Sometimes great cars achieve significant commercial victory. Witness the Volkswagen Beetle and Model T Ford as obvious examples.Other times, great cars make virtually no impression on the market, save to point the way for others to follow. The Chrysler Airflow and Cord 810 are prominent examples of this phenomenon. Sadly, the BMW 507 roadster also belongs 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 accomplishment, which is a great shame considering its many good features.
Picking off after the battle
To set the stage for the entrance of the 507, let us travel back in time to the immediate repercussions of World War II. Like most of the war-ravaged German auto industry, BMW was in scraps. Its auto manufacturing services, what were left of them after Allied bombing and occupation, were in Eisenach, behind the quickly 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 industry after the war was a tortuous and lengthy process. It wasn’t until the tail end of 1949, four years after the war in Europe had finished, that the BMW motorcycle plant resumed production in any meaningful numbers. And it wasn’t until 1951 than BMW proposed its first postwar car model, a sedan whose prewar lineage was depressingly apparent.
However, once motorcar production began, BMW made quick progress.In true business terms, in fact, 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, fighting back mightily to rebuild, BMW seemed bent on hitching its fortunes to luxury cars. With this dubious strategy in mind, the company exposed its first production aluminum-alloy V8 engine in 1954, despite the fact that the super-sophisticated offering was likely to find few customers. The 502 sedan that used the new engine was largely a sales dud, which then sent BMW execs scurrying off in extensively disparate directions.
At the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show, BMW kept the logical extension of the 502 theme with the 503 coupe and cabriolet and, the subject of this profile, the 507 Roadster. Though, almost in tandem with those introductions, BMW unveiled the Isetta Motocoupe, a cross between a motorcycle and a car that borrowed heavily on a similar Italian vehicle. A prestige car the Isetta definitely 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 victory of a number of European brands in the tumultuous postwar market in the U.S. Hoffman normally 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 J Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar in the mid to upper echelons of the prestige car market.
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Hoffmann wielded a vast deal of power because the European sports car manufacturers, including the above-mentioned marques plus Ferrari, Maserati Porsche, 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 salary. So, Max bent the ear of the BMW to management, and they bought his idea.
It was a practically easy sale, because the mechanicals for the 507 Roadster were more or less in place. The chief component was the lovely little 3.2-liter all-alloy V-8 engine. While some might say that 3168 cubic centimeters is too little displacement to get the benefits of the V-8 configuration, the engine was one of the technical marvels of its day. Without stressing the tiny two-valve powerplant in the least, it produced 150 horsepower at 5,000 rpm in its unusual form. Later examples were twisted 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 produce 195 horsepower. In a vehicle with a lightweight aluminum body, that made for stirring accomplishment versus the other sports cars of the age.
The chassis — no simple affair — was built of tubular and box-section steel. It was similar to the chassis of the 502 sedan, but cut down and otherwise modified for sports car use. The front suspension was independent, using unequal-length A-arms with telescopic shocks for damping and torsion bars as the springing mechanism. The back was less dramatic: a “full-floating” live axle sprung with torsion bars.
Styling is, of course, critical to the success of a sports car, and BMW’s initial attempt at styling what would become the 507 was given the thumbs-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 auto and industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Count Albrecht Graf Goertz, who had come to America to work with Loewy, allegedly got the assignment by drawing up some sketches on spec and submitting them to the BMW board. The deal, however, 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 model in time for display at the 1955 Frankfurt Motor Show.
By any measure, the BMW 507 is a striking design. It is exceedingly thin and low in section, giving it an athletic, spare look, like a marathon runner. Largely bereft of the chrome that was ladled onto American designs of the same period, the 507 did provide the highlight of small chrome grilles tastefully incorporated into the front fenders behind the simple round wheel cutouts. This treatment was so stylish that BMW designers copped it virtually intact for their recent Z8 roadster. At the front, round headlights bordered the widened but still recognizable BMW “kidney” grilles. The back is even simpler with a chrome trunk handle and thin chrome bumper interrupting the meld of trunk and fender. Twin exhausts peeked out from beneath the spare body.
Inside, the 507 was similarly purposeful. The simple painted metal dash contained tachometer, round clock, and speedometer plus simple radio and heater/vent controls. Though low in the body, the two bucket seats placed their occupants relatively high versus the very low door tops.
With its striking good looks, the 507 wowed the viewers at the Frankfurt Motor Show. But it would be almost a year before BMW could get the car into production and then into display areas. Along the way, the complicated nature of the engine and chassis necessitated a high list price. While there was little question as to the 507’s beauty, buyers found that they could purchase the Mercedes-Benz 300SL for slightly less money, while a top of the line Porsche of the era was even less pricey. And, certainly, both of those cars had racing pedigrees, while the 507 had none.
Dissuaded by the hefty price label, luxury sports car drivers stayed away from the 507 in droves. Though production carried on into 1959, only 252 of the startling little beauties were built. Oddly, Elvis Presley, noted more for his fondness for enormous Cadillacs, was the biggest of the big-name buyers. After the financially disastrous 507 experiment, BMW would recoil from true open-top sports cars for decades.
Filed under: Top Classic Cars