Birthdays always bring up nostalgia, especially when it's a significant one. It seems like it was only yesterday that the Bavarian Engine Manufacturer (BMW) saw the light of day as it launched production of aeroplane engines, the brand new baby-blue and white propeller icon glistening in the sun.
But over the course of the years the company has outgrown its infant shoes and become a real adult – in fact, one of the largest companies in Germany, counting 116,000 employees and a turnover of €80 billion.
BMW first made a name for itself as a builder of motorbikes and plane engines, but in 1928 the compact car Dixi 3/15, with a mighty 15 horsepower engine, was the first BMW automobile to grace German roads.
BMW's first-ever car: the Dixi 3/15; Photo: DPA
Shame of forced labour
Then came the Second World War and with it one of the darkest chapters of BMW's history. Especially in the final years of the war, most of the company's output went to the Luftwaffe (German air force). Car and motorcycle production were cut down to a minimum.
For war production, the manufacturer “employed” 25,000 forced labourers and concentration camp inmates, according to BMW historian Manfred Gunert. One of the most infamous locations was a branch of BMW's Allach site close to the Dachau concentration camp.
A 2011 study commissioned by the Quandt family, which has owned BMW for decades, found that then-owner Günther Quandt was “linked inseparably with the crimes of the Nazis”.
As with so many German companies, BMW has gradually been forced to face up to its past, and joined with thousands of other German companies and the government to found the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation, which pays former forced labourers and supports other charitable causes.
In the post-war period, BMW moved back to their civilian specialities: cars and motorbikes. Another minuscule automobile came out named Isetta and her significantly more pricy sister BMW 501 – the “baroque angel”.
Unfortunately, the angel nosedived – between tiny and titanic, BMW had lost sight of the middle ground and had no medium-sized cars to offer.
Munich police officers walk past an official BMW 501 in 2013. Photo: DPA
By 1959, the blunder had driven the Munich manufacturer to near-bankruptcy and Daimler stood waiting voraciously ready to absorb it.
However, they hadn't reckoned with Herbert Quandt. Once he was in as an investor, he pushed the company to develop the mid-range BMW 1500, took over the Glas-Car factory in Dingolfing, Lower Bavaria in 1967 and brought the faltering firm back onto its feet.
Under Chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim (1970 – 1993), the winning streak continued, with the company popping out new models and proliferating BMW manufacturing sites around the globe.
A BMW M3 sport version dating back to the late 1980s. Photo: BMW
But BMW wouldn't be BMW if they weren't hard on themselves. Feeling the pressure of competitors Daimler and Volkswagen they wanted to go from premium to mass producer. They made a big bet by buying up British manufacturer Rover – and failed.
Electrifying the future
After 6 years and a mounting loss of several billion Euros the company withdrew from the project. On the bright side: the today widely popular Mini brand rose like a phoenix from the ashes.
The new Mini: not very British, not very Mini, still wildly popular. Photo: BMW
By now, current BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer and his strategy “Number One” launched in 2007 have brought the firm back on track completely. More flexible production methods have led to lower costs and the company has expanded worldwide – including as one of the first German firms to cooperate with China.
In fact, US-based analysts Bernstein Research found in a recent report that no other European company has performed so consistently as has BMW in recent years. A pat on the back for Reithofer and Co.
As always, the future holds new challenges: because of tight regulations on cars' emissions, and stricter controls following the VW scandal, engineers have to find a way to make their engines more efficient and cleaner.
BMW hopes that its latest electric models, including the flagship i3, will help it bridge the gap between the combustion engines that have carried it this far and the car of the future.
Along with other German manufacturers, the Munich-based giant will have to adapt to a future in which it faces challenges from new car-makers that focus on quality and high-tech, like US-based Tesla.
BMW's pride, the i3: one of the most technologically advanced electronic cars; Photo: DPA
So where does that leave BMW? The answer will have to wait until long after all the champagne has been drunk and the balloons been cleared away from the 100th birthday party.