I hear one complaint all too often: There are too many BMW models. BMW is diluting the brand and forgetting the performance-driving segment that made it successful in the first place.
Could this be true? In the U.S. market, BMW offers over 100 models, if you include every variant. Why so many—why all those vehicles aimed at families and urbanites and young people, instead of just us manly track drivers?
Whoops! We may have just answered the first question with another question.
In its earlier days, BMW was a small business, one that almost went out of business on more than one occasion. BMW’s history may show us why today BMW feels the need for explosive model proliferation, so let’s go back in time. Where did I put the keys to the DeLorean?
Let’s start with 1918. After World War I, when it could no longer build airplane engines, BMW AG manufactured engines for trucks, tractors, and boats, and even made railroad brake parts to stay profitable. But it couldn’t sustain profits, and the company was sold. Fortunately for us, it was then bought back; in the 1920s, BMW started to build motorcycles, and then cars, and by the end of the 1930s, it was in good shape. Then came World War II, which brought the company to the edge of physical and financial ruin.
With the war over, BMW started putting the pieces back together, building pots and pans and bicycles from scrap aluminum. They were allowed to build motorcycles again in 1947, and resumed automobile production in the 1950s. Unable to capitalize on low-margin, high-volume production, the company tried its pre-war strategy: building luxury cars with high profit margins, like the 501 and 502. However, most Germans were not in a position to buy bicycles, let alone luxury cars, so BMW almost went under again. It was saved in the short run by increased motorcycle sales and the introduction of the Isetta in 1955. Even so, in 1959 the company was still in bad shape, and considered an offer to merge with Daimler-Benz.
Now, I admire a good Mercedes as much as the next guy, but I cringe when I think of how different my motoring life would have been if my only option 33 years ago was to join the Mercedes Car Club of America. Anyway, Herbert Quandt, BMW’s largest shareholder, invested enough capital to fight off the takeover—despite the advice of his bankers. But he still needed to make the company profitable.
Increased cash flow from sales of BMW’s 700 model—it was still powered by a motorcycle engine in the rear, but at least it looked like a real car—led to a careful analysis of the company’s future. Looking backward had not worked, so they looked forward, to a new era of motoring. BMW analyzed the marketplace and concluded that it needed new models. How many? As many as it would take to cover the market.
Enter the Neue Klasse—New Class—1500 four-door sedan in 1962. With this car, BMW laid claim to the term sport sedan, and followed it with 1800, 1600, and 2000 sedans. The 2000C and 2000CS coupes expanded the line in the mid-1960s. Then came the car of our dreams, a more powerful version of the two-door 1600-2 (later called the 1602): the 2002. Two lesser-known variants followed: the 1802 and the 1502. In 1972, the fifth New Class model series was released, and unimaginatively named the 5 Series.
During the New Class period, BMW fielded about a dozen different models, not counting variants such as convertibles. As BMW during this time was considered a small carmaker, such an ambitious diversity of models was pretty amazing, not to mention risky. We now know that the principles and strategies developed during this time would eventually make BMW the world’s best-selling luxury-car company, so it’s no surprise that it is still holding to those guiding notions.
Today, BMW seems to be striving to cover every premium car segment in the 140 countries in which it operates. But markets change quickly; BMW was caught flat-footed in the 1950s, selling the wrong kind of car, and the company was almost lost. The company was caught again at the end of the 1990s, when Mercedes and Lexus had premium SUVs and BMW didn’t; they lost a lot of sales before coming out with the X5. Today, if a car-buyer almost anywhere in the world wants a certain type of premium vehicle, with a certain look, powerplant, drive system, seating capacity, or option set, and BMW doesn’t have it, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Cadillac, or half-a-dozen other premium carmakers will.
The “too many model” critics actually remind me of myself. When the company announced plans for the X5, I criticized BMW to anyone who would listen; the company had no business building sport utility—or activity—vehicles. But when I lost my Dakota pickup in an unfortunate liaison with a Chevy van, I needed a new daily driver—and a tow vehicle for my M3 race car. Twelve years and two X5s later, I’m not too proud to admit that I was wrong about BMW building SUVs.
Now when I hear someone gripe that BMW has no business building something—for example, front-wheel-drive cars—I recall my own bias against non-traditional BMWs. China is now BMW’s biggest overseas market; why on Earth wouldn’t the company build smaller, front-wheel-drive cars? Does the self-esteem of an E92 M3 owner in the U.S. suffer because a soccer mom in a country 12,000 miles away—where they really do play soccer—has a front-driver with the same hood emblem? Does that M3 guy understand that the profit on those 2 Series Active Tourers sold in China will help pay the research-and-development costs for the next M3—or M4, as the case may be?
In 1994, I didn’t know how many models BMW made, and I didn’t care. The only one I wanted was the E36 M3. I think BMW fans today who complain that BMW makes too many models, or that BMW makes front-wheel drive cars, or that this BMW is ugly or that BMW is stupid, are missing the point. If BMW introduces a new model you don’t like, don’t buy it. Don’t even waste your time looking at ads for it. Just find the model you are passionate about, and buy that.
If BMW makes just one car that you can fall in love with, what do you care what other models it makes?
Of course, if you look at every BMW model, and you can’t find one that looks good, performs well, inspires your passion for the marque, and drives like a BMW, then you really do have something to complain about. But in this case, I guess the complaint would be that BMW doesn’t build enough models.—Scott Blazey