What could be a bigger treat for a BMW aficionado than a visit to the new home of the BMW Group's Classic division in Munich, Germany? The centre exhibits some of the most significant BMW vehicles, racing cars, concept cars and one-off developmental units of the marque's storied history – there are even a few nods to South Africa's influence on the brand. Cars.co.za video manager Ciro de Siena recounts some of the highlights of his experience, replete with impressions of his drive in a mint-condition E30-generation 3 Series, among other classic Bimmers.
A set of unassuming, low-walled white buildings in the heart of Munich, Germany, is where BMW Group Classic is now based. With the iconic BMW headquarters (the “4 cylinder” building) visible in the near distance, this is where the very first BMW aero-engines and cars were made, in 1916 and 1923.
And it is inside these newly restored buildings that the BMW Group houses some of its most prized possessions, sourced from all over the world; a rich and unique collection of cars that have helped build and shape the brand into what is today.
Coffee and cars
Whereas South Africa never saw the Z8 roadster, Piquet's Brabham BMW finished third at Kyalami in 1983, which clinched him his 2nd F1 title.
The parking lot is dominated by a modern roofed section, which joins two workshops on either side of the lot. Adjacent is a coffee shop, with tables positioned right on the tarmac. The setup is deliberate; BMW wants the visitor to feel that they are part of a living and breathing entity. Sipping a coffee, the South African press delegation watched on as the Classic headquarters buzzed around us.
There aren’t many coffee shops in the world in which Nelson Piquet’s M1 race car is sitting waiting for a tune-up, or the iconic Brabham BMW Formula One car arrives in a truck, returning home from a display. Multiple Z8s and M1s popped in and out, and even a pre-war BMW rambled past.
The main storage unit on site only houses about 100 of the 1300-strong classic collection, but even so, it is quite a collection. A standout piece of automotive history was the 3.0 CSL Art Car, as painted by Alexander Calder.
This race car has no ordinary decorative livery... it was Alexander Calder's contribution to the BMW Art Car series.
There was also a plain looking E32-generation 7 Series (1986-1994)which held some secrets. Under the bonnet, a massive 6.7-litre V16 engine was squeezed into the engine bay. Known as Project Goldfish, the engine was a skunk works project; only about 10 people in the entire company knew of its existence. When it was completed in 1988, the special 7 Series, now known as the 767i, was given to the chairman of the group to test drive, but seeking honest feedback from the head honcho, the engineers hid the fact that there was anything unusual under the bonnet.
However, due the engine’s size, the radiators would not fit in the engine bay, and so they were fitted in the boot, with odd-looking gills grafted onto the side of the car to feed air to the radiators. To hide these very noticeable gills, the engineers had two bodyguards stand close to the car, hiding them from view while the chairman climbed aboard. Only a handful of V16s were ever built and they were never sold to the public.
That's the engine bay of a V12-engined 750Li isn't it? No, count the number of pipes on the intake manifolds.
The E30 M3 stood out amongst this crowd of high profile classics, perhaps because it never reached South African shores and remains a sore point for enthusiasts of the brand. Although BMW South Africa developed the sensational 333i in its place (an example of which was of course also present, sourced from South Africa and hiding in the background), the M3 remains an icon of the brand’s performance history and I was delighted to see one in the metal, especially in such excellent condition.
The first-generation M3 is an iconic sportscar and touring car legend, but no matter, we got the 333i and 325iS Evos.
A McLaren F1 seemed a slightly incongruent site in this warehouse but lest we forget Gordon Murray’s masterpiece ran a BMW V12 engine which helped make the McLaren the fastest production car ever built, a record it would stubbornly cling to for years after its debut.
The BMW-powered McLaren F1 (left), designed by South African-born Gordon Murray, is a legendary supercar.
What I really appreciated about this collection is that it doesn’t sit here, collecting dust. BMW actively tries to get these cars out in front of the public. In 2010 Classic announced that it had recreated the BMW's 328 Kamm Coupé (shown below) to celebrate the 70th anniversary of BMW's win at the Mille Miglia.
The original Kamm Coupé was the only one of BMW's five Mille Miglia cars to remain in Germany after the Second World War, but it was destroyed in an accident early in the Fifties. Eventually, all the surviving cars were recovered and BMW Classic built an exact replica of the Kamm to complete the collection.
Better than new... the exact replica of the 328 Kamm Coupe that competed in (but never finished) the 1940 Mille Miglia.
There are almost too many special cars to mention here, I haven’t even got to James Bond’s 7 Series with missiles in the sunroof, or the beautiful 507 sports car (worth a cool 2.5 million Euros in mint condition) or even South African artist Esther Mahlangu’s custom 5 Series Art Car, all of which you can see in the gallery above. But the best part of the day was yet to come, where we took some of these classics out on the road.
Driving the past
International press may request test drives here, but it is subject to vehicle availability. And so our request was a bit of a lucky draw, and the cars we drew were the very epitome of everyday “hero” cars.
The 2002tii, the (European-spec 745i) and the 320is were to be our test drives of the day, and they were all in exceptional condition. The 2002tii was special enough and the 745i (with 3 500km on the clock!) was unbelievably comfortable – even by contemporary standards, but the highlight was a drive in the E30.
Much of the sporty DNA that defines today's BMW products can be traced back to that of the spirited 2002tii.
I first took the wheel of the 2002tii, and what an eager, exciting little car it was. With a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated motor under the bonnet, this 1971 coupe was arguably the progenitor for the next wave of performance-oriented sedans that would define BMW in the modern era.
In the short time I drove it through Munich’s back roads, I enjoyed it immensely. The thin-rimmed steering wheel, the slightly stubborn gearshift (with no markings on the shifter), the vague brakes – it was a car that was obviously from another era but the brand’s DNA was still very much apparent.
Driving the 320is
Our guides enthusiastically told us that this was the “Italian M3”. Slightly menacing in black, with the Shadowline kit that we came to know well in South Africa, the 320is looked good, but it lacked the drama of the flared wheel arches of the M3 we’d just seen in the warehouse. But it was in achingly good condition and, having been an E30 owner myself, I was hugely keen to get behind the wheel.
You're unlikely to find an E30-generation 3 Series as pristine as this 320iS in South Africa. Only 8 500 km on the odo.
The interior was spotless, virtually brand new. I thought this was a bit curious, but I dismissed it as the mark of excellent restoration work, until our guide pointed out that the car only had 8 500 km on its odometer. It literally was brand new. Stunned, I tried to wrap my head around the fact that I was driving a car from 1988 with such low mileage. Where had this car been all its life? Why had nobody driven it? I felt incredibly lucky, it felt like I was travelling back in time to drive a car as it was built, and not as I’d found it after years of wear and tear.
As an E30 owner, everything was immediately familiar, and this all became a little bit emotional. I lost my E30 320i in an accident last year, and as my first car, I had a very sentimental attachment to it. The 320is was like my car, only better.
The 320iS' interior looks factory fresh... because it is. Check out the period-correct audio unit and minimalist steering wheel.
In Italy and Portugal at the time of production, the governments had placed a steep tax on any new car with a displacement of over 2.0 litres. As the M3 featured a 2.3-litre engine, Italian and Portuguese buyers were having for fork out a massive premium to get their hands on the car. BMW decided to step in, and altered the engine of the M3 so that it scraped in under 2.0 litres.
The result was a lighter car, with roughly the same power output but less torque (141 kW and 210 Nm as opposed to 147 kW and 240 Nm in the M3), and according to many car magazines at the time, due to its low weight, it was actually quicker than the M3 through the gears and under braking.
Under the keen eyes of our guides, I wasn’t really able to drive the 320is as freely as I’d have liked, but handling was crisp, the engine was a peach and the dog-leg first gear setup of the ‘box was tricky to get used to, but so engaging nonetheless.
In fact, the overall experience was direct and very pure; a feeling that is really lacking in today’s performance car world. It was a drive I won’t forget, and it has convinced me that at some point, I will have to buy myself an E30 BMW. I just doubt I’ll find one with 8 500 km on the clock.
Proudly South African. Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu's first co-operation with BMW culminated in the 525i Art Car
How to visit BMW Classic
If you find yourself in Munich and have even a passing interest in BMW’s the BMW Classic HQ is worth a visit, if even for a coffee. The coffee shop and restaurant is open to the public and just sitting there is probably enough to get your fill of classics, as the workshop and warehouse buzz around you.
And, of course, if you own a classic BMW and would really, really like it restored to perfection, the mechanics at BMW Classic would be happy to help.
Guided tours can be booked via email or telephone and are highly recommended.
Telephone: +49 (0) 89 382 27021