Narrowing it down to ten was no easy task.
Throughout the decades of its existence, BMW has gone through everything from tumultuous times to raging success. Since 1927, when it released its first car – the 3/15 sedan – BMW has gone on to produce hundreds of model variants. So to choose just ten was quite the task. But we’ve braved it through the night to find ten of the most iconic and influential BMWs to have ever roamed the streets.
It seems like an odd one to start the list on, especially considering the Isetta was actually an Italian-designed microcar. But the Isetta was licensed to BMW at a time when the brand was struggling to survive. Post World War II, BMW’s future was uncertain, but the Isetta changed all that. Powered by a 247cc one-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine that generated 13 horsepower, BMW produced a total of 161 728 units in a 7 year production span. It may have been an unlikely savior, but BMW wouldn’t be around today if it weren’t for the Isetta.
Based on the BMW E9, the 3.0 CSL was a homologation racing special built to make the car eligible to compete in the European Touring Car Championship. The lightweight road-racer was ahead of its time, using Perspex windows, aluminum body panels, and thinner steel in its construction. Under the hood lay a 3.0-liter 6 cylinder engine, which increased to 3.2-liters in 1973 when the final version was homologated. The 1973 version also featured aerodynamic upgrades including fins on the fenders, a roof spoiler, and a large trunk-mounted spoiler, earning the 3.0 CSL the nickname of ‘Batmobile.’
Widely regarded as the predecessor to the BMW M2, the 2002 was never planned for existence. In what could be described as pure happenstance, BMW’s director of product planning and lead engineer on the M10 engine both had 2.0-liter engines installed into their personal 1600-2 BMWs. Upon learning of this, and of the desire for a sportier 02 Series for the US market, BMW developed the 2002, unveiled the 2002 Turbo – BMW’s first turbocharged production car - in 1973. Its 2.0-liter motor developed 170 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. Sadly, the 1973 oil crisis struck shortly thereafter and only 1,672 models were ever built.
In the 1970s, BMW and Lamborghini came to an agreement to co-develop a mid-engined sports car in sufficient quantities to be homologated for production racing. BMW cut ties with Lamborghini, but continued production anyway with a group of ex-Lambo engineers. Powered by a 3.5-liter inline 6, the M1 generated 273 hp and featured a dog-leg 5-speed manual gearbox, with an impressive top speed of 162 mph. This was the first ever BMW M-car. Only 453 BMW M1s were produced, making it one of the rarest BMWs ever made, of which 20 of them were race versions for the BMW Procar championship.
The first in BMW’s Z-car series of vehicles, the Z1 was most known for arguably the coolest doors of any production vehicle that slid vertically into the door sills. It was one of the first BMW’s to utilize a multi-link rear suspension to improve handling. Only one drivetrain was available on the BMW Z1, a 2.5-liter inline-6 from the E30 325i that developed 168hp and 164 lb-ft. To accommodate the low body, the engine sat tilted to the right by 20 degrees in order to fit under the low hoodline. Since the Z1, the Z-car lineage has developed proudly to include the Z3, Z8, Z4, and a new Z4 on the way soon.
Widely regarded as BMW’s best M5, the E39 presented a massive leap in performance compared to its predecessors. The S62 engine under the hood was a 4.9-liter V8 engine that developed 394 hp and 369 lb-ft, with redline at 7,000 rpm. All E39 M5’s featured a six-speed manual gearbox and a 25% locking limited slip rear differential. The leap in performance was characterized by a 0-60 mph sprint time of 4.8 seconds and a restricted top speed of 155 mph.
Derestricted, the E39 M5 was capable of topping 186 mph. This was the last of the truly lightweight M5s – after this they got bigger, heavier, and less nimble – which is why the E39 M5 is widely regarded as one of the greatest driver’s BMWs in its history.
Fans of the original Need For Speed: Most Wanted will instantly recognize this one. It’s not widely known, but this was the first road-going BMW M3 to feature a V8 engine under the hood. But it wasn’t just an ordinary road-going M-car – it was a homologation special for American Le Mans Series racing, which stipulated that 100 cars needed to be sold across two continents, with 1000 engines being built to qualify without penalties. In road-going form, the M3 GTR’s 4.0-liter V8 developed 382 horsepower, and it featured a 6-speed manual transmission and variable locking M differential.
After the 2001 race season, BMW put 10 GTRs on sale at a price of 250,000 Euros ($310,000), though only 6 were produced. Three were recycled as development vehicles, with the remaining three retained by BMW.
Based on the Z3 Coupe, the BMW M Coupe was a skunkworks project developed in secret as the development team had a hard time convincing the board of directors a production model would be viable. They managed to gain approval on the proviso that they kept costs down, which is why it retained so many Z3 body parts. The US models were powered by an S52 engine displacing 3.2-liters and developing 240 hp and 236 lb-ft. In 2001, the global model was revamped to feature the S54 motor that developed 315 hp and 251 lb-ft in North American specification.
In the last decade and a half there have been numerous special BMWs, with the M-badge endowed upon more models than ever before – but the 1M coupe was a special one indeed. Due to the M1 supercar, the 1M Coupe couldn’t follow traditional naming for M cars. Based on the E87 1 Series Coupe, the 1M Coupe featured an uprated version of the N54 twin-turbo six cylinder engine. As the N54 wasn’t fettled by BMW M, many regard the 1M as not being a true M-car, but the compact coupe’s nimble chassis and impressive use of its 335 hp and 332 lb-ft ensured that those who owned them didn’t care for the non-S engine designation.
The second ever mid-engined BMW, the i8 has been a letdown for some and a revelation for others. The hybrid sports car features a mid-mounted 1.5-liter 3 cylinder turbo engine paired with a hybrid synchronous motor for combined outputs of 357 hp and 420 lb-ft driving all 4 wheels. Utilizing a lightweight carbon fiber chassis, the i8 weighs just 3 ,274 pounds, and as such offers impressive performance stats with 0-60 mph taking just 4.2 seconds. Striking styling and butterfly doors have complemented the futuristic styling as BMW’s i brand looks to bring electrification to the masses.