During the late 1950s, BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke) was teetering on bankruptcy. Its large sedans, sports cars, and motorcycle were selling very poorly. The company kept itself afloat by building the Isetta, 600, and 700 microcars, which sold well, but were not very profitable. In addition to its financial difficulties, BMW also had to fend off an unsuccessful takeover bid by German competitor Daimler-Benz. But all was not lost for the Munich, Germany-based automaker. In 1959, BMW started work on an advanced mid-range car that it hoped would sell in large numbers. The end result was a car that not only saved the company, but is also credited with truly establishing BMW a world-class automaker: the 1962-1964 BMW 1500.
Popularly known as the “New Class,” the BMW 1500 was a medium-priced, 4-door sport sedan. Designed by a team headed by Fritz Fiedler, it was a remarkably advanced medium-priced car for its time. An efficient compact design, the 1500 was built on a monocoque chassis and rode on a 100-inch wheelbase. It employed a front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout. Power was provided by a sophisticated 1499 cc (91 cubic-inch) inline-4 engine, which featured a chain-driven overhead camshaft and was good for 80 horsepower. The engine was mated to a four-speed manual transmission. The 1500 was equipped with a then-advanced 4-wheel independent suspension system, which employed MacPherson struts and coil springs on the front and semi-trailing arms and coil springs in the rear.
Not only did the 1500 feature advanced engineering, it was given a practical, yet striking-looking unit body. Styled by Wilhelm Hofmeister, the body featured a forward slanted nose, a low-hood and trunk line, and BMW’s trademark kidney-shaped grille, thus creating an unmistakeable outer profile that would appear on BMW cars for many years to come. The low hood and trunk line allowed for a large window glass area, which gave drivers exceptional visibility. Inside, the 1500 could seat 5 passengers and had a surprisingly spacious trunk.
To top it all off, the BMW 1500 offered a level of performance that was considered excellent for a sport sedan of its day. The 1500 was capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 14 seconds and had a claimed top speed of 92 miles per hour. Thanks to its 4-wheel independent suspension, the car was also blessed with outstanding handling characteristics.
The BMW 1500 was released to the motoring public in the summer of 1962. Initially offered at a price of $2,125, the car was a smash hit and the demand for it quickly exceeded supply. Customers and critics alike were impressed with the 1500’s advanced design and lively performance. The car sold so well that BMW’s financial position improved dramatically and firmly established the company as a world class automaker. On a negative note, the earliest 1500s did experience some serious quality issues, which included problems with their transmissions, trailing arms, and rear axles. But BMW was able to address many of these issues over the course of the car’s production run. The lessons learned from the experience of the 1500 enabled BMW to build higher quality cars in the future.
After a 3-year model run, the BMW 1500 was replaced by the BMW 1600 for the 1965 model year. 23,807 BMW 1500s were built. Surviving examples are sought-after collectibles today.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 174-175.
BMW 1500 (1961), BMW: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 1500, 1961-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 134-135, 139-140.
Die Neue Klasse BMW 1500, Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: 1500, 1961-1964, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.