BMW had to start virtually from scratch after the war. It first showed the BMW 501 at the 1951 Frankfurt Auto Show, but the public was underwhelmed and production didn't start until late 1952. The curvaceous body was designed in-house by Peter Schimanowski and was nicknamed the 'Baroque Angel' by the German public. The heavy car was powered by a prewar 2-liter, 6-cylinder engine, and it cost a staggering $4,500 - 50 percent more than a Mercedes-Benz 220. Although sales were slow, a total of 8,951 were built before the model was replaced by the BMW 502. In its time the engine was changed to a 2.6-liter V8 in 1954, and this increased to 3.2-lliters in 1955.
Little is known of this sedan's early life but it is thought to have been privately imported into the United States as the instruments are marked in German and calibrated in metric units. The current owner acquired the car in 1978 and began a complete restoration that was eventually finished in 2008.
Launched at the 1951 Frankfurt Motor Show, the luxurious BMW 501 saloon was designed with the intention to replace the 340 model on the passenger saloon sector. Though it didn't enter production until the following year, the new 501 with its long, wide body was the first motorcar to be manufactured and sold by BMW after the WWII. The 501 and its derivatives were nicknamed 'Baroque Angels' because of their long curved, flowing lines reminiscent of the carved wooden designs from the Baroque era. The BMW 501 received a very positive welcoming by critics thanks to its solid engineering and luxury.
Following in the footsteps of BMW's spacious pre-war cars, the 501 featured a twin sausage front grill design like the 340 model. Powering the BMW 501 was the pre-war 2.0-liter six-cylinder engine. Built on an all-new platform, the 501 had a perimeter frame, double A-arm front suspension with torsion bar springs, and a live axle with torsion bar springs at the back. Very similar to a rack and pinion system, the 501 steering mechanism featured semi-circular rack instead of straight. Not bolted to the engine, the four-speed gearbox wasn't bolted to the engine but instead was a separate shaft-driven unit mounted between the second and third cross-members. Greatly improving legroom for front passengers was the remote gearbox placement, though it had a complicated linkage to the column-mounted shifter, which resulted in vague shifter action.
The 501 body was designed in house by Peter Schimanowski. BMW commissioned Pininfarina to build an alternative design after seeing the prototype, but the design was considered too similar to the Alfa Romeo 1900 saloon. BMW chose to stick with Schimanowski's design. BMW-built 501 and its derivatives were four-door saloons while custom orders from Baur or Autenrieth for coupe and convertible versions were available. The 501 weighed in at a hefty 3,150 pounds, which resulted in sluggish performance and a top speed of 84 mph. Acceleration was 0-62 mph in 27 seconds, which was poor compared with the six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz 220.
Featuring innovative safety features, the 501 had a vigorous chassis that provided better than typical side impact protection. The steering column was short and the steering gear was set well back from the front of the car. The fuel tank was nestled in a special spot above the rear axle, which minimized fire risk in case of an accident.
In 1954 the 501A was introduced as the replacement for the original 501. Sharing very similar trim and equipment, the 501A cost more than 800 Deutsche Mark less than the original 501. The 501B was sold for DM500 less than the 501A. Both of these models were powered by an updated M337 engine. In the spring of 1955 the engine and model designations were once again updated. The 501/3 with an updated M337 engine replaced both the 501A and 501B. Also introduced at the same time was the 501 V8 powered by a detuned version of the 2.6-liter V8 introduced the previous year in the 502. Both the 501/3 and 501V8 were produced until 1958. The six-cylinder engine and the 501 model designation were discontinued.
In 1954 BMW introduced the sporty variant of the 501, the 502 model powered by the company's first ever V8 engine at the Geneva Auto Show. Before the first prototype had ever been constructed Böning had calculated that the mass of the car would barely be enough to power the car. He suggested that a larger engine was needed to power future versions of the car. Management agreed to his suggestions. The new lightweight engine was a 2.6-liter V8 engine with 50% more available horsepower, similar in general design the then-new Oldsmobile Rocket V8 with a single camshaft in the vee operating overhead valves in wedge-shaped combustion chambers via pushrods. Fritz Fiedler completed the development of the V8 engine for Böning who he replaced as BMW's chief engineer in 1952. Eventually this engine was upgraded into a new 3.2L unit.
The 502 was offered in coupe, sedan and cabriolet body styles and was much more luxuriously appointed than the 501. With a top speed of 99 mph (much higher than the first six-cylinder version of the Ponton Mercedes) the 502's light V8 engine produced 100 hp with a single two-barrel Solex carburetor. At the time of its production the 502 was reportedly Germany's fastest passenger sedan in regular production. The 502 had a hefty pricetag, which may have been the reason behind their less than stellar sales and only 190 models sold the first year of production. The 502 was discernable from the 501 by its additional chrome trim and much more extravagant interior appointments. Standard features on the 502 were fog lights and individual front seats. In 1955 the 502 received a slight revamp that included a wraparound rear window.
The main 501 change for 1954 was the six-cylinder 501's enlarged to 2.1 liters. The 3.2-liter V8 engine was increased in 1957 for the 502 3.2 liter Super. In 1959 the front disc brakes became a standard featured on the 3.2 Super, and on the 3.2 the following year.
Unfortunately even with these 6 or 8-cylinder engine offerings, Mercedes-Benz was a tough competitor and BMW couldn't match their exceptional sales records. In 1961 the six-cylinder 501 ceased production. Though discontinued in 1958, variations of the 501, with the same platform and body continued on until 1963.
The 2600 became the new designation for the 2.6-liter model. The 2600 also had front disc brakes and was soon joined by the 2600L with upgraded power and better trim. Following in this new naming convention was the 3200L renaming the 3.2, and the 3200 Super becoming the 3.2 Super. This model was powered by a 160bhp V8, which made it the fastest saloon produced in Germany, and ranked among the fastest in the world.
BMW also released a Baur built 502 two-door cabriolet and coupe version of the luxurious model in 1954 and 1955. Some of these models were even converted into hearses and ambulances.
In 1955 the 503 was introduced at the Frankfurt Auto Show. From 1956 through 1960 only 139 Cabriolets were produced. The first German convertible with an electric top, the 503 Cabrio was designed by Count GoeSources:
By Jessica Donaldson