Octane
By Amos Kwon
on 9.16.13

Trace some of the best modern cars back to their origins and you’ll be surprised how much design language and heritage have been passed forward, in some cases for decades. The current and past generations of Porsche 911 pay homage to the Porsche 356 that dates back to the late 1940s. Modern Astons still echo some of the styling cues from the old and venerable DBs. Even the raucous Mercedes Benz SLS is directly connected to the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, albeit perhaps not as iconically expressed. We could go on, but the point is that so much of what we see today isn’t necessarily wholly original, especially when it comes to premier automotive brands that have both a legacy and a reputation to uphold.

BMW is no exception. The pioneering Z3, the unique Z8, today’s Z4 — the BMW 507 is the granddaddy of them all. It’s only fitting to look back to the origins of the BMW convertible and pay our respects to the iconic 507, a car that nearly bankrupted BMW, but provided an immense wealth of legacy.

MORE OCTANE ICONS: Ferrari 288 GTO | Lamborghini Countach | Lancia Stratos

What It’s All About

BMW’s transition from airplane engines to motorcycles and then to automobiles is the stuff of legend, and today their automobiles are known as some of the best around when it comes to design and driving dynamics. But their cars weren’t always the most eye-catching (the quirky, revolutionary Isetta, for example). In 1956, BMW embarked on a new chapter in their history, producing a stunning automobile known as the 507, a car that rung in modern and exotic design for the brand that’s stood the test of time ever since.

Created as a 2-seat convertible, the 507 communicated both elegance and power — similar in execution to the Jaguar E-Type and the Ferrari 256GT California, two cars that rank at the top of the most beautiful ever to lay rubber on pavement. The 507’s kidney grille was flanked by two prominent headlights ahead of long, curved front quarter panels with huge vents; its lines closed in a simple and elegant tail. It’s remarkably gorgeous.

BMW only ever managed to build 252 507s, and production ceased after three short years — this, despite the 507’s penchant for attracting the rich and famous, like Elvis Presley.

BMW’s intent was to hit the U.S. automobile market hard, selling thousands of 507s to customers craving a beautiful grand tourer at a cheaper price than costlier exotics like the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Shifting the image of their brand to the truly desirable necessitated lofty production ambitions for BMW. The car bowed in New York in 1995 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and production started in 1956 at a price of approximately $5,000. But the 507 would never see the intended production numbers of 5,000 per year due to the unpredictably high cost of making the car. In fact, the U.S. price skyrocketed to a bloated $10,500. BMW only ever managed to build 252 507s, and production ceased after three short years — this, despite the 507’s penchant for attracting the rich and famous, like Elvis Presley. BMW took a serious financial hit and were nearly bankrupted from the resultant losses; they had to return to producing less expensive cars in order to escape the economic morass they had created for themselves.

Technical Rundown

Consider the 507 the far more attractive sibling to the BMW 503; both cars used the same frame, but the 507 was shorter. Though each 507’s body was built from hand-formed aluminum and the car was only capable of transporting two passengers with a modest amount of cargo space, its curb weight was a shocking 2,900 pounds. Each car varied due to this hand-formed process, and the provided steel hard top (in addition to the retractable cloth top) that came with each car was custom fitted due to differences from car to car. Though powered by an aluminum alloy BMW 150-hp V8 single overhead cam engine, the 507 was ponderous in curves due to its immense weight. It was far from a rocketship off the line, reaching 60 mph in a little more than 11 seconds, but was still quite capable as a long-distance grand tourer with a top speed of over 120 mph. (The Mercedes-Benz 300SL, by comparision, had a more powerful engine, and a top speed of 160+.) Early models had four-wheel drum brakes that made stopping less than impressive (later versions got front disc brakes).

Its Place in History

Though the 507 clearly failed to see any sales records for BMW (the opposite, in fact), what the 507 did do for Bayerische Motoren Werke was, in the big picture, far more significant. The car achieved design icon status, cementing BMW’s reputation for producing beautiful, fast automobiles that had a clear dedication to exacting engineering standards. Today, the remaining 507s command nearly a million dollars at auction, a price brought about not only by rarity but also by legendary beauty.

Current BMW design continues to pay homage to the 507, evoking power and elegance with similar styling elements. Take one look at the limited-run Z8 from 1999, for example — grille design and curvature of the body are undeniable evidence that the fast convertible is a direct descendant of the 507. The 507 is a successful failure, one of those few automobiles that lives on in automotive history despite its auspicious life and death.