Why do I visit automotive museums? For the majority of my life the answer would have been easy, “to see vehicles that I can’t see anywhere else”, but that went out the window when I moved to Los Angeles. Between what I might see on the street any given day, and the various meets that happen regularly, there’s no shortage of historic hardware for me to lay eyes on.
So why then? Why pay money for a history lesson that’s easily found online, and to see cars in what are usually unfavorable lighting conditions? In the case of the BMW Museum, I visited because I was hoping to renew my affection for the brand.
I’ve had a thing for BMWs since I was given a 1:24 scale model Valier Motorsport Tic-Tac E36 M3 GTR when I was very young. That car got me interested in DTM racing, and in turn BMW, which up until that point I had only thought of as a luxury automaker because the only ones I’d been exposed to were driven by wealthy tourists. After learning about the brand’s rich history in motorsport, and how they got their start building airplane engines, I was a full blown fanboy.
I remained just that, a fanboy, until last August when I bought my first BMW, a 2015 M235i. I was finally part of the BMW community, I had the spiritual successor to some of the all time greats like the 2002, and E30 M3, and I thought it would never get old.
Well, it did, all because I suffer from severe “ooooo-shiny” syndrome. It’s so easy to get my imagination going that when I appreciate the aesthetics of something, say a vehicle of nearly any kind for example, I immediately form an emotional connection. You can see how this would be a problem for someone in my line of work.
And don’t get me wrong, it’s not as though I’m always looking for the latest and greatest. It is predominantly older vehicles that get me thinking about parting ways with the M235i, and only the harsh realities of life that prevent me from doing so.
With enthusiasm for my car, and the brand waning with every monthly payment, my visit to Munich couldn’t have come at a better time.
Constructed in 1973, and renovated while the BMW Welt was being built between 2004 and 2008, “The Salad Bowl” as it was nicknamed by locals was originally all that the museum consisted of. Following the completion of the 4,000 square meter facility to house permanent exhibitions in 2008, the original structure has housed temporary exhibitions.
Currently you’ll find “100 Masterpieces: BMW Group-100 Years of innovation and entrepreneurial courage” on display through September 2017. This exhibit takes you through the entire history of BMW as you ascend the circular ramps to the top floor, and by the time I got there, I had a far more comprehensive understanding of how BMW got to where they are today than the internet could ever offer.
Wandering the seven exhibition houses is a great way to spend a few hours, whether you’re a long time fan of the brand, or simply someone looking to be better informed about BMW’s history. In no particular order, (because I got lost) I made my way through the House Of Design, House Of The Company, House Of The Motorcycle, House Of Technology, House Of The Brand, House Of The Series, and most importantly, House Of Motorsport.
The House of Motorsport should have been the most impressive, but to my surprise it was pretty limited. Sure, there was a 328 from the ‘30s, a 2000ti from the ‘60s, an E30 M3 from the ‘80s, and a few contemporary race cars, but I was expecting more, way more. BMW has one of the more impressive histories in motorsport, it’s what got me into the brand in the first place, but evidence of this was far less apparent than I thought it was going to be.
Instead of being blown away by the House Of Motorsport, it was the House Of The Brand which featured BMW advertisements from many decades that I enjoyed the most. Few things tell the story of a brand better than its advertisements, and BMW has consistently run amazing work since advertising merged with pop-culture in the mid-20th century.
Doesn’t hurt that they stuck two of their most endearing models, an Isetta and a 2002ti in there under some mid-century modern lighting either. Both cars serve as reminders, along with many of their most iconic ads, that BMW is a brand that values artistic expression as much as they value technical innovation. Who else puts one of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms on the wing of a race car?
Then I found myself lingering on the other side of the proverbial coin in the House Of Technology.
Early airplane, DTM and F1 engines are both literally, and figuratively, put on a pedestal in this room, and deservedly so. I looked over the details of a BMW VI, the first 12-cylinder motor built by BMW, and one of the most important German made aero-engines in the years leading up to the second world war.
This engine powered numerous record breaking aircraft, including the Dornier Do J Wal that German pilot Wolfgang von Gronau used to established the northern air route over the Atlantic in 1930, and another that Gronau flew around the world in 1932.
Impressive as the VI was, seeing a BMW 801 in person was even more of a trip. This 14-cylinder-radial engine powered a number of Luftwaffe aircraft during WWII, most famously the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. I’ve been fascinated with WWII aircraft for as long as I can remember, so to lay eyes on the original version that would eventually spawn variants to power Germany’s most famous fighter plane was really quite special.
There were various engines from BMW race cars too, but the straight-four M10 from a 1967 Lola-BMW T100 and straight-six M49 from a 1974 3.0CSL were my favorites.
The M10 started a development cycle that eventually led to the highly successful turbocharged straight-four M12/13 engine of the ‘80s. The M49 saw multiple iterations and the second of which saw use in the legendary 1975 BMW 3.5 CSL, which most notably won 24 Hours of Daytona in 1976 with Brian Redman and Peter Gregg at the wheel. This was the first major victory for BMW in an American race, and further elevated the brand cache of BMW’s “M” Division.
Seeing what goes into the design and manufacturing of these famous motors gave me a whole new appreciation for the brand, which I did not anticipate going into the visit. After all, it’s how a car looks and how it feels to drive it that I’m generally interested in, not the technical details of the engine. But there, in the House Of Technology, I gained a new level of understanding of how much one informs the other, and how important that is to fully enjoying a vehicle.
This in turn renewed my fandom for BMW as a whole and more importantly my M235i. Prior to the visit I wasn’t feeling as much of a connection to either, but when I got back home, and drove my car for the first time, I thought about all the things that had made that moment possible.
The innovations that started with their aircraft engines were further refined through motorsport, which led to consumer BMWs being regarded as sporty, which gave the brand a more defined image, and put them on the path to where they are now.
With BMW celebrating their 100 anniversary this year, there’s no better time to visit the museum, or to dig into the rich history of the brand any way you can. You’ll be surprised by how much there is to learn, even if you consider yourself a BMW aficionado, I know I was.
Andrew Maness is a freelance writer and photographer based in Los Angeles, California. You can find his photography at www.visualvocab.co and his brain droppings @thisnicelife on Twitter.