BMW has created some real game-changers throughout its 100 years. Here are some of its best before the year 1999.
1927 - 3/15 Dixi
BMW started life making aero engines, so the Dixi was the first BMW-built car. It wasn’t a BMW but an Austin Seven built under license with British components. Still, we’ve all got to start somewhere.
1933 - 303 saloon
Not quite the first proper BMW but easily the most significant of the early cars, introducing as it did both the six-cylinder engine and the kidney grille that is the cornerstone of the marque’s identity to this day.
1934 - 315/1
This was BMW’s first performance roadster: the Z4 of its era and the father of the 328.
1937 - 327
An attractive and successful tourer but lacking the sex appeal of the 328.
1940 - 328 Mille Miglia
It slayed giants on the Mille Miglia outright using just 2.0 litres and a ground-breaking aerodynamic body.
1949 - 340
The first post-war BMW.
1954 - 502
BMW’s first V8, providing genuine 100mph pace in a proper luxury car.
1955 - Isetta
Perhaps the best of the bubbles, this BMW-built and powered version of Renzo Rivolta’s classic design helped BMW through its most troubled times.
1956 - 503 Cabriolet
A more civilised but less striking version of the 503. Lovely, but too heavy and expensive to succeed.
1956 - 507
BMW’s answer to the Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
But despite a bigger engine with more cylinders (a 3.2-litre V8), power and performance were never in the same league as that of the Benz.
Sales were slow, which has made examples of it incredibly valuable today. This is the car that BMW was trying to emulate when it built the Z8.
1957 - 600
A four-seat Isetta that looked good and went well. Had its introduction not coincided with that of Dante Giacosa’s game-changing Fiat 500, it might have fared a whole lot better in the marketplace than it did.
1959 - 700
Odd-looking but innovative, the rear-engined monocoque 700 saved BMW when the failures of the 1950s looked likely to bankrupt the company.
1962 - 3200 CS
The last of the old-school BMWs. It was attractive but obsolete on its introduction.
1962 - 1500
The first of the new-school BMWs.
The journey that led to your 3 Series started right here, making this one of the most critically important cars in the company’s history.
Had it failed, few doubt that BMW would have gone down with it. In fact, it was a roaring success.
This is where the Hofmeister kink, that famous rear pillar design element, came from, too.
1964 - 1800 Ti/SA
It looked like your gran should drive it, but it could humble Lotus Cortinas on track.
1966 - 1602
Smaller, lighter and better to drive than the 1500, the two-door 1602 built on its big brother’s success.
1968 - E3 New Six
The classic big BMW saloon and a return to silken-smooth six-cylinder engines. ‘E’ numbers started here.
1971 - 2002 Tii
BMW’s first small fast saloon and one of its very best.
1971 - E9 3.0 CSi
Almost as good as a Bat (see below) for a fraction of the money.
1972 - E9 3.0 CSL
The iconic BMW coupé of its era. It was similar to the CSi but had light panels and an aluminium bonnet, bootlid and doors.
Designed to homologate the racing version, it became a cult car in its own right – never more so than when BMW fitted a huge rear wing, deep front spoiler and fins on the bonnet to homologate development parts for the race-going model.
These are the components that earned it the Batmobile title.
1973 - E9 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the European Touring Car Championship was the premier tin-top series in the world. And from 1973 to 1979, the Bat won all but one of them. Enough said.
1974 - 2002 Turbo
Comically unreliable, absurd lag from a pioneering turbo motor, ridiculously tricky to drive fast and still utterly loveable. Worth it for the mirrored ‘Turbo’ logo on the front spoiler alone.
1975 - E3 3.3 Li
BMW’s best big saloon until the current 7 Series.
1976 - E24 633 CSi
The first 6 Series and a truly delightful GT.
Watch: What is the best BMW ever?
1978 - E12 528i
Best of the ‘normal’ first-gen 5 Series.
1979 - E21 323i
The 3 Series first entered service in 1975, but it was four years later that the fun really began, right here with the powerful 323i and its hilarious handling.
1979 - E23 745i
A turbocharged 7 Series, sold sadly in left-hand drive markets only because the turbo would have got in the way of the right-hand drive steering box.
1979 - Procar
The racing M1, used for two seasons as dodgems by Formula 1 drivers as grand prix curtain raisers.
1980 - E12 M535i
The fun starts to get serious: a 3.5-litre engine with a Motorsporttuned chassis.
1981 - E28 520i
This was a slow but super-smooth second-gen 5 Series.
1983 - E24 M635 CSi
One of BMW’s finest: a tuned M1 engine in the brilliant 6 Series chassis. A driving and GT dream.
1984 - 635 CSi DTM
Won the inaugural DTM (German touring car) championship, driven by Volker Strycek.
1985 - E28 M5
Perhaps BMW’s greatest Q-car, a 286bhp missile that looked very little different from a 520i. A world-class wolf in sheep’s clothing.
1987 - E30 325i Touring
Rubbish as a wagon, but most drivers were too busy having fun to care.
1988 - E34 535i
Most impressive and entertaining standard sports saloon of its era.
1989 - E30 M3
Won the DTM with Roberto Ravaglia at the wheel and spawned a limitededition road car.
1989 - Z1
Worth it for the doors by themselves.
1990 - E36 318i
Improved the lot of the budgetconscious long-distance driver like few before or since.
1991 - E30 M3 Evolution 2
The ultimate original M3 with a 2.5-litre motor. Rare today and deservedly expensive.
1991 - E34 M5
Still rated by many as the best M5, ourselves included. Another close contender for our top five.
1992 - E34 M5 Touring
The original M5 estate, left-hand drive only. A rare pleasure.
1992 - E31 850 CSi
The 8 Series wasn’t great, but this was the best of them.
1991 - E36 318iS
Owners will tell you it’s a junior M3. And they’d be right.
1993 - E34 540i
BMW’s first modern V8 and the first sign the company was weaning itself off the straight six. We thought we might not like it. We thought wrong.
1994 - E36 325tds
An incredibly important car, because it was the first serious, high-performance diesel to go on sale.
Acceleration and mechanical refinement illuminated a whole new world of possibilities for diesel, most of which we had not even dreamt of until this time.
1994 - E36 318Ti Compact
Based on BMW’s first proper hatchback, this was an underrated and sparkling thing to drive.
1994 - E36 M3 saloon
Following the E30 act was never going to be easy and despite its six cylinders and additional power, this was a mixed effort. We had to wait for the…
1995 - E36 M3 Evolution
…Evo version to see how it should really have been done all along.
1995 - E38 750i
The first V12-engined 7 Series, with more computing power than that which took man to the moon.
1998 - E39 M5
Ah, the one with the 5.0-litre V8.
It was so well balanced that we used it for the Sideways Challenge, yet it was a superb long-distance weapon, too.
1998 - Z3 M Coupé
The only Z3 we really liked. Because it was mad.
1998 - E46 320d
The first 320d, which set a new level of ability for four-cylinder diesels.
1999 - Z8
Rarely has time aged a car better.
A car that seemed irritatingly flawed at the time but now seems like the wonderful, stylish, powerful roadster that BMW always intended it to be.
1999 - V12 LMR
Who now remembers that BMW won Le Mans, with a prototype powered by the same engine as the McLaren F1?
An incredible achievement with a car already lost in the mists of time.