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BMW 507 Roadster

BMW 507 Roadster

By Jack Nerad

BMW 507 Roadster Sometimes great cars achieve significant commercial success. Witness the Model T Ford and Volkswagen Beetle as obvious examples. Other times, great cars make virtually no impact on the market, save to point the way for others to follow. The Cord 810 and Chrysler Airflow are prominent examples of this phenomenon. Sadly, the BMW 507 roadster also falls into this significant but ill-fated category. Born in the glory days of the true sports car, raised with a distinguished pedigree and built to the highest of standards, the 507 failed miserably at achieving commercial success, which is a great shame considering its many virtues.

To set the stage for the entrance of the 507, let us travel back in time to the immediate aftermath of World War II. Like most of the war-ravaged German auto industry, BMW was in tatters. Its auto manufacturing facilities, what were left of them after Allied bombing and occupation, were in Eisenach, behind the rapidly closing Iron Curtain of Russian-occupied East Germany.

In BMW's hometown of Munich, the heavily damaged factories were equipped to build only motorcycles, so re-entering the car business after the war was a lengthy and tortuous process. It wasn't until the tail end of 1949, four years after the war in Europe had ended, that the BMW motorcycle plant resumed production in any meaningful numbers. And it wasn't until 1951 than BMW offered its first postwar car model, a sedan whose prewar lineage was depressingly obvious.

Once motorcar production began, however, BMW made rapid progress. In fact, in true business terms you might make the claim that BMW's progress was too rapid. Despite the fact that the Europe of the early Fifties was still in a desperate economic slump, struggling mightily to rebuild, BMW seemed bent on hitching its fortunes to luxury cars. With this dubious strategy in mind, the company unmasked its first production aluminum-alloy V8 engine in 1954, despite the fact that the super-sophisticated offering was likely to find few buyers. The 502 sedan that used the new engine was largely a sales dud, which then sent BMW execs scurrying off in widely disparate directions.

At the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show, BMW continued the logical extension of the 502 theme with the 503 coupe and cabriolet and, the subject of this profile, the 507 Roadster. Almost in tandem with those introductions, though, BMW unveiled the Isetta Motocoupe, a cross between a car and a motorcycle that borrowed heavily on a similar Italian vehicle. A prestige car the Isetta certainly was not, but it would gain for BMW the volume that the 502, 503 and 507 would never provide.

Many lay the creation of the 507 Roadster at the door of estimable car importer Max Hoffmann, who is credited with the success of a number of European brands in the tumultuous postwar market in the U.S. Hoffman usually had a great sense of what would sell, and he persuaded the BMW brass that a roadster version of the 502 would offer the company a great chance to compete with the likes of Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz in the mid to upper echelons of the prestige car market.

Hoffmann wielded a great deal of power because the European sports car manufacturers, including the above-mentioned marques plus Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin, were dependent on the American market. Most of those companies sold more than 50 percent of their production in America, because the struggling European economies, some hobbled by incipient socialism, just weren't producing the requisite disposable income. So Max bent the ear of the BMW executives, and they bought his message.

It was a reasonably easy sale, because the mechanicals for the 507 Roadster were more or less in place. The key component was the lovely little 3.2-liter all-alloy V-8 engine. While some might tell you that 3168 cubic centimeters is too little displacement to get the advantages of the V-8 configuration, the engine was one of the technical marvels of its day. Without stressing the little two-valve powerplant in the least, it produced 150 horsepower at 5,000 rpm in its original form. Later examples were tweaked to produce 160 horsepower at a headier 5,600 rpm, and when the compression ratio was bumped from 7.8:1 to 9:1 the diminutive engine was said to deliver 195 horsepower. In a vehicle with a lightweight aluminum body, that made for stirring performance versus the other sports cars of the age.

The chassis -- no simple affair -- was constructed of tubular and box-section steel. It was similar to the chassis of the 502 sedan, but cut down and otherwise altered for sports car use. The front suspension was independent, using unequal-length A-arms with torsion bars as the springing mechanism and telescopic shocks for damping. The rear was less dramatic: a "full-floating" live axle sprung with torsion bars.

Of course, styling is crucial to the success of a sports car, and BMW's initial attempt at styling what would become the 507 was given the thums-down by Hoffmann and others who saw it. Pressed for time (and talent), BMW turned to an outside designer who was a protégé of legendary industrial and auto designer Raymond Loewy. Count Albrecht Graf Goertz, who had come to America to work with Loewy, reportedly got the assignment by drawing up some sketches on spec and submitting them to the BMW board. However the deal came to be made, the good count was thrust into a fast-moving project. He and his team completed the design work for the lovely aluminum body in a very short span, and the BMW craftsman picked up the gauntlet and completed the 507 prototype in time for display at the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show.

By any measure, the BMW 507 is a gorgeous design. It is exceedingly low and thin in section, giving it a spare, athletic look, like a marathon runner. Largely bereft of the chrome that was ladled onto American designs of the same period, the 507 did offer the highlight of small chrome grilles tastefully integrated into the front fenders behind the simple round wheel cutouts. This treatment was so elegant that BMW designers copped it virtually intact for their recent Z8 roadster. At the front, round headlights flank the widened but still recognizable BMW "kidney" grilles. The rear is even simpler with a chrome trunk handle and thin chrome bumper interrupting the meld of fender and trunk. Twin exhausts peeked out from underneath the spare body.

Inside, the 507 was equally purposeful. The simple painted metal dash contained round clock, tachometer and speedometer plus simple radio and heater/vent controls. The two bucket seats, though low in the body, placed their occupants relatively high versus the very low door tops.

With its stunning good looks the 507 wowed the attendees at the Frankfurt Motor Show. But it would be almost a year before BMW could get the car into production and then into showrooms. Along the way the complicated nature of the chassis and engine necessitated a high list price. While there was little question as to the 507's beauty, buyers found that the could purchase the Mercedes-Benz 300SL for slightly less money, while a top of the line Porsche of the era was even less expensive. And, of course, both of those cars had racing pedigrees, while the 507 had none.

Dissuaded by the hefty price tag, luxury sports car drivers stayed away from the 507 in droves. Though production continued into 1959, only 252 of the startling little beauties were built. Oddly, Elvis Presley, noted more for his fondness for massive Cadillacs, was the biggest of the big-name buyers. After the financially disastrous 507 experiment, BMW would shy away from true open-top sports cars for decades.

 

Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.

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