From an enthusiast’s standpoint, BMW is possibly the most well-rounded, consistent carmaker in the world. In the 1950s, however, the company was struggling to remain alive, World War II having reduced it from a builder of successful sports and racing cars to a bomb-devastated wreck. BMW’s primary prewar automobile operations in Eisenach, Germany, fell under Soviet control in 1945, and unauthorized “BMW” products built at that location undermined what little brand equity remained. American occupying forces began dismantling the remnants of the BMW factory in Munich, which had manufactured Luftwaffe aircraft engines during the war. (Some of the structures ultimately survived, but not before valuable machinery was put in crates and dispersed by railcar to sixteen countries as part of war reparations.)
The calendar read 1952 by the time BMW was able to restart car production, this time in Munich. Sales of the large, pricey 501 were disappointing, but revenue from BMW’s motorcycle-building arm and the Isetta microcar (licensed from Italian carmaker Iso Rivolta) managed to keep the concern afloat, barely. The promising, Isetta-based, rear-engine 700 debuted in late 1959, but finances remained dire. In December 1959 a group of stockholders and dealers were on the verge of approving a takeover by the banks and rival Daimler-Benz, but a clerical error discovered at the last moment canceled the deal. Fortunately for car lovers everywhere, saviors Herbert and Harald Quandt stepped in, steering the company from the brink and resisting the advances of takeover-hungry automakers such as American Motors, Chrysler, Fiat, Ford, the Rootes Group, and Simca. They also acquired the funds to develop a desperately needed BMW family car, which came to be known as the Neue Klasse — or New Class.
Essentially a clean-sheet design, the Neue Klasse reached customers in late 1962 with a 1499-cc four-cylinder engine under its flat hood and the name 1500 on its blocky rear end. It was developed quickly — largely with the help of former Borgward engineers who were hired in the wake of that company’s 1961 collapse — and featured then-novel unibody construction, front disc brakes, and MacPherson struts in front. The new single-overhead-cam engine — code-named M10 and designed by racing hero and BMW engineer Alex von Falkenhausen — put out an impressive
90 hp and was tilted 30 degrees, which enabled a lower hoodline and a lower center of gravity. Sales were strong from the get-go, and BMW soon bored and/or stroked the engine to several different sizes, creating derivations appropriately named 1600, 1800, and 2000. Shortened-wheelbase, stripped-down two-door variants soon appeared, most notably the iconic 2002, which was BMW’s breakout product in the United States. (BMW went on to produce more than 3.2 million iron-block M10 engines from 1961 through 1988, including turbocharged Formula 1 powerplants boasting as much as 1200 hp.)
Prices were high — almost twice as much as that of a base Volkswagen Beetle — but buyers in Europe happily forked over a premium for a car that drove better than many sports cars but was very comfortable, functional, and classy. From our perch in Luis Arisso’s stunning, turf green 1966 BMW 1800, the attraction is crystal clear. The familiar 2002 shape looks great as a four-door, and many interior details solidify the impression of luxury and quality: the plush square-weave carpet, the nice vinyl trim on the door panels, the tasteful faux wood on the dashboard, the dash-top graining that is much like what you find in today’s BMWs.
What’s most remarkable, though, is how well the 1800 drives. Most owners of the cars we drive for Collectible Classic prefer that we take it fairly easy and stick to surface streets. Arisso, however, guided us directly to I-43 in Milwaukee. “Take it up to eighty or more, it’ll do fine,” he told us. It was not only fine, it felt as solid as a brand-new sporty sedan that just happens to feature vague worm-and-roller steering and a shifter that’s as stiff as a rubber chicken.
The engine sounds wonderfully smooth, refined, and quiet, and it’s anxious to rev and very peppy in fourth gear on the interstate, even with three people aboard. Arisso guesses that it probably spins 4500 rpm at highway speeds (its 102 hp were advertised to arrive at 5800 rpm), but it’s hard to tell because there’s no tachometer. However, BMW didn’t force drivers to rely solely on their ears to know when to shift: there are red lines on the speedometer corresponding with the redline engine speed in each of the lower gears.
Arisso has done a lot of accelerating in this car, even though he’s owned it for less than two years. He bought it in Berlin, where it had just been repainted and freshened by Stehling Automobile. Arisso wasted no time driving the car 330 miles west to the huge Techno-Classica car show in Essen, Germany. After a brief stop in Brussels, he drove to Zeebrugge, Belgium, where the BMW was put on a cargo ship. A month later, Arisso collected his car at the pier in Baltimore and then, naturally, drove it 800 miles to his home in Milwaukee, blogging about it the entire way. Aside from clogged fuel lines in Berlin and a trunk badge that fell off in Baltimore, the car gave him zero problems over 1300-plus miles. “That’s the kind of vacation I like,” he says. He liked it so much, in fact, that he drove the sedan to North Carolina — a 1600-mile round trip — the following spring to attend a major BMW show called the Vintage.
The 1800 is a fabulous autobahn/interstate cruiser, but it’s also fairly capable on curvy country roads. The body stays nicely flat through corners, although the steering is very vague on center, the big wheel doesn’t communicate all that well, and your rhythm can also be thrown off by the fact that you have to pull the rubbery gear lever into the seat cushion in order to engage second gear. The turn-signal controls on the right side of the steering column take a bit of getting used to, but excellent outward visibility and those incredibly rock-solid road manners make the old Bimmer a great pleasure to pilot.
Just like a modern BMW.
Engine 1.8L SOHC I-4, 102 hp, 106 lb-ft (SAE)
Suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear Semitrailing arms, coil springs
Brakes F/R Discs/drums
Weight 2400 lb
Years produced 1964–1971
Number produced 134,814 (not including 21,116 1800Ti and 200 1800Ti/SA models)
Original price $3225 (1966)
Value today $3500–$12,500
The Neue Klasse clarified BMW’s ambitions as a manufacturer of premium sporting cars instead of the tiny bubble cars and überexpensive luxoboats it had been selling. The 1800 was the second Neue Klasse model to appear, in late 1963, and it was the most common of the family. BMW didn’t sell many 1800s in the U.S., though, which is one reason why Arisso got his car in Germany (plus, it was more fun that way). Fortunately, many parts are shared with the even-more-prevalent two-door Neue Klasse models, and BMW Classic will send parts to your local dealer without charging shipping costs. High-performance versions include the 110-hp, dual-carbureted 1800Ti and the ultrarare 130-hp 1800Ti/SA, which was basically a factory-built racing car.