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50 Years of the BMW 'Neue Klasse'

Mon, 04 Apr 2011

In a year that sees the celebration of the ever-seductive Jaguar E-Type and the characterful Renault 4, it would be easy to overlook other cars also reaching their half-century, especially a mundane three-box saloon. However, the BMW 1500 isn't any less significant.

When launched at the 1961 Frankfurt International Motor Show, intrigued and inquisitive visitors were forced to wait 30 minutes just to catch a glimpse of the car. On public display for the first time, the 1500 – shown in ‘virginal white' – was seemingly a case of ‘right time, right place'. With average wages rising by 10 per cent annually and the number of new cars registered passing one million that year for the first time, the mid-sized struck a chord with public and press alike.

With its line up of the ‘Baroque Angel' eight-cylinder, range-topping leviathan 501/2 sedans, and the diminutive 700 series small car, there was a sizeable gap in the BMW portfolio for the aspiring middle classes of Germany. Following on from increasing sales of the Isetta microcar and the 700 series, combined with the demise of premium manufacturer Borgward Isabella, BMW made its intentions clear that the 1500 was to fill the gap.

Following its own financial turmoil at the turn of the decade, pursuing the 1500 could have proved to be risky. However, following investment in plant and development work, the 1500 was heralded as a new-era for the Bavarian carmaker, with the feeling of a ‘new-era' extending through to the design of the car. Under the direction of chief stylist Wilhelm Hofmeister, with the aid of Giovanni Michelotti, the first sketches of the 1500 drew, unsurprisingly, on Italian cars and heavily on the stylistic features of the beautiful 507 roadster. However, after seeing Michelotti's unadorned DRG, Hofmeister insisted on a return to the twin kidney style grille.

In doing so, engineers placed the twin kidney vertically within the center of the grille, creating the fabled BMW face. This was not the only first for future BMWs to be previewed on the 1500 – the C-Pillar also sported what has retrospectively been named the ‘Hofmeister kink'. In fact the small step replacing the traditional rounded transition was purely for practical reasons, eradicating any potential weaknesses around the transitional point between body and roof.

Whilst not perceived to be as beautiful or globally important as its British contemporary, or as engaging as its French, the 1500 paved the way for middle-class ambition, for BMW in terms of design, and for prosperity for Germany as a whole. It's a formula which is as popular today as ever. And for this we wish the 1500 a very Happy Birthday.

By John O'Brien