later Works-prepared race cars were even lighter and even more powerful, breaking into the 100 horsepower territory). It proved virtually untouchable in the 2.0-liter sports car class throughout the remainder of the ’30s to the point that everybody who wanted to run in the 2.0-liter class got a 328.

In 1937 alone the 328 claimed over 100 class wins including the RAC Tourist Trophy in Great Britain.

It also won at the Mille Miglia and, in 1939, a 328 finished fifth overall and first in its category. BMW prepared a number of special 328s for the Mille Miglia and the 24 Hours of Le Mans equipped with an aerodynamic body and there was even a coupe built by Touring of Milan that won the 1940 Mille Miglia outright. The historical significance of the 328 was recognized in 1999 by an international panel of journalists that included it among the 26 finalists of the ’Car of the Century’ competition meant to handpick the most influential car of the 20th century. The 328 was one of only seven German cars and the only BMW on the shortlist.

The Third-Gen BMW Logo - 1953

The Evolution of BMW's Logo
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By the dawn of the ’50s, BMW was just restarting automobile manufacturing, now with a steady focus on making luxury cars after dabbling with economical and cheap models in the years leading up to WW2. In order to garner a clientele in a segment dominated by Mercedes-Benz, BMW’s bosses realized that a more thorough effort had to be put into standardizing the company’s logo. As such, it was decided, with input from Hans Grewenig, BMW’s Head of Sales, that the use of white lettering would be the norm in ads while the letters on the badge on both cars and bikes ought to be silver. This new design was first seen around 1952-1953 on BMW’s first post-war product, the lumpy 501 sedan. This new logo featured a lighter shade of blue in the inner quarters and the borders surrounding the outer ring and the inner circle disappeared.

Most Important Cars to Wear the Third-Gen BMW Logo

The 501 was introduced at the 1951 Frankfurt Auto Show but it would be another year before people could actually purchase the new four-door luxury cars.

At first, the bodywork was manufactured by Baur of Stuttgart and the car cost in excess of 15,000 German marks, four times the earnings of an average German. This along with the fact that, initially, the 501 was powered by the outdated 2.0-liter mill that was nowhere near adequate for a car that big meant that sales were slow.

This came as a bit of a surprise to Sales Boss Grewenig who was the one who favored the idea of producing a luxury car with high-profit margins over Chief Engineer Alfred Boening’s desire to make a small, economical city car powered by a motorcycle engine. In the end, the decision to build luxury cars came back to haunt BMW. Despite the fact that the Germans struck a deal to supply the Bavarian Police with 501s and also introduced the V-8-engined 502 in 1954, sales continued to stall.

Not wanting to give up the plan to build luxury cars, BMW then thought it could try and focus on the burgeoning U.S. market, one that would’ve been keen to buy a high-quality sports car if BMW would’ve offered one - at least according to importer Max Hoffman. Hoffman’s suggestion echoed Grewenig’s plans to come up with a challenger for Mercedes’ 190 SL based on the 501/502 platform.

The result was the 503, a two-door sports car with seating for four that was introduced in 1956.

Powered by the OHV 3.2-liter V-8, the 503 was supposed to sell for about $5,000 but it ended up costing twice as much and only 413 units were built until March of 1959.

At the same time, BMW also developed a two-seater sports car. The underpinnings were again the work of Fritz Fiedler while the body was styled by Albrecht von Goertz, the same designer who penned the 503. Introduced during a prestige event at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1955, the 507 was a hit due to its striking design but it never reached more than 10% of the sales volumes of its main rival, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. That’s because, like the 503, it was massively overpriced and BMW lost money on each 507 built. While Americans were willing to pay big money for a chic European sports car, the 507 lived its life in the shadow of the gullwing’ed 300 SL and less than 300 were sold by 1959 when the production was ceased - two of these were purchased by Elvis but the publicity didn’t help its cause.

1955 - 1962 BMW Isetta High Resolution Exterior
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By then, BMW was 15 million German marks in debt and things were looking grim after a decade of making overpriced luxury cars. It must be said that BMW tried countering all the losses encountered while building high-end automobiles by introducing its own version of the Iso Isetta, a microcar produced by Iso Rivolta. BMW entered talks to build the Isetta under license after seeing one at the 1954 Geneva Auto Show and the production started in earnest in 1955.

The small car with a single door mounted on its fascia was a hit selling 10,000 units in its first year alone and 100,000 units by 1958.

However, profit margins were small and it didn’t help that the market for motorcycles - BMW’s biggest earners in the first half of the ’50s - all but crumbled as Germans began replacing their two-wheeled contraptions with cars.

The Isetta spawned the BMW 600, a four-seat version of the original two-seater but that model didn’t sell as everybody was buying Volkswagen Beetles at the time. However, the 600 is important because it’s the first BMW to come with semi-trailing arm rear suspension. BMW realized quick enough that the 600 needed a proper replacement and the 700 was developed as the first BMW featuring monocoque construction. Introduced in 1959, the 700 proved popular and almost 200,000 units were sold in five years making it one of the unsung heroes of the brand at a time when it was close to bankruptcy (and, actually, close to merging into Daimler-Benz before Herbert Quandt stepped in and poured vital capital into the company).

The Fourth-Gen BMW Logo - 1963

The Evolution of BMW's Logo
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The fourth-generation BMW is an important one as it’s the first one that actually resembles the logo we see today. The reason for that is the switch from a serif font to a sans-serif font for the BMW lettering placed in the top half of the black ring. The two blue quarters within are now a bit darker than before and the silver outline returned. This logo was retained without major modifications for over three decades. In this time, BMW established itself as a luxury manufacturer with an eye on driver pleasure at a time when there was a distinction being made between a luxury car and one that was engaging to drive - BMWs were supposed to offer the best of both worlds in a visually striking package.

Most Important Cars to Wear the Fourth-Gen BMW Logo

With money from Herbert and Harald Quandt, BMW was able to start developing a new compact luxury car in the early ’60s. Fritz Fiedler was the head of the project and he tasked Eberhard Wolff with chassis design, while BMW Chief Designer Wilhelm Hofmeister (who introduced the now-trademark Hofmeister kink, the curved lower corner of the back window that went on to be incorporated on all BMWs that followed) took care of the styling and Alex von Falkenhausen and his team conceived a brand-new sub-2.0-liter unit for the car. Introduced at the 1961 Frankfurt Auto Show alongside the BMW 3200 CS, the last to be powered by the OHV V-8, the BMW 1500 prototype featured many design cues that would be carried over by many other BMW models over the decades.

Introduced in late 1962, the 1500 was powered by the M10 four-cylinder that cranked out 80 horsepower.

The 1500 was the first member of the ’Neue Klasse’ (New Class) family of models. It was the first BMW to be powered by an all-new powerplant since the 1933 BMW 303. It proved successful right off the bat with BMW breaking even in 1962 and then turning a profit in 1963, a year when it was able to pay dividends to its shareholders, something that hadn’t happened in over two decades. The 1500 was followed by the 1600 in 1964 (when the 1500 was discontinued), the 1800 (launched in 1963) and the 1800 TI/SA. The nomenclature referred to the engine capacity.

The ’New Class’ models introduced some design features now considered as classic by BMW fans: the angled front fascia with two rectangular grilles positioned on either side of the narrow, vertical kidney grilles. Two headlights were placed towards the outer edges of the fascia while the 2000 received more modern-looking rectangular light clusters placed within the boundaries of the grilles.

These sedans were praised for their practicality as well as their performance and superior handling (BMW equipped the 1600 with MacPherson struts for the first time).

Road & Track wrote in 1967 that the 2000 was "the best performing 2.0-liter sedan in today’s market and the best handling and best riding as well." This was also proved on the track where modified versions of the 1800 TI/SA and the 2000 were dominating in their respective classes, following in the footsteps of the 700RS, the racing version of the diminutive 700.

In 1965, BMW introduced the first two-door ’Neue Klasse’ models, namely the 2000 C and 2000 CS, both with bodywork by Karmann and powered by the 2.0-liter version of the M10 four-pot. The CS was the sportier of the two with 120 horsepower but both featured a similarly redesigned front end with sizeable headlights taking up the space occupied on the sedans by the grilles placed on either side of the kidneys. The odd-looking fascia received mixed reviews upon its introduction and, as such, the successor of the ’Neue Klasse’ coupe models came with a more familiar face.

That replacement is the now-legendary E9 that debuted at the same time as the E3 full-size sedan, in 1968.

Designed by Wilhelm Hofmeister, the E9 was powered by the M30 six-cylinder engine that, in the 2800CS model, cranked out 168 horsepower. The E9 and four-door E3 were the first to come with four headlights, unlike the ’Neue Klasse’ sedans that featured only two headlights. The E3 was kept in production all the way until 1977 by which time it was available with a 3.3-liter inline-six engine good for 194 horsepower. The E3 was replaced by the first 7 Series BMW, codenamed E23. Meanwhile, the E9 platform peaked in 1972 when BMW built the homologation-special 3.0 CSL (L standing for Leicht or Light). The 3.0 CSL road car was built solely because BMW wanted to race the model in the European Touring Car Championship where the 2800 CS proved to be inefficient in its attempts to beat Ford’s 2.6-liter Capri RS Mk. I. The final version of the CSL arrived in the summer of 1973 and featured an aggressive aerodynamic package complete with an air dam in the front and a fully-fledged wing hidden in the trunk that was left for each customer to fit on his or her car as BMW wasn’t allowed to sell the car with the wing already attached to the trunk lid. The wing, though, had to be there in order for BMW to race the CSL with that wing. The 1973-spec CSL put out over 200 horsepower and was nicknamed the ’Batmobile’ due to its monstrous appearance.

1975 BMW 3.0 CSL High Resolution Exterior
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The BMW 3.0 CSL first raced at Le Mans in 1973 but people remember the 1975 version entered by art curator and racer Herve Poulain. Poulain persuaded famous painter Alexander Calder to pretend the CSL was his canvas and paint it in his unique style. The end result was the first BMW Art Car. BMW noticed that the car attracted quite a crowd and became actively involved in attracting other artists and getting them to paint BMW race cars. BMW Motorsport boss Jochen Neerpasch, formerly the boss of Ford Motorsport Cologne, would usually have the artist file his concept design and then task Walter Maurer with actually applying that design to the car. That’s what happened in 1976 when a turbocharged version of the CSL raced with a checkered design by Frank Stella.

The 02 series models are also notable in their own right. Introduced in 1965, they were, in a way, a slightly larger replacement for the 700. The most famous member of the ’02’ family is the 2002, effectively a 1600-2 (the 2 refers to its alliance to the ’02’ family and not to the ’Neue Klasse’ family) fitted with the 2.0-liter M10 engine. The Ti (with two carburetors) version put out a respectable 120 horsepower but the most powerful ’02’ model was yet to come. In 1973, BMW introduced the first German production car to receive the aid of turbocharging, the 2002 Turbo with 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque.

The ’02’ series was replaced in 1975 by the BMW E21, the first of the 3 Series family. Initially, the E21 was powered by a couple of versions of the M10 four-pot, fuel-injected options becoming available late in ’75. In 1977, the first six-cylinder units became available for the E21. The E21 returned to the dual-headlight setup with the kidney grilles popping out thanks to their chromed frame. The E21 was also the first BMW to further BMW’s ’Driving Pleasure’ ethos by featuring a center console angled towards the driver. The E21 generation was available Stateside as the 320i between 1977 and 1983. The 320 model range was distinguishable from its brethren with smaller engines by its four headlights. The biggest engine offered on the E21’s platform was the 2.3-liter M20 inline-six that was available from 1977. The 323i was capable of reaching 60 mph from naught in under nine seconds en route to a top speed of 147 mph. BMW also built a multitude of E21-based racing cars, starting in 1977 when it debuted in endurance racing in the Group 5 category. In 1977, a 320i Gr. 5 raced at Le Mans with a livery designed by artist Roy Lichtenstein.

1978 - 1981 BMW M1 High Resolution Exterior
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In 1978, BMW came forth with its first and only supercar, the M1.

As the name suggests, it was the first M model ever. Originally supposed to be built by Lamborghini to meet homologation requirements for the Group 4 category in international endurance racing, the M1 ended up being built by BMW in-house as Lamborghini’s frail financial state prevented it from finishing the cars initially assembled in Turin at its factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese. The M1, as the first product of Neerpasch’s motorsport department for the road, was the model that first came with the BMW Motorsport logo in the back (on both sides of the rear fascia). This new logo featured the standard BMW roundel in the middle with a number of half-rings circling around it. These rings were painted in BMW Motorsport’s colors of blue, light blue, and red. This badge would reappear intermittently on other M products. An M1 painted by hand by Andy Warhol raced at Le Mans in 1979. The car was an un-homologated Gr. 4 racer entered in the IMSA class and was more or less identical in spec to the cars competing in the Porcar series, the support series that ran alongside the Formula 1 World Championship in 1979 and 1980.

The M1 was worlds apart from its mid-engined rivals in build quality although performance left something to be desired as the M88/1 3.5-liter straight-six only cranked out about 275 horsepower. This isn’t too much when you consider that the most powerful European-spec E23 7 Series, namely the 745i, put out 248 horsepower from the M102/M106 straight-sixes. There was an even more powerful South Africa-only 7 Series that was fitted with a modified version of the M88 engine and cranked out 286 horsepower with the help of a turbocharger. The U.S., however, had to make do with the 733i and the 735i that churned out just 180 horsepower due to stringent emission regulations that choked the M30 engines.

The first-gen 7 Series was replaced by the E32 generation in 1986.

By then, three legendary models were already in production: the E30 3 Series, the E24 6 Series, and the E28 5 Series (the first 5 Series). The latter was the first to be offered with a diesel engine, the 2.4-liter M21 inline-six that was also available on the E30. The E24 6 Series was the replacement of the E9 and it furthered its design philosophy with an even more aggressive front fascia thanks to the angled center panel and the pointy nose end with the kidney grilles placed towards the tip.

Produced between 1976 and 1989, the E24 spawned the M635 CSI version, the third M-badged BMW after the M1 and the E28 M5. While not a genuine M6, the M635 CSI was still very powerful when introduced in 1983 with 286 horsepower on tap thanks to the same M88/3 as the ones used in the South African 745i models. The E28-generation M5, meanwhile, was also made to fit the M88/3 but was also fitted with the S38 six-pot that was less powerful but almost as torquey. Both the E24 6 Series and the E30 3 Series gained a cult following and were also successful in competition. Over 2.4 million E30s were built between 1982 and 1994 and it was the first to spawn an M3 and an all-wheel-drive version. Both the 6 Series and the 3 Series were available Stateside but, due to American safety regulations, the appearance of the U.S.-spec models was partially ruined by the fitment of bigger bumpers at both ends with protruding rubber absorbers.

The E34 5 Series replaced the E28-generation model in 1987 and, a couple of years later, BMW’s repertoire was filled by two new sports cars: the 8 Series grand tourer and the Z1 sports car. While the former set new standards of comfort and luxury in its class, the other one is known for being both the first BMW model with a Z in its name (referring to the word ’Zukunft’, the German word for ’future) and also the first with doors that would go down in the sills instead of opening outward like standard doors. Only 8,000 Z1s were ever made while the 8 Series was much more popular with over 30,000 units sold until 1999. While an M8 version was in the works at one time, such a car was never sold to the general public and we had to wait 20 years for BMW to finally unveil a production-ready M8.

1989 - 1991 BMW Z1 Exterior
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The Z1 was followed by the Z3 and then the Z4.

There was also a Z8 that was introduced as a spiritual successor to the ill-fated 507. Its retro-chic styling by Henrik Fisker and use in the James Bond 007 franchise made it well-known but it did not sell. Only 5,703 units were ever made between 2000 and 2003 and they’re now considered among the rarest and most collectible BMWs made in the 21st century. Some 2,300 units were sold in the U.S. and you won’t find one now for less than $150,000 with prices soaring past $220,000 for a well-maintained model. That’s a hefty sum when you consider that a 2020 M8, the biggest and baddest two-door BMW on sale with 617 horsepower on tap (the Z8 with its M5-sourced V-8 put out just 394 horsepower) starts at $133,000.

The Fifth-Gen BMW Logo - 1997-Now

The Evolution of BMW's Logo
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BMW finally updated its logo in 1997, at a time when it was producing some of its most popular models: the E36 3 Series and the E39 5 Series. The new logo is a departure from what existed before as it’s the first to get a 3D look to it due to the use of shadows. The effect makes the roundel seem to pop out and also visually separates each quarter of the inner circle. The BMW lettering at the top remains in a sans-serif font. This design has been in use for over 20 years and BMW doesn’t seem like it will change it although it did introduce a throwback black-and-white 2-D logo back in 2017 that was supposed to single out BMW’s ’elite models’ like the 8 Series, i8, 7 Series, and X7.

Most Important Cars to Wear the Fifth-Gen BMW Logo

1992 - 2000 E36 BMW M3 Review
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All of the BMW models produced after 1997 came with a slightly redesigned badge (although the 3-D look was meant to be used in paper-based or online advertisements). Among them, we can’t forget the E36-generation 3 Series that represented a departure in terms of the design from the E30 with new, rectangular light clusters both in the front and in the back. It was also the first 3 Series with a multi-link rear suspension and the first to be available with a six-speed manual (in the 1996 M3). A Compact body style was introduced with this generation but it only survived as far as the E46 generation introduced in the year 1998.

The M3 version of the E36 3 Series was far more popular than the E30 M3.

If BMW was only able to sell 18,000 units of the original M3 (5,300 making their way to the U.S.), the E36 M3 sold in almost 50,000 units. This was also because it became available in both sedan and convertible body styles. In the U.S., the E36 3 Series made Car & Driver’s 10Best list every year it was on sale. While the M3 stayed true to the use of an inline-six engine, the third-generation 5 Series (E39) introduced in 1995 spawned an M5 version that was powered by a V-8. Granted, that S62 4.9-liter unit was good for 394 horsepower, 154 up on the M3 in U.S. spec and almost 80 up on the European M3.

2000 BMW X5
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While all of these models are significant, the most important model launched right after the introduction of the fifth-gen logo is undoubtedly the first-generation (E53) X5.

The X5 was one of the first production models made during the tenure of Chris Bangle as Chief Designer.

The incentive to create an SUV came after BMW acquired Rover (including Land Rover). Like the Land Rover, the X5 gen-one featured a two-piece tailgate (with half of the taillights connected to the lower part of the tailgate). However, that’s where the similarities would end as the X5 was a road-oriented SUV (BMW called it an SAV, with ’A’ for Activity) with the ’S’ taken seriously by BMW who wanted its customers to feel as if they were driving a sedan and not a high-riding off-roader.

The X5 proved massively popular and became a challenger for Mercedes-Benz’s ML, both being built Stateside. The noughties saw the introduction of three more SUVs: the X1, the X3, and the X6 that created the coupe SUV niche. These models, that have since been partnered by the X4 and the X7, are to some extent the bread and butter of BMW as the people started ditching sedans and station wagons in favor of crossovers and SUVs.

BMW Debuts “New” i8 Coupe and the First i8 Roadster Exterior
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2019 BMW i8

Still, BMW never abandoned its sedan lineup and continued to pump out the traditional 3 Series, 5 Series, 6 Series, and 7 Series models (that were, up until ’09, influenced by the controversial Bangle design), as well as other new models such as the 1 Series hatchback, the 2 Series coupe, and the 4 Series coupe. BMW tried to innovate by bridging into smaller and smaller niches such as the coupe-sedan niche (with the Gran Coupe models that mimicked the line of the Mercedes-Benz CLS, the first luxury coupe-sedan ever made).

More recently, BMW made the move towards electrification with the ’i’ family of models that spawned the i8, BMW’s second mid-engine car. Launched in 2014 and previewed as far back as 2009 by the Concept Vision EfficientDynamics, the i8 is powered by an electric motor (good for 141 horsepower) and a 1.5-liter inline-three turbocharged gas engine that cranks out 228 horsepower. The i8 boasts an EPA range of 330 miles and it features futuristic styling with dihedral doors and a sci-fi cockpit.

When Will the BMW Logo Change Again?

2020 BMW M850i Convertible - Driven
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BMW is clearly one of those brands that value brand identity to the max and isn't keen to change its signature elements that people recognize first.

While the company does play around quite a bit with its kidney grille, the roundel seems to be even more sacred in the sense that it’s hardly been changed since it was first seen in 1917. There’s also little to indicate that BMW wants to update the current design. This is evidenced by the fact that the 2016 BMW Vision Next 100 concept unveiled on the eve of the brand’s 100th anniversary, features the same badge as the current BMW models.

Is the BMW Logo Really a Propeller?

I Saw the 2020 BMW M135i at the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed and I'm Impressed
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The BMW logo isn’t a propeller, as mentioned earlier in this story. However, it’s worth explaining how the myth came about.

As mentioned, the meaning behind the four quarters within the black ring of the BMW roundel is hidden in the Bavarian flag.

It’s like a tribute to the home of BMW. But it’s also true that BMW used to brag with its aeronautical roots in the early day. Most probably, the propeller myth first appeared when, in 1929, BMW ran an advertisement featuring a couple of planes mid-flight. The planes’ spinning blades created the image of the BMW roundel complete with the blue and white colors and ’BMW’ written at the top.

This had more to do, according to BMW Motorcycle Magazine, with BMW wanting to publicize the fact that it had acquired the license to build Pratt & Whitney radial engines. However, according to Fred Jakobs, Archive Director of BMW Group Classic, "BMW made little effort to correct the myth that the BMW badge is a propeller." In fact, indirectly, it helped the myth spread. In 1942, the "BMW Werkzeitschrift" (the official BMW journal at the time), published a story on the origins of the roundel and linked it to the spinning propellers - probably because it was during the War and BMW switched to war-time production.

2020 BMW X6
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According to that story, "a BMW engineer was testing the company’s first 320 horsepower aero-engine. He admired the reflection of the shining disc of the rotating propeller that radiated like an aura of two silver cones. In between the two cones, the blue from the sky shined that made the rotating propeller into four areas of color – silver and blue." The story doesn’t add up as the BMW logo was already present when Karl Josef Popp became chairman of the Rapp Works and changed its name to BMW, which was before the first BMW-badged airplane engines were developed.

At the end of the day, it’s interesting to see how a myth can propagate if the company that should address the situation fails to do so for decades and, when it does, even some brand loyalists come forth and try to downplay the official storyline. That’s maybe because the propeller myth is more idyllic but it sure isn’t true.

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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