Celebrating 40 Years of BMW North America

After four decades, we have become a nation of BMW drivers.

MONTEREY, California -- The story of BMW in America officially begins in 1975 with the establishment of BMW of North America. If you're so inclined, you can chart the corporate fortunes ever since in the sales numbers of the BMW 3 Series, which was introduced in late 1975 as a 1976 model. But as BMW NA celebrates its 40th anniversary in the U.S., we think the story here isn't about some BMW car or another. Instead the real story is about being a BMW driver, because we are all BMW drivers now.

Of course, time didn't exactly start for BMW in North America in 1975. Max Hoffman, the legendary Austrian-born car dealer based out of New York City, added BMW to his portfolio of import-label car brands in 1954. His investment didn't really pay off until 1962 when the BMW "New Class" sedan appeared. This car then transformed itself into the BMW 2002 (02 Series), and our own David E. Davis Jr. helped make it a sensation among U.S. car enthusiasts in 1968 with a famous road test that carried the headline "Turn Your Hymnals to 2002. " DED Jr. 's story helped institutionalize the values we still identify with BMW: austere yet timeless style, efficient yet compelling performance, and a certain soul-stirring liveliness.

When BMW bought back U.S. distribution rights from Hoffman in 1975, car enthusiasts wondered if the change would be for the better. The 1976 BMW 320i that replaced the 2002 had been designed in the shadow of the 1973 fuel crisis, and the E21 with its 125-hp inline-four engine felt oversized, ponderous, and dreadfully slow. Fortunately the belated arrival of an inline-six engine soon energized the E21's reputation. It was followed by the 1982 E30, which turned out to be a roaring success in the go-go years of the 1980s.

The 1992 E36 3 Series went further upmarket in style. The 2000 E46 3 Series grew faster but also notably larger. This troubled enthusiasts at first because the car seemed more mainstream midsize sedan and less compact sport sedan. BMW purists have debated this issue ever since, as the 2005 E90 3 Series and the 2012 F30 3 Series grew ever bigger and more comfortable.

After 40 years, we now think of BMW not as a car but instead as a magic formula made from our own associations and expectations. BMW speaks to us of beauty, technology, and utility, and since car enthusiasts have come to embrace these same values, we all have become BMW drivers in a way. Other cars are either like a BMW or not like a BMW, and BMW is where every conversation starts.

These values cut both ways, of course. BMW itself must measure up to these standards, and its success in doing so is always a matter of some dispute with us. It is as if we have had a 40-year conversation with BMW North America about cars. Sometimes BMW knows better, and sometimes we know better. And yet every time we think BMW has lost its way, we're presented with something like the 3.0 CSL Hommage R, unveiled during the week of classic car festivities in Monterey, California, and pictured here in the same livery as the 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL racing car it's sitting 
next to in pit lane.

Even though questions of air emissions, fuel economy, and safety have seemed so overwhelming in the U.S. over the past 40 years, BMW still believes in an automobile that is beautiful, energetic, and full of life. And so do we because, all these years later, we still want to drive the kind of car that David E. Davis Jr. rhapsodized about in 1968.

For more BMW, read our drive of the BMW M1 racing car, a retrospective on 30 years of the BMW M3, and the four-decade history of brightly colored BMW Art Cars.

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