I would like to have been at yesterday’s BMW financial press conference to hear CEO Norbert Reithofer admit that the BMW brand was gearing up to produce a range of small front-drive cars.
The carmaker has agonised over the front-wheel drive question before. In the early 1990s, BMW built a number of front-drive 3-series prototypes. Back in those days, before the premium brand boom, BMW was a much smaller company.
While BMW’s new boss Bernd Pischetsrieder was convinced BMW needed to expand into more market niches, he thought it should not be done under the BMW roundel.
In 1992-3, Land Rover approached BMW, wanting to buy the company’s new straight-six turbo diesel engine. BMW asked Land Rover’s owners, British Aerospace, whether it would sell Land Rover.
BAe said it would offer the whole Rover Group to BMW for £800m, big money back then. BMW snapped the company up in February 1994, delighted to get Land Rover, Range Rover, Mini and the front-drive Rover brand.
Of course, BMW soon had plenty of time to repent when it unwrapped the endless problems suffered by ‘the English patient’ and also found itself paying substantial licence fees to Honda in order to keep building Rover’s Honda-based cars.
Indeed, when BMW broke up Rover Group in 2000, the reason it gave was that instead of finishing the development of the planned front-drive Rover R30 model, it would now build an entry-level car under the BMW brand. So Rover was no longer needed.
The R30-derived 1-series was, of course, rear-wheel drive, and when it was launched BMW ran a series of punchy ads claiming the superiority of rear-drive, calling it ‘standard drive’ to underline the point.
So it seems quite ironic that BMW has arrived back at the philosophical point the company was at in 1993. Should it build front-drive models under the BMW badge, or stick to using a separate (in this case Mini) brand?
Although the market has changed massively, if BMW had decided back in 1993 that it could take the risk and build a front-drive BMW, it would have saved itself a huge amount of trouble.
Amusingly, Reithofer’s announcement was almost 17 years to the month after BMW bought front-drive Rover but singularly failed to buy the actual front-drive technology.
Still, at least the new baby BMWs will be based on a new front-drive platform that is 100 per cent pure Munich. And by the time they’re launched in 2014, it will two decades since BMW made the fateful decision not to build its own front-drive cars.