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BMW Engines of the 20th Century

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Mike Fishwick View Drop Down
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    Posted: 15 Oct 2013 at 11:32am


Book Review by Mike Fishwick


Make no mistake – this vast two-volume publication should only be purchased by those who are obsessed by the finer points of engine design, BMW’s history, or just like expensive and beautifully-presented books.  As the first publication in their BMW Dimensions series, BMW Mobile Tradition have produced a massive yet very readable record covering all their engine designs.  These are described against the background of the historical and economic conditions, not to mention the personalities, which were fundamental to their construction.

Although the first volume covers the period from 1916 to 1945, it begins with the products of Gustav Otto’s ill-fated AGO (Aeromotor Gustav Otto ) which became Bayerische Fleugzeug Werke.  After the failure of BFW the derelict factory, with an unsold stock of Flink and Helios motorcycles, was purchased in the rebirth of BMW during 1922.  These became the first motorcycles sold by BMW.

Of more direct connection to the BMW story are the products of Rapp Motorenwerke.  Like Otto, Karl Rapp had to leave his company after a succession of failed designs, and in 1917 Franz-Josef Popp, using financial support from Camilo Castiglioni, reformed the company as Bayerische Motoren Werke.

BMW’s engines are systematically described from the original aero engines, followed by early vehicle power units of various types against the background of the punitive Treaty of Versialles.  Some of these engines from the early years had long been unknown, being rediscovered as late as 1998.

The engines from 1923, when BMW concentrated on motorcycles, are of course fully detailed with photographs, sectioned drawings, and descriptions of their salient points.  As one would expect from Mobile Tradition, the quality of the illustrations is quite superb, as is the text in spite of the inevitable problems in translation. 

Although BMW entered car production by the purchase of the Dixi concern at Eisenach, this book shows that prototypes of small and large front wheel drive cars had indeed been tested during 1926, followed by intensive design work on a third design.  The Austin 7, licence-built at Eisenach, was probably instrumental in the growth of BMW during the great depression, the various models and engine modifications being explained fully.

The car engines of the ‘thirties are of course well covered, with ample detail on the BMW 328 engine and its twin overhead camshaft development.  It is all here.

The BMW six and twelve cylinder aero engines of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties are all described, these representing steady development of the earlier designs.  The inverted vee-twelve Type 117 of 1929 gave BMW an engine comparable to anything produced by Rolls Royce or Daimler-Benz at the time.  It was, however, the Company’s last inline aero engine, as the radial configuration was soon to define BMW’s piston aero engine designs.

The section on these engines is perhaps the most attractive of the book, the use of silver and black printing really making their illustrations leap from the page.  These engines put BMW on the shopping list of most airframe manufacturers, not to mention tank builders.  A good example is the BMW 801, which made the Focke-Wulf 190 faster than the Spitfire of the day, and proved that the claimed penalty of aerodynamic drag did not exist.  The absorption of the ‘other’ BMW – Brandenburg Motoren Werke (usually known as BRAMO) was the key to this engine and its developments, which are all well described.

The development of the Company’s jet engine programme was undertaken from 1939 in Berlin by BRAMO, and it is interesting to see that the initial proposal was for a twin-shaft design, such as is now accepted practice.  The associated complexity resulted in this engine being cancelled in favour of a more basic design, which became the well-known BMW 003 unit originally specified as the power plant for the Messershmitt 262 and Arado 234.  

The 003 broke new ground in many ways, but paid the penalty.  Even in an era of poor jet engine reliability, the 003 was so unreliable that it was soon replaced by the Junkers 004 design, which – even by the end of the war – had a time between overhauls of only ten hours! 

Everything is included up to the final wartime design, the Type 109, which was developed in both turbo-prop and jet forms.  With a three turbines driving separate compressors via concentric shafts it was a complex if trend-setting design, this configuration being reflected today by the Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan engine.

The second volume, starting at the immediate post-war period, shows that BMW ended WW2 with nothing, and struggled to stay alive when their only surviving factories – not to mention all the jigs and tools for car and motorcycle production – were in the hands of the Russians.  Bicycles, pans, ploughs, door handles – they made anything which could be sold.

The story of BMW’s post-war recovery is carefully documented, including details of their designs which were pirated by others.  These ranged from the communist-led DDR in the ex-BMW factory at Eisenach (now Opel) which faithfully produced the pre-war R35 motorcycle and 321 car in several variations, and Simson Werke at Suhl, to the French, Japanese, Americans, and the production by the Russians and Chinese which is continued to this day.  In England the Bristol 400 series cars were ‘reparation’ developments of the pre-war 328 sports car, the early models using BMW-built engines.  Later models with Bristol-developed engines gained class wins in the le Mans 24-hour race.

The light motorcycle, scooter, bubble car and  the various light car projects of the immediate post-war period are all there, showing that even the most humble application received an engine which was not only well engineered, but was in itself a thing of some beauty. The 250 cc single-cylinder machines represented the bulk of post-war motorcycle production at München, and over 10,000 of a 300 cc version of their engine were produced for stationary use in concrete mixers and generators etc.  The later motorcycle engines were also used for other purposes, from fire pumps to small aero engines.

The development of the 501 and 502 series is very well explained, with subsequent work up to the 503 and 507, these beautiful but poorly-selling cars probably being the main cause of BMW’s second bankruptcy in 1959. 

The chapter on motorcycle racing engines is of particular interest, including some quite radical projects which were not pursued.  The number of development prototypes of all capacities built during the ‘seventies is quite surprising, and gives the impression that the well-known air-cooled twin of the period was intended to be little more than an interim model.  As the motorcycle division’s importance declined it appears that they later had to ‘get things right’ from the start, the period leading to the K-Series and the current oil-cooled twins favouring intensive design effort instead of the massed construction of prototypes.

As the car division took on a more important role in BMW’ s corporate plan the number of engine variations grew dramatically, from the mass production designs for the ‘Neue Klasse’ cars to the more exotic types, even a V-16 producing over 400 bhp being tested in 1988.  Some of the development engines are quite unusual, using rotary pistons (although BMW studiously avoided involvement with the Wankel debacle!) in quite unusual configurations, rotary valves, and even pistons set in a cylinder operating a swashplate drive.  Others featured exhaust turbines geared to the crankshaft, exhaust gas expansion cylinders, cylinder cut-off and other interesting technologies.

Engines for the famous M-Series cars are fully described, as are the activities of the racing department of the ex-BMW works in Eisenach. The competition engines of Alexander von Falkenhausen and Paul Rosche, with all the other products of the Motorsport division up to the le Mans engines are all there, and more. 

These two volumes chronicle the massive achievements of a small company which refused to die five times, and went on to become a star player in a world dominated by giants.  Although we are often told that BMW must combine with a multinational car maker if it is to survive, this book shows that the Bavarians have the will – and finance – to do so on their own.  From racing cars to boats, or concrete mixers to airliners, BMW have powered it, and whatever your interest is, this book will more than satisfy it.


BMW Dimensions: The History of Engines – Engines that Made History by Dr. Karlheinz Lange, published by BMW Mobile Tradition at £90. ISBN 3-392169-05-0. Available from your dealer or the BMW Car Club Book & Reprint Service (01308-867172)



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