Oddball BMWs, 16-cylinder opulence, and something incredibly frugal.
When we think of German performance cars, the first that spring to mind are from Porsche, the performance divisions of Mercedes, BMW, and Audi, and then tuning houses that technically make production cars like RUF, Alpina, or Brabus. There's much more going on in Germany under the surface, though. For perspective, the first true modern car is generally accepted as Karl Benz's 1886 "Motorwagen," and Germany is renowned to the point of stereotype for its dedication to engineering. Add to that a long history of motorsport, and you have a recipe for some creative cars to be produced outside of the big three automakers. These are just some of them.
In the late 1970s, a Porsche designer named Eberhard Schulz designed a concept car in his free time for Mercedes. The German automaker showed the Mercedes CW311 in 1978 but wasn't interested in pushing it towards production. Schulz believed in the car, enough to form his own company, Isdera. The production car was changed little from how Mercedes displayed it other than things like the pop-up headlights being replaced with fixed units and different taillights sourced from Mercedes. It was built using a tubular space-frame chassis and a fiberglass body, and initially came with a 5.0-liter Mercedes-Benz M117 V8 engine. It also featured a rear-view periscope like the Lamborghini Countach "Periscopio" prototype, gullwing doors, and its luxurious interior had a lot of parts familiar to Porsche 928 owners.
The Isdera Imperator 108i was up there with its contemporary supercar competition at the time, but only 30 were built from 1984 to 1993. Over the years, the engine was upgraded and topped out with a 6.0-liter AMG unit making 390 hp.
Jetcar Zukunftsfahrzeug GmbH was established in 2000. The two main people behind it are Christian Wenger-Rosenau and Michael Wenger, both coming to the project after careers in the field of alternative energies. The Jetcar is four meters long, powered by a diesel engine from a Smart car, and is capable of 82 miles per gallon. Its claim to fame isn't sales, though. It was featured on all the Kinder Schokolade 40th anniversary products and in Nene's 2007 video for the single "Ich werde dich lieben." Kinder is known to the rest of the world mainly for the Kinder Surprise and Nene for the 1980's earworm "99 Luftballoons."
Race driver Heinz Melkus created his company to build race and sports cars in Dresden, which was then in communist-controlled East Germany. The first cars were built using parts from cars you wouldn't associate with performance, like Wartburgs and Trabants. However, with a top speed of 102 mph and dominating East German auto racing, the Melkus RS 1000 became known as the "Ferrari of the East."
Melkus lasted until 1986 when Heinz Melkus and his family opened a BMW dealership in Dresden. However, in 2006, his son Peter announced the marque was to be reborn, and the Melkus RS 2000 went into production from 2009 to 2012 with a limit of 25 vehicles per year being built. It was based on the original RS 1000 style-wise, but it's clearly a Lotus Elise under there and used a modern drivetrain, including a 300- or 350-hp four-cylinder turbocharged engine, a lightweight body, and a high-performance braking system.
BMW's E30 generation M3 set the standard for performance compact sedans, but there are six models in existence BMW didn't sell, but every hardcore old school BMW wouldn't mind getting their hands on. Hartge started tuning BMW E30 models in 1981 to create the H35 range but didn't gain manufacturer status until 1985. The H35-24 range featured a lot of options for engine swaps, but the H35-24s indicated an E30 M3 with BMW's M88/3 engine under the hood rather than the stock 192-hp four-cylinder lump. The M88/3 engine was the version of the BMW M1's straight-six modified to be used in the E24 M635CSi and legendary E28 M5 models.
In reality, the H35-24s didn't perform drastically better than the stock E30 M3 despite a massive 133-hp bump in power. It only reduced the 0-60 mph time by 0.6-seconds and increased top speed by 11 mph. The cost versus the increase in performance is likely why few were sold, but the idea of hearing the M5 sound from an M3 of that era is an intoxicating idea. It's generally thought that only six were made.
Erich Bitter went from being a race car driver to a tuner to an importer before finally settling on becoming a designer. After working for a small Italian company called Intermeccanica, Bitter created his own company that specializes in re-bodying other automaker's vehicles. The first appeared in 1973, but the Vero started production in 2007, based on the Australian made Holden Caprice. That's the more luxurious version of the Commodore. It is essentially a Caprice brought into and restyled for the European market. The hood is longer so it can curve down where the grill used to be, the new front bumper houses the new grille, and the rear bumper has fog light inserts for European legislation. Bitter also sold the Vero Sport, based on the Holden Commodore, which Americans know better as the Pontiac G8.
Hans Glas GmbH was founded in 1883 as an agricultural machinery repair company. The company moved into building machinery before venturing into making the small cars it became better known for. In the 1960s Glas built a sports coupe called the 1300GT. It was followed by the 1700GT and the 2600GT when BMW stepped in and bought the company. Officially, BMW wanted Glas's engineering talent, but unofficially it's understood the automaker also wanted Glas's automotive single-overhead-cam technology. Using that was the prototype 3000 V8 model that was getting ready for production. BMW ended production of most models immediately but put the 3000 V8 on the market with BMW badges and branded as the BMW-Glas 3000 V8. Only 389 were built as BMW's in-house designed large coupe, the 2500 CS, was ready to launch in 1968.
In the 1950s, microcars were, figuratively speaking, big in post-war Europe as they were cheap to buy and inexpensive to run. One of the cleverest was made by Paul Kleinschnittger, an engineer who came up with an idea to build the cheapest drivable car possible in the 1930s. World War II got in the way, but he survived and used scrap parts from military vehicles to build his tiny vehicle. The F 125 was built with a complex tubular chassis wrapped in a body made of aluminum. Making it even lighter, the Kleinschnittger F 125 used a rubber band suspension system. Powering what looks like a pedal car is a free-revving 5-hp two-stroke engine that gave it a top speed over 40 mph.
The Imperator 108i was not Eberhard Schulz's craziest car by a long shot. Following his adventures in supercars, he wanted to build a sixteen-cylinder car with a more vintage mindset. For inspiration, he turned to the 1937 540K Autobahn Kurier (which just won best in show at Pebble Beach), a particularly rare and beautiful Mercedes-Benz model. Developing a 16-cylinder motor from scratch was too expensive, so Schulz turned to Mercedes again and stuffed two 5.0-liter SOHC M117 V8s nose-to-nose under the hood for a total of well-over 500 hp. The front-engine drives the front wheels while the rear engine drives the back. The drivetrain and suspension are housed by a tubular space frame chassis, and the bodywork borderlines on a 1930s caricature while still looking serious and incredible. Inside, it has a full leather interior, heated and electrically adjustable seats, air-conditioning, and, just in case someone starts showing off at a concourse event next to you, a marble dashboard. Schulz planned to build more, but only one exists.